I am traveling with Ethiopian Airlines to Benin, and as is the case so many times, I’m the only woman in business class. Except for two fellow male black African travelers, the section is filled with morose-looking white men dressed in various peculiar shades of muddy dark beige or olive khaki. All that seems to be missing is a big rifle. Theirs is a sullen presence, all uniformly overweight with tree trunks for legs and bellies requiring the use of extender seat belts. And they are knocking back one drink after another, with little apparent enjoyment, just a seemingly dogged determination to get drunk as quickly as possible and pass out. I was seated next to one of them who was already slurring his words when he asked for his own seat belt extender, and he kept up a nervous rat-tat-tat tattoo of sound with his foot on the floor. Luckily, there was another seat available so I could get out of there. In any case, it looked as if he already sat on his own powder keg of impotent white male rage, and I didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire!
These white men have always held a weird fascination for me. They roam around airports and hotel bars all over Africa. I would see them sitting in hotel bars, nursing one beer after another as they spill all over their bar stools, always in the company of young black women who talk too loudly and flash long lean legs as they talk to each and ignore their drunken bar companion until it is time to leave. It’s always a transactional relationship. These many men that I’ve seen over the years roaming morosely, restlessly across Africa … What are they still searching for? The promise of their own Mannetjies Roux day that never came? That retired rugby player is so much a part of Afrikaner legend. He scored a triumphant try against the despised British Lions, which cemented his status as an Afrikaner hero, and of course, he is also known as someone who wasn’t against physical attacks on anti-apartheid demonstrators when he toured England with the Springbok rugby team.
Anyway, if you are brave enough to ask these white men on the plane, they will tell you, keeping it very vague, that they work in security. If you probe further, they will give names of companies like “Security Solutions for Africa” or some such. Or they will say they supervise construction. Or help to manage a mine somewhere in Congo. Or they lay pipelines. Or they are trying their hand at farming. They are not a likeable bunch, but then again, they are not trying to be liked. They seem caught in a time warp in this new Africa, where the old rules around race and power no longer work in their favor. Mostly resented and despised wherever they go, and called names like “umlungu” and “mzungu” or “bwana” … and never without irony, for to be white and male means power and privilege. They are not ready to let go of the dream of the past, and unwilling to accept the reality of the present. But for the most part, their whiteness still represents power and privilege.
In one of my previous diplomatic postings, I was having an idle conversation about the hectic local traffic with one of our white colleagues. He recalled that in his last posting in East Africa, the traffic was always continuously gridlocked, with a constant cacophony of hooting and no road signs to keep order. I asked him how he coped with that, and he answered with complete unselfconsciousness, “Oh, it wasn’t a problem for me. I would just put my arm out the window and then everyone would give way.” He seemed proud of this, the power of a white arm stretched out a car window and the traffic immediately parting as if he was some biblical white Moses parting a Black Sea. Imagine that. The supreme, absolute arrogance borne out of certainty in your “place.” Knowing that if you stick your arm out of your window that everyone will make way for you. How much of colonial pain and conquest and power and privilege sits in that action that allows you to lift up your arm, stick it out your car window in the thick of traffic, to signify “make way.” And for those giving way, the years of understanding what whiteness signifies, that even when whiteness doesn’t hold institutional power anymore, it still resonates so much in the present that cars and tuk-tuks and motorbikes just give way to you and allow you right of way. What constitutes that “right of way” now? So much to explore, so much to unpack. The power and privilege of one white arm able to change the direction of traffic to let you through. The way in which it was recounted as a casual little anecdote made my chest close up and left me breathless for a second. It made me think again about how privilege is used, again and again, even by those who profess to have moved beyond race, but who still dip back into it if it can ease some kind of “social hardship” or another.
And still these men continue to roam the continent and elsewhere so that they can cash in their power and privilege for more money and cheap sex. Some of them get so lost to themselves that they find their “grave by the side of the road.” I’ve come across some of these graves in another of my previous postings. It was a country that had become over the years somewhat of a sexual siren call for flocks of grey, middle-aged men, who left their families behind in Western countries to travel to its shores so that they could live a carefree life of transactional sexual hedonism with poor young women and men pushed into the sex industry.
How utterly sad. How banal. How tragic.
But still, back to those endless white men nursing their cold beers or brandies in hotels all over the continent, with a bevy of black beauties at their command for dollars or euros. What are they thinking about their past and their present? I think of them as an endless parade of itinerant, restless “Mannetjies Roux”—the so greatly admired character of the uncle who lost his farm after a drought somewhere in Africa, about whom Afrikaner musician Laurika Rauch sings:
My oom is oud en ek is skaars dertien
My oom drink koffie en my tannie tee
Ek vra oor die reën en hy se, ja nee
En hy drink soet koffie met sy een oog toe
En hy praat weer oor die drie van Mannetjies Roux
O stuur ons net so ‘n bietjie reën
My oom het ‘n tenk vol diesolien
En seën my pa
En seën my ma
En my oom op sy plaas in Afrika
Maar my oom het gesukkel op die plaas
Want die son was te warm en die reën te skaars
En die man van die bank het net sy kop geskud
Want my oom, ja my oom was te diep in die skuld
[My uncle s old/and I’m barely 13/my uncle drink coffee and my aunty tea/I ask about the rain and he says yes,no/and he drinks sweet coffee with his one eye closed/and he talks again about the try of Mannetjies Roux
Oh send us just a little rain/my uncle have a tank full of gasoline/and bless my father/and bless my mother/and my uncle on his farm in Africa
But my uncle struggled on the farm/because the sun was too hot and the rain too little/and the man at the bank just shook his head no/because my uncle was too deep in debt]
I wonder if this uncle is one of those desolate, morose-looking men now sitting in bars from Accra to Nairobi to Dakar and elsewhere.
But for now, I’m about to land, and I’m excitedly peering out of the window and down on the sprawling urban landscape with its long coastal line … I already call it “my Benin” … and Chingchi is waiting … Bonjour, Benin!
“Groete aan Mannetjies Roux” is a song of great pathos, but with very different meaning depending on how one related to then-apartheid South Africa’s destabilizing campaign in other African countries who were fighting for their own independence and whom the government suspected of supporting the resistance against its rule. Although the song was released long after 1994, I distinctly recall that we would change the words to reflect the role that the South African army played in some of our neighbouring countries like Namibia (colonized by South Africa as South West Africa), so we would sing, with some irony,
En seën my pa
En seën my ma
En seën my Boetie wat veg in Suid-wes Afrika (of Angola, ens!)
(And bless my father
And bless my mother
And bless my brother fighting in South-west Africa)