Wednesday, June 6, 2012


There’s a lot of chatter in South Africa at the moment: offensive paintings, tweeting imbeciles, money-grubbing football coaches, and the usual day-to-day pillaging and looting that is the spirit of modern democracy. The media packages it all and we read and re-tweet it, but the real conversations are the ones that take place between actual people, like the one I observed last night.

Once in a while I stand in with a blues band down on Wilson’s Wharf in Durban. Tuesday nights in the city are nothing to write home about for white people anymore, and those that venture out aren’t exactly your typical Investec suburbanites. Last night, the white guy on the left in the picture, with all the grace and social skills of a failed sprocket salesman, downed goblets of red wine at the  bar and then turned his burgeoning invincibility on the black guy to his right.

The black guy was sitting quietly by himself two stools down sipping a draught and reading, of all things in a city bar on a week-night, a pocket-sized edition of Sun Tzu’s “The Art Of War”. White Guy noticed the title and pounced.

“ ‘The Art Of War’, hey? You fucking ANC guys…”

What followed was a loud stream of invective accompanied by wine-induced slouching and gesticulating (see picture), all  from the white guy and all based on two assumptions: 1. This particular black guy was responsible for the the state of the country at the moment, and 2. ‘The Art of War’ was some kind of ANC/black terrorist text.

The black guy, to his credit, just sat and listened. The white guy got louder and louder, throwing out phrases like “fucking kaffirs” etc. The bar staff in the immediate vicinity started paying very close attention in case it started getting nasty.

Then, inexplicably, the white guy goes, “Well, fuck it, I’m leaving anyway. Soon as I can get out of this bladdy country I’m gone”. After complaining and accusing, he’s leaving anyway? Then, even more inexplicably, the white guy and the black guy, unable to continue the one-sided conversation because of the barrage of white-guy blues rock from the guest band, get up and go outside to share a smoke and carry on their fireside chat. They came back in a few minutes later practically arm-in-arm, all national issues resolved.

As much as people like Julius Malema may make it embarrassing for some black people to be black, white guys like this make it excruciating to be white in a country like South Africa. When previously-advantaged white people show themselves to be more ignorant and uninformed and just plain dumber than their previously-disadvantaged countrymen, it’s teeth-clenchingly awful.

Somewhere down the line, though, this belligerent drunk smirking racist and this graceful, thoughtful quiet African man found some common ground, shared a drink and a smoke, and the staff reported back that they were ‘friends now’.

National Democratic Revolution be damned: this is the real South Africa.


  1. Hey John.

    This note is to thank you, and to ask for your advice. I am a young South African, very proud and excited to be part of this country so teeming with wonderful things; the grandest of which certainly is the people. I am also a lover of music, especially your music over the years. When you pick up a guitar and sing, I relish every moment (and usually ruin my voice trying to belt it out with you :)

    A few years ago, when you came home from the US, I was 20 and largely oblivious to the state of politics in my country. It simply wasn't part of my upbringing to discuss these things. But your talks and songs inspired me to want to get involved. For that, I want to thank you...

    Thank you for ranting about the wrongs we live among, using what was placed in your hands. Thank you for spreading hope of something better in the future. Thanks for trudging through that initial 'persecution', while staying focused on BEING the difference. We, the youth of this country, need all the help we can get to find our way out of apathy, blind tradition, and mindless herding after the latest trend. Furthermore, we as followers of Jesus need examples of how to hear His words of Love and Justice; and then flesh out those values in everyday type of ways. You help me see some of those ways.

    John Ellis, I salute you!

    Now, a question: You've said at shows that singing rock songs won't fix the problems in our country (Side note: It DOES HELP though! It did for me... Keep going!) So, apart from voting and complaining, what can I do to help fix (heal?) this nation? I want to stay. I truly want to be part of the solution; I want to see this country become a better place for all. I'm clinging on to hope, even if by a fingerhold. The real South Africa is a remarkable place. I think a lot about these issues, and there are many things I see that infuriate me too. So I try and help the poor where I can, I try to discuss some of these issues with my friends. I dare to read the news more often these days (questionable if that's always uplifting to the spirit).

    But now, WHAT DO I DO? What can we do? Which way do we turn? Is it left only to politicians? I.e. do I need to pursue a career in politics to make a meaningful difference?

    Thanks again for engaging. Very excited to hear about the new record!

    Your fan, comrade, and brother,
    Ruan Yacumakis