We opened our Engen Phambili road show in Bloemfontein yesterday. It was a challenging time for me on a personal level; I am recovering from Tick Bite Fever (a result of my gorgeous, irresponsible and crazy week long birthday celebrations), I am deeply shaken by the resurgence of xenophobia in our country and, being a bit of a sick and vulnerable emotional wreck, I weep about it in public. I did that at the breakfast table at the hotel yesterday morning. Also, since the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, my race antennae are buzzing and crackling, and on high alert for the minutest racial issue, to the point where my 90% black cast tease me about it. Bloemfontein might not seem the best place for my personal race riot warning system to go on the fritz, although I am definitely noticing how much more integrated and sorted the inner city of Bloom is.
So, after my gorgeous cast had warmed up, costumed up and miked up they were backstage and ready, and I was sitting in the auditorium of the bizarre city hall (a first time venue for us). It is a huge, traditional space, with funny wall chandeliers, a massive prosc-arch stage and brown leatherette chairs that are mostly on the verge of exploding or collapsing. Add to the mix the red, white and blue colours of Engen branding, stage lights, huge backdrops and a giant video screen and you can start to understand the strange mix of time, place and thing.
The doors finally opened and the Engen petrol pump attendants and cashiers (some from as far away as Welkom and Lesotho) started filing in. There is always a buzz of excitement in the air when people take their seats. It has been 10 years of exciting, entertaining and fabulous roadshow.
When the flood of entrants had become a trickle, and people had started filling in the back rows of chairs I saw three white young men in cashier uniforms enter. None of the other petrol pump attendants or cashiers in this audience were white. I noticed them choose seats in the back. I thought about them for a moment and wondered what their world might be like; three white men in a previously entirely black domain, unglamorous and basic employment that it is. Then, further along into the venue, and a few rows up from me a young black petrol pump attendant stood up to have a look around. It was clear that he was sitting with the rest of his team, colleagues and friends from his forecourt, but his searching was for someone. He did a full circle and finally saw the three white guys behind him and in the corner, and turned to give them a questioning thumbs up, a wordless ‘are you guys ok?’. They waved back. ‘We are fine.’ And I, for the second time that morning, cried in public.
That moment of care, of unselfconscious humanity has touched me more deeply than the shouting. And I will hold onto it so tightly in these disturbing, crazy bad times.