Sibu looks awkward. “Ahh. That is a very difficult question doctor. It would be difficult to socialise with a white person.”
“We talk together in class and on the wards. But when you are out of the classroom it is different. We do not even greet each other in the corridors.”
“Ach doctor. I do not know.”
Sibu and I are driving to clinic. He and another medical student are doing a 2 week “family health” placement at Hlabisa Hospital.
“But why do you not get on? We get on.”
“It is different doctor.” I had assumed that universities and medical schools would be the melting pot of South African culture – where people divided by race and the class of their upbringing would discover each other as they forged their educational common ground. But it seems not.
“How many white people are there at your medical school.” He looks thoughtful.
“Maybe 15?” There are well over 100 in his year. “And a few more Indians.” Perhaps, I wonder aloud, they feel insecure. A racial minority in a previously black medical school. “If you see a white person and a black person socialising or talking together out of class you can say immediately, ‘Ahh – that is an international student’. It is only the internationals who talk.”
That evening I invite Sibu and his friend to dinner with a few of the other (white) doctors. They sit together on the sofa mostly in silence. One or two (international) individuals initiate conversation with them but the group does not sustain it. After an hour and half they make their excuses and leave. I do not blame them.