Every other student in Cape Town is a waitron. The job demand, among other things; efficiency, thinking on your feet, dexterity, hygiene and the ability to fake a world class smile in under 0.2 seconds flat. The hours are long since you’re on your feet throughout a shift. With these challenges at hand, facing racial prejudice on the job is about as fun as having chicken pox in summer. When I started waiting tables I was naive enough believe that hard-working waiters were tipped what they deserved. Not so. Specific areas, I was cautioned, would either not employ black waiters, or if they did, their patrons showed greater appreciation for white waiters instead, by tipping them accordingly or exceedingly. My flowery notion shriveled to dust when I noticed how almost all non-white waiters struggled with the Afrikaans language when confronted by Afrikaans patrons.
As I better understood the language it occurred to me that often, patrons spoke Afrikaans to annoy one and claim bad service and thus justify under-tipping after a meal. Why should I, a black person, OBVIOUSLY not of Afrikaans background, be expected to speak Afrikaans. That often perplexed me because you don’t hear black people addressing white South Africans in isiXhosa or isiZulu because we know it is not a language of their culture. Let me hasten to add that I did not speak any of the 11 official languages, having been raised in another country. How awkward and upsetting, it would be if a waitress of Xhosa origin addressed a white couple in isiXhosa, offering to take a drinks order and rambling the specials to them in her mother tongue. “Ja, jy is reg” (i.e. “yah, you are right”) I hear you muttering guiltily under your breathe.
How about when you, the coloured ‘girlie’, out to breakfast with your friend, with the default mentality of giving the little white waitress a tough time, perhaps as punishment for the sins of her forefathers who humiliated your forefathers during Apartheid. It’s almost an ego boost to have a member of the oppressors bloodline serving YOU; the once belittled and segregated coloured person. So she scurries about fetching you a straw for your water..then ice..then lemon..then “niemand! So maar bring me a clean glass..this one doesn’t look clean”. Then your knife isn’t sharp enough..and the butter and jam (meant for one) for the scone you’ve decided to share is not enough..then your coffee’s cold (because you’ve been chatting for 15 minutes watching it go cold), and a whole myriad of issues that she runs around trying to fix. And at the end, the little white waitress gets a R3 tip on a R97 bill instead of the courteous 10%. And all because she’s white.
Let’s not forget the Black Economic Empowerment beneficiaries who enjoy wining and dining at spots filled with white patrons and servers alike. But if they have the ‘misfortune’ of being served by a fellow black, but non-Xhosa-speaking and foreign, again, complaints galore, simply because they cannot identify with another kind of black. From “sorry sisi, this wine is not cold enough” (when the bottle is perspiring with dew droplets) to “next time tell the chef to make the chips a bit thicker neh”. And you guessed it, non-Xhosa-speaking black waiter will not be receiving of the manna from the black bourgeois pockets in the form of a hard-earned tip. Under ten percent will be what he gets. So to all the discriminatory tippers, next time ask yourself, if you’re under-tipping or worse still, NOT tipping, because of poor service, or because of the waiter’s race?
Because, unlike the hair on your head, one can’t change the colour of one’s skin, so why flagrantly or inadvertently persecute that one for theirs.
- South Africa’s languages: Tongues under threat (economist.com)