Lately I have read a lot in the South African media and online forums about privilege. It is not homogenous, it is varied, coming in as many permutations as there are social and professional situations. The most dominant is white privilege, hardly surprising with race in South Africa being the emotive issue it is. I have also come across pretty privilege, private school privilege, yellow-bone privilege and of-course male privilege which might actually be more of an issue than white privilege.
A recent much publicised incident at a Cape Town restaurant and hotel got me thinking about my own privilege, let’s call it black foreign national privilege or BFN. I lived, worked and studied in Cape Town from 1998 to 2003 living on campus very briefly. Within three months I moved out to live with friends and six months later I found my own place because my siblings were coming to attend university in 1999 and we needed a place for the whole family. My sister and I saw many places and soon settled on a house in Observatory but soon moved to Greenpoint before finally settling in a Three Anchor Bay apartment for the next four and a half years.
In that time I took up part-time employment waiting tables to supplement my allowance and through this met some of my closest friends to this day. I never thought much of it but people on campus were always amazed at how I got to work and live where I did. I do remember the almost uniform reaction from white interviewers, clients and estate agents when they would hear my accent.
Them: “Oh what a lovely accent, you’re not South African, where are you from?”
Me: “I’m from Zimbabwe, I’m studying for an economics degree at UCT”
Them: “Oh I see, no wonder. Zimbabweans are such lovely people.”
Not having grown up with apartheid and racism I missed the inference, “you’re not like our blacks”. This, is the BFN privilege. My accent and origins put these people at ease and i walked into and worked in places I probably would not have otherwise. In most of the places I worked I was always the only black face on the floor, be it Camps Bay, the Waterfront or the Waterfront. I admit, I milked it for all it was worth and often made as much money as my white counterparts or more on some nights. I never had trouble looking for an apartment because as soon as they heard I was a foreigner the agent assumed i must be rich otherwise I wouldn’t be looking for an apartment in that area. They would have probably fainted if they knew the truth.
Towards the end of my degree I got amazing job offers from two major financial firms but I had to turn them down to go back home. I often wonder what it is they saw in me because I had average marks but that was then. Fast forward to today. I’m older, wiser and now know the meaning of privilege. Every Zimbabwean who has ever lived in South Africa I know, knows the benefits of BFN privilege. It’s not something we ever asked for but are often happy to exploit to our ends. It gets us in places where local blacks have an issue. It gets us that seat at the table in that life-changing meeting. It gets us executive positions in previously lily-white companies ahead of local blacks. It gets us that apartment or house in that exclusive part of town. It gets us the girl or the guy leaving others to wonder, “what is it about that Zimbabwean?”. It’s a certain confidence that causes white people usually intimidated by blackness to relax and speak or behave freely, so much so they always get my name right. Call it what you like, it’s privilege.
In my time in South Africa I cannot remember being a victim of open white racist aggression or in fact racism of any kind. But that’s not to say it does not happen or that it will not ever happen. it may have been so subtle it didn’t register or it could have been totally unimportant, we Zimbabweans have a way of turning our outrage on and off at will. It’s not just a Zimbabwean thing, I know of Malawian, Zambian, Kenyan, Namibian, Ethiopian, American British and West African nationals who are beneficiaries of BNF privilege.
Now like with any other privilege, the beneficiary cannot simply turn it off, I am born with it so I must live with it and the consequences. The side glances when I walk into a room, the police officer who insists on speaking to me in a language he knows I don’t understand, the “jokes” about taking all the women and jobs her, the wisecracks about “go back to Zimbabwe”. It’s galling but it’s not xenophobia nor is it life-threatening, in time we will get to understand each other better but who knows, maybe you too enjoy some secret privilege?