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AYANDA-ALLIE PAINE: Whatever their races, children know how to love

OPINION

I’ve delayed writing this piece; I struggled to process the emotions it evoked. What compelled me to eventually sit down and proverbially put pen to paper is the fear of forgetting the finer details: his chubby little fingers, the stern look on his face and the tiny beads of sweat that belied his composure; they forced me to honour the encounter.

I was on a flight from Durban to Johannesburg, a flight much like any other. I boarded the plane, put my hand luggage under the seat in front of me, sat in the middle and buckled up.

Here’s where the plot thickens: in comes a lonesome boy. “Jack”, the attendant calls out, “This is how you …”, she instructs. “If you need me and I mean if you really need me, you can press this button,” she says, pointing to a knob above Jack’s head. “But only if you really, really need me,” she reiterates. She clearly has experience with unaccompanied minors.

The pilot makes an announcement, at which point the pale-faced stranger with neatly trimmed blondish/brown hair and blue, green (or was it brown eyes?) turns towards me and asks: “Is your phone on flight mode?” I nod, smile and show him evidence of my compliance.

He looks outside the window as the engine starts to roar. I monitor his breathing; it would be for me an indicator of whether or not to engage in small talk. He wasn't hyperventilating, so I figured I would be minding my business for the rest of the flight. But then he turns his face towards me and I notice that in the cool of the heavily air-conditioned plane, he was sweating. He was anxious, and so, I readied myself for conversation.

“Have you ever flown alone before?” I ask. “Once, when I was about four,” he replies, firmly wiping his face with the back of his hand. “This is my favorite part,” I volunteer. No response. I try harder: “You know, flying is much safer than driving.” His eyes tell me he wants to believe me but doesn't quite know what to make of my assertion.

I eventually win him over. We talk about my sons and all sorts of inconsequential things. He shares stories about school and how he has yet to decide what he wants to be when he’s older.

Then suddenly he probes: “What were you doing in Durban?” “I was there to visit a group of teenagers from a youth development organisation I work with,” I tell him. “I flew in this morning and am flying out this afternoon, as you can see. I don't have much time to spend with them,” I lament. “I just wanted to make sure that they were okay.”

“And…were they okay?” he wonders. “Yes they were,” I confirm. “What if they were not okay?” he continues. I paused, my heart melted at the warmth of his maturity. “Well,” I replied gently, “If they were not okay, I would’ve stayed with them until they were.” He rests his case.

Refreshments come; he nibbles on a sweet snack and pays the sandwich no mind. He is determined to enjoy his can of Coke, guilt free, and so he takes the liberty to point out that my Coke Zero does in fact contain sugar, lest I be deceived. He had an endearing self-assuredness that was as refreshing as it was humorous.

As the plane lands, he stretches out his hand and asks: “What’s your name?” “My name is Ayanda,” I reply. “Nice to meet you Ayanda,” he says. “My name is Jack.” Startled, I firmly shake his hand, I didn't expect a seven-year-old to call me by my first name, but I supposed I did tell him that my name is Ayanda, he was well within his rights to call me that. Besides, he had displayed good manners, so I knew that there was no malice intended. I guess in his culture, the prefix Auntie is reserved for actual relatives.

As we exchanged festive season niceties, he looked at me intently and said: “Ayanda, I’m going to miss you.”

That was the moment of my undoing.

Here was this little boy, this little white boy to be exact, who had neither inhibition about expressing his emotions, nor prejudice about his choice of kinship. He had not yet learned to judge others by the colour of their skin. He had not yet learned to discriminate based on pigmentation. He had not yet learned to hate and, in particular, to hate someone who looked like me.

He did not know that he could one day grow to become a white male who stood a better chance than I – as a black female – of being the CEO of a JSE-listed company. Or that he could eventually earn far more than I did, even if we had the same job title, performed the same duties, for the same firm, at the same time, with the same qualifications and expertise. He did not know all of that, but I did, and it broke me.

It occurred to me that someone must have taught this child to see beyond physical attributes and love what was within. I wondered why others were not socialised in the same manner.

You see, in my personal experience, there are three types of white South Africans in the main.

There are the down-right racists: the unrepentant, who have race-based hate ingrained in their psyche. Anti-black sentiment flows through their veins and it becomes them. They nurse violent thoughts that seep through their words and deeds from time to time. Prejudice is their default setting and their identity; after all, who are they if not better than black people? They don’t bother dishing out patronising smiles at shopping malls. No, a lack of opportunity is the only barrier between them and the lynching of black folk. Ladies and gentlemen, such people are there, they walk among us, they do exist!

We also have white South Africans who mean well, but are clueless. They simply don’t know what to do with all their whiteness in the midst of all this blackness. Lukewarm, they are neither hot, nor cold. They willingly associate with black people and are the captains of Team ‘Some Of My Best Friends Are Black’. They don’t understand affirmative action though; it reeks of reverse racism to them. They “love this country” and are “just trying to get on with it” but – and there’s always a but – they are concerned about all this crime (as if it only affects white people) and they absolutely hate corruption (as if it is exclusive to black communities). They are the epitome of white fragility; they are the ‘When Will They Get Over Apartheid’ Squad. They are not evil, just ignorant (which can be equally damaging). They’re exhausting because they are superficial in their engagements and refuse to educate themselves. They could easily become overtly racist, but for now they champion micro aggression. They are more driven by fear as opposed to hatred. With some schooling, they could change their ways, but as usual, it would take the over exertion of black people to convert them. Sigh.

Lastly, the Braam Fischers and Ruth Firsts of this world teach us that some white people do see colour but are not blinded by it. They neither patronise black people, nor place them on a melanin hierarchy. They are completely aware of their privilege and use it to advocate for equity, thus relinquishing its power. They talk, listen and if needs be, they self correct. Not only are they ‘not racist’, but they are actively anti-racism. They judge people by the ‘content of their character and not the colour of their skin’, without disregarding the blessings and the burdens of each. Oh my! What fresh air! What welcome reprieve! Finding such white people is like drawing breath after near drowning.

And so, back on that plane, my heart laden with more than what my hands could carry – I looked at this little boy and was grateful that he was raised to love. I was jealous to guard and protect him from experiences that would seek to erode that, because we teach our children well, but their exposure to others may undermine our efforts.

I was desperate for him to fall in the category of white people who get it, who well and truly get it. I wanted him to remember me, for him to remember me fondly and remember me well. So that one day, he would be an ally and when equity and bigotry were placed before him, he would choose equity. I wanted him to remember that black people are human too: capable, intelligent and able to extend themselves when a lonely little boy on a plane needs a friend.

I too would remember him, I would remember him fondly and I would remember him well. I needed him as much as he needed me on that fateful day. I needed him to soften a hard heart, calloused by the cares of this world. I needed hope and a reminder that although race relations in our republic are dire, all is not lost. There remains some good among us.

As Nelson Mandela once said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

And so, with the New Year upon us, our rainbow washed out, Project Reconciliation limping and Operation Restitution the worse for wear, if there is one thing we can teach our young ones, without delay, let it be love.

Ayanda-Allie Paine is a TV broadcaster and development practitioner. Follow her on Twitter: @AyandaAllieP