“I am sorry, we’re fully booked for the night,” said the lady, who appeared to be the manageress, before we’d even reached the restaurant door. She stood there waiting, with a “There’s no way you are coming in here” look on her face, one hand resting on the doorframe and the other on her waist. Insects were gathering around the lamp above her head.
“But madam, we’ve booked a table for nine. It was confirmed earlier today,” said my brother Tebogo.
“I’m afraid we don’t have any tables available,” said the woman. She was dressed in black pants and a white shirt, and wore her nose on her forehead. Her pale, tetchy face was etched with contours lines that became deeper as she talked. Her collarbones protruded sharply, like knife blades. She spoke in a loud voice, as if we were standing a kilometre away.
The autumn sun had vanished into the skies, and the coastal wind blew hard and cold on our ears. Although you could not see it, you could hear and feel the living sea close by.
“Someone confirmed our booking and gave us directions on the phone five minutes ago,” said Tebogo.
“I told you, we’re full. There is nothing I can do,” she said. She removed her hand from the doorframe and stepped back into the restaurant, her body blocking the entrance. Clearly she expected us to leave. We were shocked. We had not anticipated such rejection after the joyful day we’d had in Grahamstown, mingling with intellectuals during my graduation ceremony.
Earlier, when we arrived at the restaurant and got out of the Toyota Kombi that my brother had hired at the airport, I thought I saw people peering at us from inside the restaurant, but quickly dismissed the idea. The Kombi resembled one of those notorious township minibuses. Our cheerful chatting and laughter must have unintentionally announced our arrival. It had been a while since anyone had graduated in my family, and it was cause for celebration.
“Is this the only Link-up restaurant in Port Alfred?” Tebogo asked again.
“Yes!” she said.
“Maybe you could check your reservations again, because I am sure we have a table booked for nine people,” said Tebogo, scrolling through his cellphone.
My seventeen-year-old son, Mohale, who was standing next to one of the restaurant’s front windows, said: “Eh, malome, I see there is a table inside with nine chairs and a reserved sign on it.”
Tebogo was now on the phone with his personal assistant, Annamarie. She was an efficient sixty two year-old Afrikaans lady who had become more of a family member to all of us than an employee. She was the one who organised everything: the flights, the hotel and restaurant bookings. She had phoned me earlier in the day to wish me a pleasant trip.
“Hello boss, is everything okay?” said Annamarie. “Annamarie, we are at Link-up restaurant and there is a very touchy lady here telling us we don’t have a booking,” said Tebogo.
“Impossible! That is nonsense. Give her your phone,” said Annamarie.
We never got to hear the conversation between Annamarie and the skinny manageress, because she immediately took the phone and disappeared inside, leaving us standing at the door.
She returned a few minutes later with a smile befitting a toothpaste ad.
“Sorry, there has been a misunderstanding. Your table is ready. Follow me.”
“I told you there was a table reserved,” said my son.
We walked in, one by one. The manageress stood beside the door in the same way that air hostesses did when you boarded a flight. Her nose was now in its right place and she smiled at each of us as we passed, though no one smiled back.
“That’s a lovely outfit,” she said as I entered. “Very different.” And when my mother came in she complimented her lavender suit.
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” my mother said, marching in without looking at the woman. We all burst into laughter.
According to Annamarie, this was one of the classiest restaurants in Port Alfred. I wondered why. The space was so closely packed that our chairs touched those of the tables next to ours. It looked like it had been a residential home which was converted into a business. The décor was plain, with dull, off-white walls.
Inside, we were something of a spectacle. All the other tables were occupied by white people, who twisted and turned from their seats just to get a glimpse of us. It was as if we were exotic creatures in a zoo.
By the time we were settled at the long table, it was seven thirty in the evening and already dark. Fifteen minutes passed before our waitress appeared. A young girl, who might have been in her early twenties, dumped a pile of menus on our table. My sister Kgaugelo distributed them to everyone. The menus were large and leather-bound, like books of old maps.
Another fifteen minutes passed and still we’d received no service. At one point the young girl who’d brought the menus said, while passing our table and without even looking at us, “I’ll be with you soon, we are very busy today.”
Now it was my brother’s nose that was out of place. I learnt later from his girlfriend, Maseapo, that he is normally not this tolerant in such situations.
“If we were in Johannesburg, there would have been a scene. He can be very theatrical, he is a drama king. He would normally have staged a ballet on the table top, I tell you. Maybe he just didn’t want to spoil your day,” said Maseapo.
Kgaugelo and Maseapo claimed that they preferred the Pan-Africanist approach in circumstances like these. As my eyes scanned the room, I discovered that the restaurant was not even full; there were about four empty tables.
“I think we are being punished for our past sins,” I said.
“Or the sins of our ancestors,” said Molatelo, a friend of mine who was also graduating.
“They’ll serve us eventually. Let’s just sit here and be darkies, like they think we are,” said Kgaugelo.
“What? I don’t think that’s a good idea. What if they serve us at ten? I am diabetic, I can’t wait that long. I’ve already taken my insulin shot,” said my mother.
“No, Mma, don’t worry. Let’s behave like we are having a good time, be loud and make a noise, and they will all leave. Then we’ll have the place to ourselves,” said Maseapo.
“I don’t want a scene on my sister’s big day,” said Tebogo.
“These are the English. They’re not big on scenes. They were taught before they were born how to be polite. They are not like the Afrikaners. They would rather leave quietly, to make a statement,” said Kgaugelo.
“Why don’t we do the same?” I said.
“Yes! Let’s go. They are treating us like lepers,” my mother agreed.
“No! If you do that, you are giving them what they want,” said Kgaugelo.
“It’s no longer about them. We just want to have a peaceful, decent dinner. Maybe we should settle for the buffet at the Fish River hotel,” said Tebogo, getting out his phone again. The hotel was about twenty kilometres away, along the coastal Garden Route to East London. The woman who answered the phone assured Tebogo that their buffet was still on.
We marched out the same way we came in, without a word or a whinge. Kgaugelo and Maseapo remained seated for a while longer; craving a bit of drama, but eventually gave up when there was no reaction. When they too finally got up to leave, the skinny lady came to them and asked, with a satisfied smirk on her face, “Is there something wrong?” They just looked at her and marched out silently. As they left, an elderly grey-haired man stood up from one of the tables near the entrance and opened the door for them.
“What if the situation is worse at the hotel?” said my friend Mpho, who had come all the way from Limpopo Province for my graduation, as we climbed back into the Kombi.
“We’ll have to cross that river with or without a bridge,” said my mother.
Despite the restaurant incident, the mood was jovial in our hired minibus. My son, who was in the front passenger seat, kept extending his arm behind him, the way taxi drivers do when they’re demanding their fare.
“A e tle ka disiti. Bring the money seat by seat with the change sorted,” said my son, imitating the harsh tone of most South African township taxis drivers. The others laughed.
“Hey! Wena, taxi driver, slow down man. Our children are still young. We don’t want to die in an accident,” Mpho imitated a disgruntled taxi passenger.
“Hey mama! If you want to be in control, go buy yourself a car. This taxi is mine. I will drive it the way I want,” Tebogo said.
Everyone said something that reminded us of how it was to travel in a township taxi. We did not feel the twenty-kay stretch to the hotel at all. Everyone was laughing all the way. I chuckled until my stomach hurt.
The topic then went back to what happened at Link-up restaurant.
“I knew something wasn’t right when I saw the name of the restaurant. Link-up is a chemist, not a restaurant. It’s not a good name for a place where people eat. Probably their food wouldn’t have been nice. This whole thing must be God’s way of saving our taste buds from a disgusting experience,” said my mother. Everyone laughed.
“Mma, the chemist is Link, not Link-up,” said my son.
“You denied me and Maseapo the opportunity to show you our ability to make white people vanish. If we’d stayed a little bit longer, you would have seen us in action,” said Kgaugelo.
“Yaa! They need to vanish back to Europe or, better, into the sea,” said my mother.
“No, Mma! Not all of them are bad,” said my son. “I have many friends at school who are white and good. When you talk like that you are now behaving like the Link-up woman.”
“Don’t remind me of that racist. Mxe! That thin, cocky psychopath! She belongs in the ocean with sharks.”
After this outburst, all kinds of racist anecdotes came out. My friend Mpho told us about an incident in a Johannesburg restaurant. A white waiter wrote “darkies” on an order slip instead of the table number. This was the only table occupied by blacks in the restaurant. The waiter then accidentally gave the customers the order slip instead of their bill. When they saw this, all hell broke loose, and the customers proceeded to sue the restaurant for discrimination.
I’d also experienced my share of racism. Earlier that same week a white cashier at a bookstore stopped processing my payment for the books I’d purchased and went to help two white ladies who had just come in. I shouted after her, demanding that she return to finish my transaction. I think I saw a trace of remorse in her eyes after that, but I might have been imagining it. I decided not to mention my incident as now everyone was competing to tell their own stories.
“Let me tell you what happened to me earlier this week at the Game store parking lot in Polokwane,” said my mother.
My mother was about to park her car when an Opel Astra simultaneously moved into the space next to hers. The Astra parked very close to the left border of the parking space, leaving little room for my mother. When she opened her door, it lightly clipped the Astra. She then pulled it back and negotiated her “big mamma” body out of the car. The man who was driving the Astra did not make any effort to reverse and park appropriately. But my mother was in too good a mood to make an issue of it.
The lady in the passenger seat was a slender, elderly white woman. She was able to slide out her small figure effortlessly. Her door did not touch my mother’s Mercedes. My mother examined the area where her door had brushed against the Astra, to make sure there was no dent or a mark.
She then felt the need be kind, and apologised. “I am sorry to have touched your car,” my mother said politely.
“Yes, you should be sorry. People like you don’t belong in a car. You should be jumping up and down in trees,” said the white woman crossing the street with the old man. They disappeared into Game.
My mother told us that she was so shocked by the rude response that at first she was unable to act. She said it felt as if there were gears grinding in her head and a piece of rotten pork blocking her throat, preventing her from saying anything. When she’d gathered her wits, she decided to go into Game to hunt for the couple so that she could give them a proper response.
“I was not the one in the wrong! They parked too close to me, and I apologised for touching their car, and yet she tells me that I don’t belong in a car. She must be mad!”
These were my mother’s thoughts as she rushed through the aisles, tracking the elderly couple as if they were criminals. The more she thought about the woman’s words, the angrier she became. She finally bumped into them at the turn-off to the fifth aisle. The man was pushing a trolley with two huge bags of dog food. She told us that she could feel the blood flowing through her fists and legs. She was ready to have a boxing match if need be. We all chuckled.
She said she felt her strong rural upbringing emerging and overshadowing her suburban sophistication. The same rage that had propelled her in her youth to fight with boys when they herded cattle and goats in Motupa village. All of sudden she forgot her position in church as the leading prayer woman and tugged the old lady’s grey jersey from the back.
“Hey you! Can you repeat what you said outside, slowly?” my mother said. The woman gave her a look and pulled herself from my mother’s grip. She and her husband rushed rapidly towards the door where the security guards were standing. My mother followed them, screaming. As she shouted, her voice grew more forceful with every word, her forefinger stabbing the air.
“What do you mean I don’t belong in a car? I want you to know that I do belong in a car, a better car than yours. And the only things you will ever see jumping in trees are your grandchildren, not me. Why don’t you go back to Europe where you come from and leave us in peace?”
By then, everyone in the shop had turned to see what was going on. Some youngsters walked behind my mother, cheering. “Give it to them, Mama! They are disrespectful, these people.”
I could imagine how intimidating my mother’s powerful, loud voice must have been, because she told us that the couple left their trolley at the entrance without paying. They never reported her to either the manager or the security guards.
“I taught them a good lesson. I know they will never tell a black person to go jump in trees ever again,” said my mother proudly.
I wondered if that was true. It’s possible that she had planted more hatred in their minds. We listened quietly as she narrated this story. She was so worked up – it was as if she were still at the scene. Raw anger shone from her big round eyes. My son kept on reminding her that not all white people were like that.
“Mma, I have many good white friends at school. Don’t be fooled to think that all white people hate black people,” he said.
My mother’s story disturbed me. It was sixteen years after democracy, and yet South Africans were still resentful, tense and bitter towards each other. They were still at each other’s necks. When would it ever end? Would there ever be true reconciliation? Maybe with the younger generations, things would be different. I could see it in my son’s eyes, that he really believed in what he told his grandmother. But as for the rest of us, we were all closet pessimists. We laughed, but no one commented on the story.
At Fish River Sun, the manageress was also white. She gave us a table and allocated us a waitress straightaway, even though the meal was a buffet. Ten minutes later she said, “You guys look like you’re celebrating. What’s the occasion?”
“She graduated today.” Tebogo pointed at me.
“Oh, no wonder you’re dressed so smart,” she said, looking at me.
She called one of the waitresses and whispered something into her ear. Two minutes later we were given two bottles of champagne, on the house. We stayed in the restaurant, chatting, laughing and drinking until all the other customers had left. When the manageress approached our table again to check on us, we panicked. We were embarrassed, thinking that we had overstayed our welcome.
“You’re welcome to sit here as long as you want. We’re about to close the kitchen, though, so if you need anything you must order now,” she said.
When the bar closed she went out of her way to organise us drinks for the rest of the night. They were brought to us in big silver buckets of ice.
“I must say,” announced Tebogo, “that the Link-up experience should not be classified as a race issue. Here we are, twenty kilometres away and treated very differently by a white person. This should tell us something. Maybe it’s about being backward. You know, behind the times. Yaa! Living in the past. Like a rural person from Limpopo would behave on their first week in Jozi. Give it time,” said Tebogo,
Extracted from Love Interrupted, Modjaji Books, R160.