A Bantu in my Bathroom: A review

Xhanti Payi says Eusebius McKaiser confronts our thorniest subjects in his new book

Political or social debate in South Africa tends to be defensive or offensive. On race, people are largely defensive, on sexuality, offensive. This attitude or approach has tended to stifle progress, whether on a personal level or on a larger social level. Those of us who write social commentary often receive the backlash on the issues we raise. As a commentator and political analyst, Eusebius McKaiser is well accustomed with this terrain, and in his new book A Bantu in My Bathroom, tackles the issues with that familiarity. 

McKaiser is no stranger to the masses - the chattering masses at least. As a go to analyst and radio talk show host, his name in bookshelves will not be unfamiliar. In his first book, A Bantu in My Bathroom, he confronts South Africa's most thorniest and current subjects with the language and posture of a debater.  

What are the hallmarks of a coconut? Are they language, choice of music, self confidence? Is there something wrong about being a coconut? Is it even a topic worth public debate, philosophical or moral considerations?  Do maids rank lower than pets in South Africa's suburbia?  These are just some of the subjects McKaiser raises.

Although the reader would have come across many of these issues in the opinion pages in South African media, what makes the writing worth reading is the personal and practical take the narrator infuses into it. On the day he handed me my copy, we were headed for lunch, and decided to have it in Parkhurst. After a fair amount of consideration, we ended up at a restaurant which was hosting a large group for a birthday party.

As we sit down, Eusebius comments on how there isn't one black person at the table. "They don't have one black friend?" he says with an incredulous smile. "Maybe he couldn't come today." I offered. But is it wrong to not have black friends in a country full of black people? These are the realities McKaiser confronts and debates in this book.

Sometimes I didn't agree with the arguments, but they are well made given that he has no opposers as he pens the debate. In parts I thought there were contradictions, and sometimes he argued comfortably for his own preferences. But that is normal when you are dealing with moral arguments.

For example, he takes on the uncomfortable issue of race and preference. He asks the question of whether Sally, who does not want black people to rent the other room available for letting in her house, is allowed to discriminate in such a way. He concludes that she is not.

Yet, he also argues that it is okay for Sally not to want to date a black man. Thus, Sally is allowed to refuse a black man into her house as a boyfriend, and indeed in her vagina, but she is not allowed to refuse the same black man to be a roommate living in a separate room. "It is one thing - correctly so - to judge your white neighbor for being scared to share her house with a black man", he states, "but it is something else - wrongly so - to judge her for not wanting to share her vagina with that black man."

What is the difference between a vagina and a home? There are those who would sooner go for casual sex with a total stranger than share a home with someone whose identity they have verified. But these are contentious and continuing moral debates in academic and philosophy circles.

What makes this book a page turner is the ease with which the writer allows the ordinary reader who does not have a philosophy degree or debating credentials various view points on a subject, and a conclusion. Perhaps the lightness and the personal accounts, real life experience and conversations allow the reader to confront the issues without being intimidated.

Some debates are complicated and will require serious consideration and even introspection. For example, are white people allowed to complain about potholes and bad governance? Or should they just keep quiet? Can blacks be racist? And what sort of liberal condemns polygamy? I for one know some liberals who will take fault with the view that it is the duty of a liberal to accept polygamy.

No doubt, as I did sometimes, many readers will violently disagree with some of the analysis and perhaps even the writers approach to the subjects. McKaiser too could be accused of what he refers to in the book as the "smugness and self-indulgence of many white liberal South Africans". And perhaps that is why this book is important and timely.

The debates of the day apply to all our lives, whether they are about racism, homosexuality, polygamy or just how we identify ourselves. In the end, the various essays force the reader not so much to accept particular conclusions on moral arguments, but to consider these for herself.

A Bantu In My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser is published by Bookstorm and Pan Macmillan. It can be purchased online here.

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