Monday, December 10, 2012

The racism of accepting the status quo

Democratic South Africa is nearly twenty years old, and the prosperous and peaceful rainbow nation we dreamed of has, as yet, failed to materialise. There are pockets where our dream has become a reality, but in general most black South Africans remain poor and marginalised and that makes a mockery of the South African dream.

At the launch of her new book a few weeks ago, Dr Mamphela Ramphele said something which suddenly brought clarity to the whole issue for me. She urged the audience to ask themselves why we are in this predicament of black poverty and exclusion. “When you ask yourself why, you are bound to confront the question: is it because black people are stupid and lazy?” she said.

The question is bluntly phrased, and for a very good reason. It helps us to cut through all the crap we tell ourselves to justify our lives. Dr Ramphele is right - there really are only two possible answers to that question:
  1. That we believe black people are stupid and lazy
  2. That we believe there is systemic exclusion of huge swathes of our society. 
Anything else is a candy-coated version of one of those two.

Dr Ramphele’s question made me realise that it is racist to accept the status quo. It is not just apathetic, or defeatist or apolitical. It is racist.

If you do not believe that black people are stupid and lazy, you must concede that the conditions many find themselves in are random. The lottery of birth dealt that hand, and it could just as easily have been thrust on you. 

It should make us feel sick because it means that there is an oppressive structure in South Africa; that we are part of a system that excludes, exploits and ignores people. And not just “people” in some vague, detached collective. Actual people exactly like you. They could be your mother, or your daughter or your uncle or your grandfather. And this is not some “Apartheid legacy” or “historical context” either – those terms are some of the more common candy coatings we find. This is the current structure of our society. This is the reality of our people today. It is the life that most South Africans wake up to.

It means that if we are not trying, every single day – in one way or another – to break down that social and economic exclusion, to free people from this oppressive system, then we are racist. Only a smug, deluded and racist sense that 'we' deserve to be where we and 'they' deserve to be where they are could possibly justify being able to live with the inequality in our society. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Twenty years of pointless blinkers

There have been so many events this year to prove that we have a long way to go in terms of social cohesion in this country. The Spear showed how easily cultural sensitivities can be both overlooked and inflamed, and the scuffle at Joburg Pride was a sad reminder of how little unity there is in the “gay community”. Worse than that, there seems to be very little knowledge of one another's lives and histories. Until a month ago, I had never even heard of Simon Nkoli.

The fall of western hegemony should have presented white South Africans with a beautiful opportunity to wake from the terrible spell we were under – the delusion that we are part of the western world – and to finally see what a rich, interesting and incredible melting pot we live in. Surely it’s time to wake up to our real context? (The lyrics to Binding by Florence and the Machine spring to mind: “no more dreaming like a girl so in love with the wrong world”)

The greatest regions in the world were built by diversity. New York celebrates its status as a global melting pot. Cities at the crossroads of diverse cultures are the most creative, the most innovative, the most interesting.

We are sitting on a cultural gold pot, South Africa, and yet we hate it. So many of us are still stuck in our old, dull, segregated comfort zones – almost 20 years after the fall of the system that put us in them. Heritage and culture are not genetic – so why do we continue to mindlessly reproduce them in segregated ways? The parts of South African culture that I love and am most proud of are certainly not the Anglophone lineage, from which I suppose I technically come. And isn’t it time we started constructing a composite South African culture with elements from all of them?

It breaks my heart that listening to Simphiwe Dana or Miriam Makeba or Thandiswa Mazwai is met with surprise. Why is it more cool to have some arb Australian “indie” band on your iPod? Why is it so hip to have a Peruvian restaurant in Cape Town, or even Ethiopian food now (it’s so trendy and African!) – but we don’t see umngqusho anywhere except cringey restaurants intended for tourists? What the hell is wrong with us that we idolise anything foreign and have no curiosity for the wonders of our fellow South Africans’ culture, music, food, traditions?

Why are we so scared to get to know one another and to celebrate one another? I’m so fucking bored of the idea that there is black music and white music, black culture and white culture, black drinks and white drinks. We live in one of the brightest, most incredible countries in the world, and yet we choose to pretend we're in a bland, monotonous one. Until, of course, foreigners come and make documentaries about us to tell us how interesting we are. When will we wake up?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Between black and white

An edited version of this post, How whites can reconcile, appeared in City Press in July - you can view it here.

Many excellent pieces of introspection and reflection have been written recently, and it is about time. We haven’t done enough introspection to date in South Africa, and this is especially true among white people. We are a nation emerging from a mass tragedy – much like the Germans after World War II – and yet too few white South Africans have ever questioned their complicity in the atrocities committed, or how we can play a part in rebuilding our country.  Too many have just coasted along since 1994 and expected the country to ‘move on’, without realising how much we have to work on ourselves to build a new nation.

Being White in South Africa

I did not grow up feeling white. I don’t come from a particularly racialised home, nor were my parents political. My family all voted Progressive and my aunt was arrested once or twice for protesting against Apartheid when she was at Wits, but they were by no means a revolutionary family.

As soon as I could piece together what had happened in South Africa (I was ten in 1994) I became truly disgusted by white South Africa. I was angry that the older white people I knew had not been more active in opposing it, and I wanted no part of white society – and have, to this day, prickled with irritation if white people assume I share some sort of solidarity with them.

Luckily for me, it was the Golden Age of Mandela and South Africa was bursting with excitement. As a new nation, we were getting to know one another. I had black friends at school, and new realms of popular culture were opening up to me. I listened to Yfm and bought Miriam Makeba CDs. I felt proud of my country watching as every year there were more wealthy, successful black people in our malls and on our TVs.

Throughout my teenage years and early twenties the Rainbow Nation was fully real to me. I felt like “my culture” was a composite of the previously disparate cultures of SA – and “my people” was South Africans. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – and if there was, it was between the young, integrated generation with which I identified and the older, conservative, divided racists.

It has only recently become clear to me just how much of my self-esteem derived from being accepted by black people. I needed that acceptance to give me a sense of belonging, to legitimise my identity as a proud citizen of a non-racial new South Africa. It was an acceptance that I felt among young people, but also an acceptance that I took for granted.

And recently, I feel like that acceptance is being withdrawn. South Africa, more and more, wants to define me as white.

Here is why: not enough white South Africans have put in the work required. Not enough white people have genuinely committed themselves to this new nation of ours or grasped just how different it needs to be from where we come from. Too many seem to think the change has already happened; that the political transition is over, so can’t everyone just get on with things? They feel the pressure is off, when in fact the pressure is only now starting to build.

Here is the thing that white people need to understand: Apartheid was that bad. It was a ruthless, evil, cold and dehumanising system of structural oppression, deprivation and violence. People were tortured, people lost their homes, people had their salaries capped at near starvation levels and people were subjected to an education system designed to enslave them.

It was not, as FW de Klerk is so fond of saying, just a failed experiment in separate development. That was never the intention and it blows my mind that anyone can buy into that hogwash.

It will take decades to recover from Apartheid and get to a point where every child has equal opportunities in South Africa. The status quo is still completely unacceptable. Our Constitution envisages the sustainable and equitable transformation of society based on socio-economic rights, and we should all be anxious to accelerate that process or risk being derailed by radicals who are also, rightly, unimpressed with the pace of change but whose solutions will only make things worse.

Apartheid was also – and here is another penny that needs to drop – psychologically damaging for white people. White South Africans are psychologically damaged. We need to acknowledge this in order to move on. Apartheid desensitised white South Africans to human suffering and filled most of them with an unthinking sense of superiority and fear.

Perhaps most damaging of all, Apartheid blinded white South Africans to the enormous privilege they enjoy. The result is the bizarre situation we now find ourselves in, in which many white people are enormously privileged while simultaneously feeling marginalised and put upon.

I saw an exacerbated comment on twitter the other day about reconciliation in South Africa from a white guy who said: “Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t we done enough?”

No, we haven’t.

We haven’t all become fluent in the indigenous languages of our home country. Worse, some will judge a black South African’s intelligence purely on his or her accent in English, and completely overlook the humbling and impressive multilingualism of so many black South Africans.

We haven’t yet learnt to listen to differing points of view before trying to ram what we think down people’s throats. But we demand to be listened to ourselves.

Most of us don’t yet even notice, let alone feel uncomfortable, when there are only white people in a boardroom or in an advert or in a restaurant. But I know many who would leave a club if it were ‘too black’.
In short, we haven’t yet freed ourselves from the blindness of privilege and the last vestiges of subtle racism.
The consensus is emerging to call this paradigm ‘whiteness’. I dislike the name because generalisations are never true and seldom useful. They almost always lead to prejudice. “Whiteness” does not afflict all white people, and nor do I think there is anything inherently white about it – it crops up in various parts of the world at various points in history. It just so happens that in South Africa, at this point in time, it is a paradigm typical to many white people. Name aside, the phenomenon is real. It is a disconnected, insensitive sense of arrogance and lack of self-awareness.

Think of how many people rant about affirmative action without considering just how many more opportunities they had before they got to that job interview than the other guy had. As children, they almost certainly had more books at home, never went hungry, and attended better schools. They were also probably more likely to have been given a leg up. If it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters, then white South Africans are already at an advantage in terms of economic inclusion. And how many will actively try to hire from outside their social circle and expand opportunities to previously marginalised people?

Think of how many will speak about ‘their tax money’ as if they should have more say in government because they have more money, implying those without money are somehow lazy and not, in fact, suffering from decades of Apartheid’s deliberate restriction of skills and asset accumulation.

South Africa is angry at the moment and many are giving up on the reconciliation project. This upsets me because I think we could be an amazing country, and it frightens me because things will get very ugly if we give up on ourselves.

White South Africans have an important role to play in dissipating that anger. We need to genuinely commit to being part of the transformation of South African society, and to realise that transformation is as much about transforming ourselves as it is about numbers or demographics. It is not what other people must do; it is what every single one of us must do. The real work of building a new South Africa is less in the grand, national government programmes and more in the hundreds of interactions and tiny decisions we make each day.

The real work is in becoming conscious. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

From obvious to subtle: the shifting face of racism

Why it's surprising for many to discover racism in Cape Town

The sad truth is, there are still plenty of racist South Africans. No one can guess the percentages, and I would imagine (and hope) that it is a tiny minority of people, but they are there. Those of us who grew up in the golden years of Mandela don’t like to see it or to admit to ourselves how far we still have to go, but racism is still a problem that we have not yet laid to rest in this country. 18 years is not a long time in which to change the entire paradigm of 50 million people.

As a “white” South African, I have been subjected to those skin-crawlingly awful and infuriating situations in which other, usually older, white South Africans say something derogatory about another race group in my company on the assumption that I will be okay with it. I’m sure many of us have been in those situations. Nothing makes my blood boil more than racists who think I share some sort of solidarity with them because we’re both white. And more than that, I find white racism so much more offensive than racism from black people towards me. It is worse because a nation that chose to forgive the unspeakably evil things carried out during Apartheid is deserving of nothing but awe and gratitude from white South Africans and those who continue to believe they are superior to other race groups should be ashamed of themselves.

But I digress. My point is this: in my experience (I know, my experience isn’t the point – I’ll get on to that), I find Cape Town one of the least racist places I have been in South Africa. The kind of exchange I mention above, where some racist asshole says something they assume everyone will agree with, has never once happened to me in Cape Town. It has happened to me a lot in PE, for example, and I imagine it happens in small towns all over the country, but not once in Cape Town have I had to go to war with an openly racist person. I’ve never had the feeling that “white Cape Town” sees itself as a community in a laager. And white Capetonians, in my experience, have never struck me as racist. They are chilled, easygoing and pretty liberal, and that was one of the things I loved about the city (Incidentally, I feel the same about Johannesburg, where I grew up. It’s not surprising that our biggest cities are the most progressive.)

Why white people’s experience in this debate doesn’t really matter

The only thing my experience of Cape Town proves is that we have succeeded in creating a city in which racists do not feel safe disclosing their views to others. We have a city in which it is simply not okay to say racist things, and a lot of us, therefore, assume that no one thinks racist things. We should be proud of that, for sure. It is a step in the right direction that racists cannot spread their poison openly here. But we should not be smug. Open racism is only the most obvious kind and it is also, perhaps, the easiest to stamp out. Getting rid of it is only the first step in a long process of growing social cohesion.

Why the defensiveness?

I would guess the simple reason so many white Capetonians got defensive in the "Cape Town is racist" debate is that they don't like racism, and because they probably never hear other white Capetonians saying anything racist (as they still do, sadly, in other parts), they believed the city was being maligned for something they did not see to be true. It was not a particularly sensitive or useful reaction, but it makes sense. When a city sees itself as progressive and liberal, it is quite a shock to hear that it is not experienced that way by another group of people. I was also surprised by the massive discrepancy between my experience and that of my black friends when I first heard the assertion that the city is racist. Clearly, the racism that exists – by the accounts of black friends and twitterati – is precisely the kind that white people would not see unless they looked really hard. It is not obvious, and it is not directed at other white people in the way that racist jokes are.  By definition, white people cannot experience it, but that does not mean it does not exist.

So where to from here?

If there is a problem of pockets of racism in Cape Town, it needs to be addressed. Ranking our cities on their level of racism is a bizarre and completely useless exercise. But what we should be doing, in every city that we live in across SA, is trying to stamp out all forms of racism – even the quiet, underhanded, hard-to-see kind. All that really matters, in the end, is how people interact, and how they treat one another. If black, coloured or Indian people have been treated badly by certain institutions in the city, then ALL of us need to listen to that experience and do what we can to change it.

The problem is the subtle, underhanded racism is much harder to deal with than the obvious kind. It is something that lingers in certain people’s minds and can only be addressed by introspection, not legislation. Those of us who would like to make Cape Town as welcoming and open as we believed it was before our blindness was pointed out should be boycotting establishments that treat black Capetonians with disrespect. All of us should consider every action we take with increased sensitivity. Privilege is blinding - try to see when others are not afforded the same opportunities as you, and take on the person responsible. You may not consider yourself racist at all. But, for example, are you hiring a new intern because you know his parents? That has pretty racist outcomes if your family friends are all the same race as you. Do you get irritable when someone is battling to express themselves because your language isn’t their first language? Do you strike up conversations with someone of a different race when you’re sitting at a bar, alone, waiting for someone?

There are a thousand different interactions every day that contribute to how others’ feel about us and our city. Slowly but surely the infrastructure of the city is reintegrating and drawing our communities together, but that will only lead to co-existence rather than cohesion if we do not look deep within our behaviour and our assumptions. The problem has not gone away until none of our residents experience it. And the problem is also not going to be fixed by other people.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why I don't like talking about race

Everyone keeps saying we need to have the “race debate” in South Africa, as if that is so revolutionary and enlightened and cutting edge to do so. And it isn’t. Getting over race, in fact, was what the Struggle was for. The victory against Apartheid was a victory against thinking that someone’s race is the most important thing about them, and that they should be treated differently for something as arbitrary as their skin colour. And it was a victory against prescribing to other people how they should behave or think because of our own categorisations. Overthrowing Apartheid meant South Africans standing up and saying that we want to be counted as human beings of worth, independent of any system of classification.

Far from being progressive, race is a concept that had it’s heyday in the 20th Century. It has been proven to be scientifically invalid. It is blunt, dehumanising and has only ever done the world harm (from Hitler’s genocide to Rwanda to our very own Apartheid). It is a social construct, not a genetic one. And like all social constructs, it only exists for as long as we believe it does. So I find the increasing mention of race in public discourse profoundly depressing.  (Though not all that surprising, considering the pressure mounting on government for delivery and the need for a scape goat.)

But only recently did I start to understand why so many of my black friends think it is important to discuss: because they think white people saying race does not exist is a cop-out.

White people, so the story goes, created this mess that we’re in and are now trying to say that everyone must just get over it because actually we’re all equal. It’s a cover for being anti-affirmative action, or for perpetuating the bubbles in which so many wealthy people live. And that is not what I mean at all (I can only speak for myself, of course.) That interpretation would piss me off, too. It sounds like the person saying it refuses to acknowledge how horrific Apartheid was or how much still needs to be done to fix that.

I fully acknowledge what a mess Apartheid made of South Africa. It ripped the social fabric apart, it stripped people of their dignity, their livelihoods and their opportunities. It was an awful, evil regime steered by monsters. It breaks my heart that people can do that to one another. And I have fought with older people my whole life about how they did not do more to overthrow it.

And that, I think, is the challenge of many young white South Africans. We cannot believe that such evil was carried out in our name. It makes us angry, but our anger doesn’t help those who were screwed over, and our anger isn’t even recognised because we are seen as the “beneficiaries”. But we didn’t want it, we didn’t ask for it. We don’t want this to be our history. But we have no control over what came before us.
And so yes, admitting that white people benefitted from Apartheid is a step. In one sense it’s not even controversial because it’s so obvious. But then “benefit” is a strange word to use when I believe all of us (black and white) would have been better off had Apartheid never happened. We would live in a much more prosperous, cohesive society. Black South Africans would have been accumulating the same wealth and skills as white South Africans for generations by now. We would be an upper-middle income country with almost none of the social problems we have today. But that is the spectacular short-sightedness of the architects of Apartheid: screwing the entire country for their misguided belief in the importance of race.

And yes, more needs to be done to fix it. I think every citizen in this country should be doing all they can to address the poverty and hopelessness that exist. I’d love to see a national volunteer programme. And I’m not against the idea of a white tax for the sake of atonement and reconciliation (though I think, unfortunately, that wealth redistribution won’t fix our problems – only education and wealth creation will). I believe in transformation, and enterprise development and BBBEE. These measures are all necessary to mend our psyche and they are important to address the historical imbalances in our economy. I think everyone should be furious to hear of the glacial pace of executive transformation recently announced in the press. We need more black CEOs and more black entrepreneurs. But what we really don’t need is the increasing trend to believe in things like “white tendencies” or “black Twitter.” Realising that race-based measures are still required in SA does not mean seeing the world through the lens of race is ever good for anyone.
So while the debate around transformation does need to happen, it must never assume that “race” is a permanent, real, or worthy way to segment people. It disguises obvious things, like that there were white Freedom Fighters, that inequality has increased in South Africa since Apartheid and is no longer all that racial, or that wealthy black people who treat poor black people badly are just as cruel as wealthy white people who do it. Making everything about race detracts from what really needs to be done to make South Africa fairer. And it inhibits us personally in our relationships with everyone around us.

Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a South Africa where “my people” could mean fellow cyclists, or marketers, or people-who-hate-scary movies? Wouldn’t it be great if we chose which communities we belonged to, and which we identified with, and we didn’t have the media, and politicians telling us what we think or who we feel affinity for? I am just as entitled to be furious with white racists as black people are. I’m just as likely to like chicken. I know for a fact that I have much more in common with my black friends than I do with many white people. So why, why, are we STILL looking for commonalities or characteristics of “what makes us black” or “what makes us white”? Nothing does, is the short answer. We’re all just people. Motley and diverse and opinionated and wonderful.

We need to listen to one another. We need to get to know one another. We need to trust that we all want South Africa to do better, and to be better. That was the whole point of the Struggle. And if we see each other as black or white first, and individual people only second, then Verwoerd and his bastard crew won. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

What do you see?

Being a good guy is inconvenient. Our brains are hardwired to save time by filling in the missing detail before we have grasped a concept or seen something fully. We needed it for evolution. We see what could possibly be fragments of a lion between the rustling grass, and we think we see the lion. And we baleka. And we live. The guys who didn't want to assume anything until they saw the whole lion probably got eaten. And ended that evolutionary line.

And we do it every day, in every tiny action. I'm no linguist, but I'd guess it's a necessary part of language, actually - to use experience to fill in the missing detail, and categorise everything. Instead of spending all morning trying to grasp the intricacies of the contraption in your friend's kitchen, experience tells you it's almost certainly a fridge - even if you haven't seen that particular model before. Happy with the judgement call, you move on to more interesting discussions, like when the brownies will be ready. But when it comes to concepts and other people, that in-built pattern-recogniser is exactly the problem: As soon as we have found a category for someone or some idea, we disengage. We no longer spend energy trying to understand them or it. We think we have, already.

The labels we give one another certainly save time. But they stop us from really seeing the other person. Once someone is "woman" or a "Marxist" or an "accountant" or a "boyfriend", a whole bunch of expectations, beliefs and prejudices kick in in our dealings with them. We become guided, to a large extent, by our experience with that category of person, rather than with the individual. And the same is true of ideas. Once we recognise enough in what someone is saying to classify it, we stop listening. We can write it off as "religion" or "capitalism" or "environmentalism" and we'll miss the interesting new points that are being made.

It is the greatest disservice to another person to think you understand them just because you know similar people. You owe it to them not to fill in the missing detail for yourself, but to spend the time finding it out. Google outcompeted the other search engines precisely because it did not navigate the web by categories, but by the actual details of every specific piece of content. That is what turns out the greatest value. In people and ideas, too.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Development and the removal of choice

Africa has joined the urbanisation binge that the world is on, and is catching up fast. Lagos is set to be one of the biggest cities in the world soon, rivalling the likes of Tokyo and Shanghai, and our very own Gauteng megacity (if that is still the strategy for Gauteng) also fills me with awe with its sheer scale and sprawl.

But you will note that I no longer live in Jozi. I discovered somewhere along the way of my life so far, that I need to be close to nature. I developed the habit of climbing Arthur’s Seat whenever I needed to be alone with my thoughts at varsity, and have never shaken that need. One of the reasons I chose to live in Cape Town is exactly that, too: I can smell the sea and see the mountains. Nature is all around me, and it keeps me calm.

And so it makes me profoundly sad to think that Africa, the last great untouched wilderness, is giving in to the greed and ugliness of industrialisation, modernisation and “development”. Without sounding too esoteric, I often wonder whether modernisation was the downfall of our species – that we were happiest when we were in touch with nature and each other in the Garden of Eden / Avatar’s Pandora / whatever metaphor you like. I think many “indigenous cultures” have more wisdom and fulfilment in them than any modern ones do, and that the modern world is full of the exact distractions that keep us from attaining true happiness, in the Buddhist sense. Having a great expanse of untouched nature is necessary in order to restore and replenish us when we feel overwhelmed.

But aside from that hippy train of thought, the world would be a richer, more interesting place for everybody if it kept some of its diversity intact. Variety is the spice of life and all that. Even if you love the city, it is boring and monotonous to cover the whole world in it. Surely everyone should have the right to escape the modern world if they choose to?

But they don’t have that right.

Because everyone should also have the right to make of their lives what they will. And spreading opportunities requires spreading economic growth. Rural Africans have the same right to become doctors or physicists or actors as Americans or Japanese or Germans do. If we believe in equality of opportunity as an ideal for human society (and I don’t believe there is anyone left on earth who does not), then we necessitate getting all human societies to a certain level of wealth in order to offer people within them opportunities.

It is a strange thing to get our heads around: we pursue economic growth in order to give people opportunity and choice. And yet, in so doing, we obliterate their choice to opt out of industrialisation. It’s sadly ironic that such a high percentage of people in the already fast-paced and modern cities yearn to live in nature, while so many in the “developing world” dream of the opportunities of cities.

It is a crisis of geography, and freedom of movement. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, instead of turning the entire planet into one generic city with opportunities for all no matter where you are, we interviewed every child or family and asked them the kind of life they would like to lead? Those who wanted modern lives could be placed in flourishing modern cities to pursue their dreams. And those who wanted to fish or farm or live humble lives in nature could be placed in the jungles, mountains or coasts that make them happy. The injustice of unequal development would be removed, because it would no longer be an accident of geography, but an individual choice. And those “undeveloped” regions of the world could be proud of all the wonder that is in them, that today, they seem so keen to forget. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Branding your Plumber

I am for the little guy. I really am. It's the reason I love the "buy local" movement, independent publishers, artisan brewers. It's the reason I use MTN. Okay, they're not so little, but they are the younger brother; the upstart, the second-to-market. So while I spend my days thinking about how to craft powerful brands for clients, part of me always loves when people choose not to buy brands. When they hand-make something. Or buy from a friend.

But I challenge anyone out there to be for the little guy when it comes to plumbing. Over the past few days I have had experiences that would have me all over Hello Peter if there were organisations behind them to bitch about. First off, my geyser went cold. Annoying, but these things happen. I called a plumber - who my flatmate randomly found in the Yellow Pages. He arrived, was very sweet, spent the afternoon up in my roof and left. He billed me nearly a grand, but I appreciate that there were parts he needed to buy. But how, exactly, did he get to that figure? He seemed to make it up on the spot when I asked what I owed him.

Skip to 30 hours later. I'm in bed, reading. My neighbour phones me to tell me my geyser has burst. I run through to my bathroom and see boiling hot water pouring through the ceiling. I run around like a headless chicken for a bit, decide the wisest thing to do is to phone my mother, 980kms away, and fight with her about where the water main is. It turns out, it's in my downstairs neighbour's garden UNDER A DECK. We had to unscrew all the decking and remove the planks to be able to turn off the water.

So by this point I have realised two things:
1) the previous owner was a stupid tit (but good with his hands)
2) Plumber A had no idea what he was doing.

Because of point 2 above, I called Plumber B (yes, sourced from the Yellow Pages). Plumber B tells me that the thermostat was broken (the one that Plumber A had installed the day before) and replaces the valve that blew. When I asked what I owe he replied, off the top of his head, "seven-hundred." Then he thought about that for a bit and said "that sounds a bit cheap. It was R1000." Clearly by then I looked more baffled by the process than horrified by the price yet (which I was, but my facial expressions can only do one thing at a time) so he added, for good measure "minus VAT."

And that's not it. He then proceeded to give me a speech about how my geyser is old and is going to blow again soon. Why doesn't he replace it now? I ask. He doesn't recommend it. And that judgement was given with the sage finality that I should just say thank you and move on with my life. He looked Anna Wintour-esque when I insisted, "but why don't you recommend it?" "The insurance won't pay" He told me. "Come to think of it, it was all very badly installed in the beginning. I doubt that it's SABS approved. The insurance probably won't pay even when it does blow."

It was then that I decided I hate plumbers. Each and every one (and I've spent my whole life arguing against generalisations). And in plumbing, I hate the little guy. Because if there were a big branded company, you would know who you are going to get. You would have a sense of who to trust and who is no good. Or at least where to look. There would be professionalism, and some transparency about billing. There would be a process to deal with my dissatisfaction. And, most importantly, I would be able to smear their name if they disappointed me so wildly. But there is no mass revolt I can launch against these plumbers, because no one knows who they are anyway, and no one thinks to asks their friends for advice when they need a plumber. So their reputation is protected by their insignificance and I am left writing an angry diatribe, with a geyser that's probably going to burst again, while they drink Mojitos on my money.