What is it to be British?


A question that is becoming more and more difficult to answer.  In last week’s British The Sunday Times, an article stated there are a growing number of ethnic minorities who consider them selves to be British, not English I should stress, but British. And in no way do they see it clashing with their own culture.  I guess it makes sense that the longer each generation is rooted in a country, the more likely they will be connected to that country. 

I am second generation born (of West Indian parentage) in the UK and have to admit, that my generation did not see themselves as Brits and found it difficult to apply any title or label.   But a lot of the younger generation see themselves, without any doubt, as British.  It’s also really strange seeing and hearing some of my own people talk about ‘too many foreigners’ coming into ‘our’ country and how ‘we’ must put a stop to this!  At times, I listen to our conversations and quietly laugh to myself at how things have changed since the 70s.

You detect traces of sympathy for the Anglo-Saxon because he/she is losing their identity more and more and don’t know where they belong; the nasty little old white lady, who we all had as a neighbour once upon a time, we want to say all is forgiven especially when you now have a ‘traveller’ or an East European living next door to you.  I am shocked that we have somehow forgotten how painful and humiliating those days were, and really surprised that we don’t have much time for anyone who goes to the UK to seek a new life – just like our parents did fifty years ago.

 Integration has improved in the UK although from time to time, a Jade Goody will pop up to remind you that racism is still very much alive and kicking. But to answer the question – what is it to be British?  I wish I knew.  I haven’t got a clue but it’s good that the younger generation can come up with an immediate answer.




Maybe the chip on my shoulder is not that big!


I sometimes think that maybe I am becoming more tolerant in my old age.  You know, take things with a pinch and accept that not every fight has to be a fight. But once upon a time, as a young teenager growing up in the London area, if a white person said something derogatory, or if I felt there was any hint of racism in their responses, or even felt the way they looked at me suggested racism, then I was on their case.  If I couldn’t handle it myself, then there were the big brothers, who held a respectable record of encounters with the law, who could always be relied to do something if there was a problem.  But thank God, it’s not like that anymore. 

Although each time I go to South Africa, I know I can be guaranteed of running into someone who will make it clear that I deserve to be spoken to in a dismissive and curt manner simply because of my colour.  Something like that happened two days after we were robbed.  Eddy and I had already been to the Embassy to complete the forms to cancel our passport, and were told that our travel certificates would be ready in a few days time.  The next thing we had to do was go to South African Airlines to report our stolen tickets and confirm our flights back home.  In the area where we were staying, we could not find a local travel agent to help us, especially with the complications of being robbed and for new tickets to be issued, so we decided to go Tambo International. 

We arrived at the airport, parked our car and made our way to the counter.  It was early in the afternoon when we got there, and I was struck at how desolate the place was considering it was an airport. We found the counter and there were five people waiting in the queue but it didn’t take long before we were attended to.  We explained our situation to the assistant and showed him the police report.  He read it quickly and sympathized at the same time.  He tapped something out on his keyboard, took down the information as it appeared on the computer, and then made a call.  Within the next minute or so, we were handed our ticket replacements in their gleaming new covers.   

Making our way back to the car park, this new, bizarre experience of being robbed forced us to look over our shoulders ever so often.  As we got closer to our car, it suddenly occurred to us that we had to pay for our parking ticket before we could leave.  So we went back to the hall to look for a pay machine and we located one outside the entrance door.  My husband removed lots of coins from his pocket and started sifting through, looking for Rand coins.  I helped him, taking some of the coins and picking out as many Rands as I could find.  Unbeknown to us, a man, elderly, white, and wearing glasses came up from behind.            

‘What’s the problem?’ He said with some measure of impatience.            

‘No problem’, I replied. ‘We’re looking for some coins to make up ten Rand. 

‘Don’t you have ten Rand?’ 

I glared at him making sure my eyelids were fully stretched back.  ‘It’s not that we don’t have ten Rand, we are just trying to get the right amount.’ I continued to glare at him. He backed away and quietly allowed us to gather the right amount to put into the machine.  ‘There! Done!’  I said to him as we walked away with my husband smiling.  And we left without saying another word about it.   Thinking about it, yes, racism was a regular feature in my life but with education and exposure, I realised that there were different ways to deal with things and that violence was and never is an option.  Especially when I realised that I had friends of different nationalities to help, whenever I found myself in difficulty.  But I also realise that it is not the same for everyone. 

When I am in South Africa and the topic of racism comes up, especially if I am in the company of white people, it seems as if it is an enigma to them as to why crime has gotten to the level it has?  Or wonder if there is a particular point in time when the anger will go away?  The uncivil comment about the ‘Ten Rand’ may have been said because the man was racist.  Whatever it was, I can dismiss it.  But imagine if I were to be living in Jo’burg and having to experience these subtle put downs, or insults all the time, why wouldn’t I be angry? And how am I to express my anger if I cannot articulate what I need to say?  

It even makes for uncomfortable thinking that I thought I was experiencing racism in England, when it was nothing compared to what I’ve seen and heard of Black people’s experiences in South Africa.   Yes, we were robbed by black people and there is no way I can make any excuses. Besides the humiliation of being robbed, I also feel embarrassed for the robbers and South Africa and although, luckily, no one was hurt I realised if these guys wanted to kill, they could have done it without any hesitation.   If there is one thing I will always remember about this incident, was the cold anger in their lifeless eyes and wondering (and still wondering) what sort of lives do they lead. 

The experience forces me to assess myself and to assess them: what I am able to do and have been able to accomplish and they, who may be destined to live a life of crime and poverty without ever being able to find out their true purpose. What I see, so far, they are dictated by anger and rage but I believe that somewhere deep, down, inside of them they perhaps still hope to receive the acceptance and respect they so much want from their former oppressors.

One sunny day in Jo’burg…

Two Saturdays ago my husband and I left for Jo’burg. Why were we going there? In the particular country where we live in Africa, my husband, Eddy, had been to a few Doctors to assess the infection in his inner ear. He was not satisfied with the diagnosis. Not consistent, he said. So we decided to head to South Africa and see what the Doctors there had to say. Besides being confident that everything would be sorted, I looked forward in visiting one of my favourite places.
We arrived at Tambo International by 6:15am and were out of the airport with our luggage by 6:35am. Although the weather was fresh and warm, there was a strong indication it was going to be a hot day. A friend, Geoff, collected us, and we drove along the undulated roads as he skilfully took on the slightly sharp bends. I commented on the number of buildings that had emerged in the time we had been away. The conversation eventually moved into silence as Eddy and I enjoyed the smooth drive and the lush landscape.

It was a good thirty minutes before we arrived at Geoff’s house. He removed from his pocket a small remote, pressing a button for the electric gate which took its time to open, then pressed a second button on the same remote to open the garage. We drove in, resurrecting the chatter as we sought to catch up with all what each other had been doing, when I slid the car door open and felt a sudden stinging pain to my left cheek. A man stared down at me with glaring eyes. He was saying something to me but I could not work out what it was. I thought he was a beggar asking for money or he was lost and needed directions. He moved to the front of the car and started shouting at Eddy. Again, his words were lost on me. Not that he was speaking in another language, it was a case of not been able to make any sense. It was only when my eyes slowly travelled down his frame that I saw clutched in his hand a gun. I looked in front of me to Geoff. Through the window, I could see the arms of the attacker pointing a gun in the air, and then in one quick movement he cocked it. Geoff raised his hands up. The attacker lowered his arm to point the gun to Geoff’s head. He asked him to hand over his mobile and wallet. Geoff did what he was told.

We all remained calm as we watched helplessly our money, mobiles, handbag and suitcases being taken away. One of them came round to where I was in the back seat and shouted ‘Jewellery!’ I quickly removed my rings but they were not interested in my gold bangle or the gold watch. We all sat and within our minds prayed that they would leave without harming us. They snatched the bunch of house keys and wrestled with the remote. Once it was removed, they wrenched the car keys from the ignition and then pressed the button for the gate and once it had reached half way, they pressed it again for it to stop. The three men scurried out from the garden, got into a car with no number plates where there was another man at the wheel, then left. I sat in the car and felt my insides churning as if on slow speed of a Kenwood mixer. Eddy and Geoff got out quickly to see if anything had been dropped and to see if they could catch a glimpse of the car. Geoff took the bicycle that belonged to the gardener and headed to the police station. The time was 7:20am.

It was now slightly warmer and the street had not woken with the exception of domestic staff making their way to work. The neighbour, who lived opposite said good morning, then asked if everything was all right. We told him what had happened. He was shocked and there was fear in his eyes.
If they can do that to you guys, what does that mean for us whites?!’ He then said if they were anything he could do, we shouldn’t hesitate. Another neighbour drove passed, and I could see him looking on with curiosity through his rear window. He halted, then did a three point turn and drove to where we were standing. He asked the same question and we told what happened.
‘What?! Here?! When? Just now??’ He paused and looked about himself stunned. ‘My domestic has just come on duty, let me find out if she knows anything.’ He didn’t waste a second, then left.

We stood in the space where the half opened gate was supposed to cover. Eddy paced up and down with his hands buried deep in his pocket. I looked at him, wanting to say something but I was speechless. There was a part of my cheek that was raised and also felt quite sore. It was 7:50am when Geoff returned. He came with another vehicle and we went to the nearest police station to give a report. This took about forty five minutes and we were given affidavits.
For most of time, we shuffled from one place to the next, trying to sort our passports. The Embassy said they would move quickly to help and would be in touch. We then went to the airline company we flew with, to show them our affidavits and to confirm our seats. I did not feel safe staying at the house, so we went to Garden Court Hotel in Sandton and spent a few nights.

South Africa is a fantastic place, as we have done a number of ‘driving holidays’ from Jo’burg to Durban, or Jo’burg to Cape Town, which we have thoroughly enjoyed. Despite what has happened, seeing work already being started in certain places of the city for the new Underground they want to build in time for 2010, makes me feel excited for the place. But the government has to acknowledge that there is a problem. Otherwise lovers of the country will not be interested in going back there again.