Racial tensions rise at the immigration desk at Johannesburg's international airport

A momentary encounter between two women sums up South Africa's racial tensions.

I regularly travel through Johannesburg's international airport terminal, observing the way people behave after a long-haul flight. Their body language often betrays their inner frustrations and levels of anxiety. On this occasion, an inbound traveller seethed while the customs officer checked her documentation, reflecting some of the deep-seated racial tensions that still prevail in this country.


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Standing in the immigration queue at O R Thambo airport on one of my regular trips back south, I watch the strangest scene unfold.

A white woman stepped forward, her body language betrayed her utter disdain for the situation in which she found herself, her colonial tongue marinated in the foamy venom of her unspoken words of hatred and loathing that tugged like fearsome Pitbulls on the end of their leashes, restrained from finding their freedom to express themselves, for all they wanted was to sink their teeth with single purpose into the seated black woman's throat.

The oversized, dishevelled customs officer chewed on gum, like an impala chewing a tuft of grass, and unhurriedly riffled through the white woman's passport looking for a spot to record her return to the country, flicking her eyes up only once to make sure the person matched the photograph.

Neither of them felt the want to bring the other into focus. Both hated what the other symbolised. A forced encounter between two people that ought to have lasted less than a minute, but which non-verbally disgorged the full uncensored content of two opposing versions of South Africa's recent history.

It was the black woman who broke this state of brittle silence with a simple question that caught the white woman completely by surprise, as if she'd suddenly entangled herself in a wire snare.

Are you glad to be back home?

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