(This is Part V of my six-part travelogue from shooting our documentary film, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. To join our team, please visit our Indiegogo site. For more travelogue, here’s Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV & Part VI.)
VENTERSDORP, South Africa – It’s not hard to figure out which golfer bellowed that dreaded insult, kaffir.
This fellow, Derrick, had already sent our crew a negative vibe, standing out from the friendlier folks with his gruffness. I hadn’t yet met him, but now need to confront him, respectfully: Why’d you use that word? And what will you do now?
I ask around at the Club for his phone number, explaining that I want to give Derrick a fair chance to explain his actions. Defend himself. Maybe, express remorse.
I don’t look forward to a combative call, though I prefer it to a gotcha-journalism that might force me to drive out to his farm. Where he may slam a door in my face. Or, greet me by the barbwire with snarling dogs and loaded shotgun. It’s a possibility, in a town that’s seen several white farmers killed in recent years.
Finally, on Tuesday morning, I get around to calling Derrick – 36 hours after the Sunday-afternoon incident. Minimally, I want reaction. Even a raging No comment! and abrupt hang-up is still a comment. It speaks volumes, no less.
Fortunately, my cameraman is a seasoned hand. He suggests, brilliantly: If you’re going to call him, let’s get the mic on you, put him on speaker – and film it.
(We’ll eventually stream this and other interviews on our website for The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story, preserving it as if in a time-capsule.)
As the phone rings for Derrick, my heart beats faster. A touch of anxiety. I need this potentially reluctant source to talk – and say something of real value.
And boy, does Derrick talk. Although, not at first.
He picks up. I introduce myself, rambling on about the nature of my call. In the interest of fairness, would he care to comment about the incident – on camera?
Derrick: Yeah, well … are you recording this call, or not?
Me: Ahhh, right now?
(Think. Fast. Strategy. Consequence. Can’t possibly lie in this situation.)
Me: Yes, actually we are …
(Switch gears. Misdirection. Shift topic.)
Me: … because I just wanted to touch base with you. But I much prefer to come with camera, since we have these other interviews on camera …
Derrick: I don’t appreciate you’re recording without telling me …
(Keep talking. To get him to keep talking.)
Me: Well, I just wanted to at least reach out to you …
Derrick (interjecting): Are you aware of the fact that Samuel himself used that same word in reference to his friend, Monte, on the third hole? Are you aware of that?
Yes, he’s equating his hurling of a historic racial insult with what one black man good-naturedly calls a longtime buddy – who also happens to be a black man.
Derrick goes on, grasping for justification. But I let him have his say. In fact, I won’t challenge much of Derrick’s opening defense. I promised a platform, and want him to feel he’s being treated fairly.
He charges that the caddies were “mostly intoxicated,” fueling a boisterousness already heightened by the presence of our documentary crew. Despite his pleas for silence during shots, Derrick says the caddies ignored him.
“Sooner or later, it becomes more and more annoying,” he explains. “If you ask someone something nicely, and they don’t respond, eventually you start getting angry, and more angry. Then there’s an explosion, an outburst, which is unplanned.”
Maybe. I noticed the caddies were indeed excited to see us: filming two black brothers who had, in their own way, stuck it to “the whiteys.” Then again, I saw several white golfers enjoy a drink or two, during the tourney. With Derrick on the line, I’m not about to provoke him by asking if he’d been drinking, too. (Not now. It’s lower priority, even irrelevant. Maybe I’ll ask later, in person.)
Besides, he sounds more relaxed, which is what an interviewer aims for: to draw out deeper, more meaningful thoughts, feelings, emotions, opinions, analysis.
When he finally pauses, I apologize, diplomatically, for any impact our intrusion may have caused – and express my appreciation for the unlimited access.
That said, I press ahead, asking, as innocently as possible: But aren’t these two separate issues? Yes, you became aggravated, but why utter the harshest insult?
Me: Instead of yelling ‘Shut up’ or even ‘Asshole’ or ‘Bastard,’ you used …
Derrick: It was a spontaneous freak-out … A momentary loss of temper.
Again, he seizes upon Sam’s alleged use of the work kaffir, toward Monte.
“Well, of course that’s different,” I say, not allowing this false-equivalent to pass a second time. “In the U.S. as well, if one black calls another black nigger, it’s a very different context than if a white person calls a black person the n-word.”
But Derrick is no fool, and well aware of the k-word’s magnitude. Today, too.
“I do regret it,” he says. “If I’d used any other kind of word, or cuss, then it’d be fine. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Now it’s a big media hype, an international disaster, it’s ‘Ventersdorp and racism’ again. And I’m pretty sure the media is going to whip it out of proportion again.”
Who, us? We, the media? No doubt this story possesses news-worthiness – a severe breach of inter-racial civility, on the course of the local golf club, during the annual tourney. But only the hometown paper would find that story interesting.
Instead, we’ll use the Derrick incident, yet differently – and responsibly. We sense a positive trend in this town, but not color-blindness. His fleeting “freak-out” – or ingrained reflex – suggests a racial healing that takes two steps forward, one step back. Understandably. But more than civility, it requires an end to impunity.
Do you intend to apologize to Samuel for using the k-word?
“I will definitely speak with him about it,” he says. “And I’m definitely going to tell him I didn’t mean to do it like that, to insult him or anybody else. But I would have really appreciated if he’d taken it up with me, himself – on a friendship level.”
Then, an epiphany. I have one last question for Derrick.
Twenty years ago, if it had come out of your mouth, during Apartheid, would you have felt any regret – or the need to apologize to a black man?
“During Apartheid, no,” he admits. “It was normal and accepted. Nobody would have taken offense, and nobody would have bothered about it.”
So what does this say about today’s South Africa, that Derrick feels the need to respond? More evidence if how far The Rainbow Nation has come. As Derrick is now learning, it’s wiser just to bite your tongue. Or hurl a softer epithet.
“Like you said,” he concludes, with a touch of humor, “I could’ve called him ‘asshole’ and no one would’ve bothered.”