OUT TO LUNCH
It was a chilly October morning in 1980 when Harrington, my father’s butler, found me in the blue drawing room cataloguing my collection of rare Indonesian butterflies. “Good morning master David” he said, “your father wants to have a word with you in the library”.
The family home, “Hallbeck”, was a rambling stone built edifice overlooking acres of flat East Anglian farmland. My family had hit hard times after the upheaval of the First World War and had been forced to move into smaller accommodation. It had been a wrench moving from a house with 27 bedrooms to one with only 12 but my father’s stoicism had seen him through and he joked that it was much more economical heating his new “cottage” and at least he could find his bedroom now without getting lost.
I found my father in the library absently gazing out of the mullioned windows over the landscaped terraces he had laid out after buying the house. In the far distance Old Mr Basham was cutting and stacking wood. Straitened circumstances had forced us to reduce the estate staff to two permanent gardeners; a father and son team who lived in the cottage near the gatehouse. Old Mr Basham was 73 and his son, Young Mr Basham, was 45. They were men of few words and even when they did speak their Suffolk accents were so heavy that it was almost impossible to understand what they were saying.
The noise of the library door closing caused my father to turn away from the window and notice my presence. “Ah Martin, I wanted to have a word with you”.
“It’s David father, Martin is your other son”.
“Ah yes, of course. Easy mistake to make though when everybody goes around wearing denim jeans”.
Having established my correct identity my father then informed me he had bought me a single ticket to South Africa and wanted me to go out and help uplift the natives as soon as possible. He assured me that this was nothing to do with the sudden birth of a son to the barmaid at “The Frightened Badger” a few weeks back.
So, with a firm handshake from the pater out I came and the rest is all history.
Now I’m quite sure somebody will take that load of poppycock, cut and paste it as fact on Wikipedia, and faithfully reproduce it when the Sunday Times gleefully publishes my obitchery. After all, this is exactly the sort of fake news that the continuing narrative of white privilege thrives on. The truth is rather less interesting.
My maternal grandmother was a domestic worker who got up at five in the morning to blacken grates and perform mind numbingly tedious chores until eight in the evening when she was allowed to go off duty. My paternal grandfather was a bus conductor who was so severely gassed in the trenches during the First World War that he eventually died of emphysema after a lifetime of battling for breath.
My father was born within the sound of Bow Bells which made him a cockney. He lost the accent when he was picked by an army selection board for officer training at the beginning of the Second World War and attained the rank of Major at the age of 21. Not bad for a poor kid from a South London council estate (that’s the equivalent of RDP housing for you locals). My mother worked as an optician’s receptionist and became very familiar with the London Underground system’s Northern Line after her home was bombed by the Luftwaffe. That’s where she and many others slept night after night.
After the war, my parents married and my father became a quantity surveyor for a while. He didn’t much like that and decided to go into banking. He studied for banking exams every night after working a full day and eventually, through sheer determination and hard work, became a Fellow of the Institute of Bankers, a director of a public company and an expert on trade finance. So within the space of a generation the Bullard family fortunes improved dramatically (as did many familes) as Britain rebuilt itself after a terrible war and concentrated on growing its economy.
What is the point of all this? Very simply to demonstrate that a nation’s fortunes can change in a very short time. In 1945 few people would have ever imagined the prosperity that England would enjoy a mere twenty years later.
One of President Ramaphosa’s more urgent tasks should be to rid this country of the self pity that prevents people from doing something for themselves. We have become a nation of the perpetually outraged, constantly over-reacting to the slightest perceived insult. We are always looking for someone else to blame for our failings. It’s never our fault. It’s all a huge imperialist conspiracy to enslave black South Africans. From a nation of potential winners in 1994 we have become a nation of certain losers.
President Ramaphosa is right when he says that we face real challenges and they are not insurmountable. But for that to be true we need to move away from the idea that the government is able to deliver whatever the electorate wants, whether it be free housing, water, healthcare or education.
Rather than blocking people from going to work, burning tyres and setting fire to buildings as a protest against poor service delivery maybe community leaders could persuade their communities to collect the rubbish strewn around the place and work towards building things rather than destroying them.
That would almost certainly persuade the more well off in society to help their less fortunate neighbours. We know from experience that South Africans of all races are quick to help when disasters like flooding and fires destroy homes. But why would anybody help a poor community to build a school or a library if they know it is likely to be burnt down?
Finally, Mr President, as you lead us into the sixth term of a democratic South Africa could I make one personal request. Instead of the dreary and insultingly nonsensical narrative that all white people are racists, that they stole the land, that they raped your women, that they exploit their workers and that they control the economy to the exclusion of everyone else could we perhaps allow some truth to intrude occasionally? Without them your tax receipts would be much lower than they already are and your unemployment figures would be much higher.
If you really are intending to be a president for all South Africans you might like to nip this white privilege nonsense in the bud while you have the opportunity. Admittedly it would give the mainstream media nothing to carp about but it would make for a much more united and less racist South Africa.
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