If a racist incident occurs and no one records it, did it really happen?

A day before the Spur video went viral in South Africa, something equally horrifying took place at the hospital where I work. A black female nurse was verbally abused and called the K-word by a white man while she was doing her job in the ward. Since no one was recording the scene, allow me to describe what happened.

This professional midwife was carrying the man’s newborn baby up to the ward where his girlfriend, who had just given birth, was waiting to be discharged. What should have been a joyous moment turned ugly very quickly as the man, barely out of his teens, wearing a sleeveless vest, shorts, a baseball cap and a backpack, became enraged for no apparent reason.

It took something as trivial as the nurse placing the baby on a counter to be reswaddled for him to explode and unleash a torrent of racist insults.

Did he see a professional nurse in uniform, doing what she’s trained to do in the hospital where she works and where his child had been born? Perhaps he felt overwhelmed at the task of fatherhood that lay ahead and threatened by the competence that the midwives displayed as they handled his child.

Either way, centuries of unchecked white supremacy, privilege and entitlement made him believe it was okay to express his rage without consequence.

The incident was a throwback to the dark days of apartheid, when it didn’t matter how professional or qualified Black people were because, in the face of whiteness, we were nothing.

Maybe if this scene had taken place outside the hospital, in the street or at Spur, the nurse would have fought back. But because we are professionals in uniform, with name badges, bound by a code of conduct and Batho Pele principles, she had to swallow her shock and emotions, and surrender to the screaming young man as he snatched his baby out of her hands and tried to walk out of the hospital.

No one addressed his racist insults by telling him that what he did was inappropriate, uncalled for and above all else, illegal – something he could be charged for. No one asked her if she felt like making an official report or taking it to the police or the local equality court officer.

I wonder if anyone except her immediate colleagues even registered the pain and humiliation on her face. It wasn’t recorded on anyone’s camera phone to be livestreamed, or shared on social media to remind shocked onlookers of how far we still have to go as a nation. It didn’t lead to this nurse being flooded with messages of solidarity, proving that what happened is abnormal, that she has rights and that this abuse shouldn’t be tolerated.

This didn’t happen in Stellenbosch or Bloemfontein, it happened in a town called Empangeni, less than two hours east of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal.

It’s been well over a month and this nurse stoically perseveres. The incident is probably buried in that part of her consciousness where we all bury our reactions to racist, personal attacks to which the world has turned a blind eye. Life must go on, because it’s 23 years into democracy, apartheid is in the past, and apparently we must just get over it.

Indira Govender is a medical doctor based in KwaZulu Natal and she’s not into talking about herself. But if you want to chat, you can find her on Facebook or Twitter.



Featured image via Wikimedia Commons