Lance Claasen: A family outing, South African style
At a local family restaurant, an incident that started with a spat between children became far, far worse. In the end it contributed to, but did not define, our day.
Not too long ago the Spur family restaurant franchise was the scene of an unsavoury spat between two parents that went viral on social media. In the spat a white Afrikaner man was threatening to assault a black woman, due to some altercation their children had in the play area. It bubbled over from the silent tensions surrounding race and gender that govern South African psyches. My family nearly became embroiled in one of these spats. We had decided to have a Sunday lunch at Mike’s Kitchen in Parktown in Johannesburg, with its garden setting and jumping castle for little people. One would think that it would be a safe harbour from SA’s ever pressing issues. This was not to be. For the purposes of clarity and the burden of race, which all South Africans carry, I will be referring to the race of participants in the narrative to make the point that it was not about race (primarily). We arrive, are settled in and my wife takes our three-year-old to the jumping castle. She returns not too long afterwards, feeling very discontent. It turns out three white children speaking Afrikaans, and not a day over five, were terrorising the other children at the jumping castle. When cautioned by the caregiver, the oldest one told her to F- Off. That’s right, a child felt no qualms in swearing at an adult. Being scared of losing her job, she took the attack on her dignity with dignity and absorbed the abuse from a child that should know better. In telling me what happened at the jumping castle, she was overheard by a young Afrikaner couple next us. They also voiced their displeasure at the three pint-sized terrorists and welcomed the fact that my wife had raised it. It turns out the entire restaurant had been on edge due to their behaviour for some time. It was brought to the attention of the manager. The young black female manager addressed the father of the terrible three yet he did nothing to rectify the behaviour of his children. The terrible three carried on uncensored and unhindered in making everyone’s day miserable. But things were to get worse, a lot worse. Next the children decided to intervene where adults had failed. A young Afrikaner boy no older than seven turned to my wife saying, “Tannie, ek gaan hulle moer.” (Aunty, I am going to beat them up). This was after one of the terrible three had pushed his little sister. Luckily his grandmother had intervened by dragging the two back to their parents and evading a stand-off. A chocolate coloured four-year-old girl strode over to the father of the terrible three and said, “Your children are bullying us and they are swearing.” He ignored her, just as he ignored the manager. This spurred the adults into action. An Indian mother confronted the father of the terrible three. He was petulant and unapologetic. Angry at the affront placed upon her, her heavily muscled husband, sporting tattoos, charged in to deal with the father of the terrible three. The father of the three then in turn challenged him to fight in front of the assembled families. With cellphones on camera, we were about to go viral. The hope of not being involved left when my wife, with the spirit of a Wakanda warrior woman, arose to ally the other agitated mom. My wife is not normally the kind of person to lose her cool or charge into a fight. She however cannot stand bullies that take away poor people’s dignity. Conscripted by her courage, I and another patron entered the fray to placate the situation. The situation was calmed down and we returned to our tables. The owner entered and forbade the terrible three from the jumping castle. The wreckers of Sunday afternoon then left the premises. The relief was palpable for all who had witnessed the incident. Everyone across every race was glad to see them leave. The restaurant then settled into the middle-class rainbow nation we had expected. My brown-skinned three-year-old, with her wild afro, became best friends with a blond-haired four-year-old from the table next to us for the afternoon. The seven-year-old who wanted to the fight the terrible three in protecting his sister was running around with a gang of children of all races. The incident contributed to, but did not define, our day. Smiling, happy children, who were not burdened with our issues, lifted the mood. This incidents at Mikes Kitchen and Spur teach us a number of lessons not learned by SA business 24 years into democracy. We have baggage and we will bring that baggage into every business, park, church and sports field. When a child minder cannot do the right thing, by reprimanding a child for bad behaviour for fear of losing her job, it is a danger to the business. When parents and children are taking things into their own hands, before staff can intervene, it is a danger to the business. Staff who are not empowered in their organisation to deal with and resolve these situations are a danger to the business. There should be clear scenarios and plans for these sort of incidents. It is clear that the hospitality industry is not taking this seriously. Incident after incident proves this. What should have happened is that the father of the terrible three should have been taken aside out of the public eye and given clear options and consequences of his children’s continued bad behaviour. The incident, though not overtly a race and gender one, exposes the levels of toxic masculinity in SA. In both the Spur and Mike’s Kitchen incidents, violence and force were seen as tools to solve problems. There was no restraint or reflection by the participants when the issue escalated. The safety of the children was ignored. The role of the mothers of the children were relegated to bit parts, with ego-driven machismo taking control of an establishment. One can only speculate what goes on behind closed doors if these men are so confident to display violence in public and their partners so docile in reaction to their violent performances. In the racially polarising shorthand that defines South African life, this normally would have been defined as a racist incident, when it is so much more. Race is the symptom of the real illness. A man who defines himself by who he can bully is bad for society. We can only reflect on who the five-year-old with the potty mouth will grow up to become. Will he reject his father’s baggage or will he carry it into adult life? DM