It is a scene that plays out hundreds of times a day across South Africa. A driver in a bakkie offers a lift to someone on the streets.
The lift-seeker jumps onto the back of the pickup to be dropped off closer to his or her destination.
Just another day in Mzansi, you would think, when a man in the Eastern Cape offers a lift to a woman covering 60km to her doctor’s appointment in Cradock.
And then all hell breaks loose.
Someone takes a photo which makes it to the online media.
Oh no. The man is white and the woman black.
The driver, of course, sits in front while the woman sits on the open back of the bakkie.
The woman is pregnant and occupies the open sheep’s cage filling out the back of the bakkie – there is no other place to sit.
Titillating its audience, the media pounces with the suggestion of racism.
Shortly thereafter the woman is interviewed and makes it clear that it was her choice to sit at the back because of the intolerable heat inside the vehicle.
Too late, South Africans were salivating once again as we put our teeth into yet another public incident of racism – like the time late last year when a black waiter lost his job for “race profiling” when he put “two blacks” on the invoice to identify patrons at the busy restaurant where he served.
I put out the case of the bakkie driver on my Facebook page and invited discussion as to whether this was in fact a case of racism.
The responses were as crude as they were predictable.
Black and liberal voices piled onto the driver who was so obviously racist.
He should have insisted the woman sit in front – regardless of her own wishes (no contradiction here).
He should have found a pillow and made her comfortable in front.
He should not have offered her a lift if she did not want to sit in front; no, really.
Perhaps he should also have bought a hand-held fan?
The hypocrisy is staggering.
Among these sanctimonious voices are people who probably have different cups and plates for the gardener and domestic.
Who do not take their workers home at night to the front of the township shack.
Whose children call elderly black people by their first names.
And who do not cover the health insurance costs of pregnant workers.
But here they all are engaged in public shaming of a guy who probably thought he was doing something worthwhile.
More disturbing are the assumptions about who the driver is.
To do all the good things suggested – like finding cushions for the pregnant woman – assumes a degree of enlightenment among rural bakkie drivers that can only come from exposure to racially just white parents, teachers and dominees who would have ingrained such profound values in white youth from the day they were born.
On what planet, pray tell, are the critics of the driver living?
We cannot project onto the bakkie driver our progressive ideals for how to transport a pregnant woman – especially when our own lives hardly reflect such generosity of care.
The problem here is what my American friends call optics.
It just looks bad.
Not that I have not seen white women and men on the back of a bakkie; you live in the Free State, you see that a lot.
So the argument that he would not put his white mother on the back of a bakkie is simply nonsense – visit the rural areas. But this is South Africa where our history stalks us at every turn.
So with this history of racial inequality bearing down on us, and still unresolved in school and society, where do we put all our anger?
On art work in universities, on a horse memorial in Uitenhage and on a bakkie driver who made the tragic error of
offering a ride to a pregnant woman.
We turn on a single white driver because the more obvious question overwhelms us – why is there not safe and affordable public transport for the pregnant woman in the first place?
Giving the driver cyber slaps in the social media might offer instant racial gratification for some but resolves nothing going forward.
Changing the ways we learn respectful behaviours – such as towards black women in this case – is the real challenge.
But we cannot do that when the majority of our schools fail in the duty of academic learning (subject competence), and when all our schools struggle with the duty of social learning (race relations).
Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US