Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Fatuous State of Severity

Phumlani Pikoli

Pan Macmillan

In 2016, many South Africans and people in other countries opened their hearts and wallets after a Cape Town waitress was reduced to tears when a student activist bullied her.

After dining, instead of paying a tip — which is not an obligation, but an appreciation of good service — Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, who led a campaign to remove a Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University in England, wrote on the bill: ‘We will give a tip when you return the land."

Qwabe wrote about the incident on his Facebook page, the post went viral and, in response, hundreds of well-wishers donated more than R150,000 to white waitress Ashleigh Schultz, who was working two jobs since becoming a breadwinner after her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Although people of all races donated money, some asked questions that in many ways demonstrated the complex race issues in the country. Would a black waitress subjected to race-baiting receive the same sense of generosity?

However, like most debates about race that rage on SA’s social media landscape, it fizzled out. But writer Phumlani Pikoli interrogates the matter in his book of short stories, The Fatuous State of Severity.

He wrote most of the stories while in a ward at a psychiatric clinic after suffering an episode of clinical depression in 2016. One of them deals with a conflict between a waiter a diner.

Titled Not for You, the story is also set in a restaurant in Cape Town. Although there are echoes of the Qwabe tip incident, this time the circumstances are different. The victim is a black diner and the perpetrator a white waitress supported by management.

"The fish is definitely not for you," the waitress tells her patron in the short story.

"But… but…"

"Listen New Money," she interrupted, "don’t try the fish, it’s not for you. I work here. I should know."

The patron explodes with anger and every head in the restaurant turns in their direction. The manager eventually ends the "debate" by ordering the man to leave. And just like in the Qwabe scandal, an online campaign is started and raises R2m for the unfairly treated customer. But the story ends badly.

"He used the money to buy a small car, which he drove right through the plate glass frontage of the establishment. He died on the scene," the last line reads.

Pikoli says the story was inspired by the Qwabe event, but he decided to tell it with a black patron as the victim. "The truth of the matter is people have different experiences in restaurants, particularly in Cape Town, and the kind of service one gets depends pretty much on your skin colour," he says.

Born in Zimbabwe in 1988 to exiled parents, Pikoli came home in 1990 after the ANC was unbanned. "When I came to SA I was only 22 months old. I hardly remember anything about Zimbabwe," he says.

His collection of stories deals with a range of issues including romance and social media, which he regards as an equally useful and negative platform. He is astute when dealing with the often awkward position young people from black middle-class families occupy in post-apartheid SA.

"It is really a difficult position in which we often find ourselves," he says. "In the suburbs, where the majority are white people, we often feel we do not belong there.

"But, equally, we also sometimes feel that we are not part of the township crowd. So you end up feeling that you belong nowhere," he says.

Pikoli first self-published The Fatuous State of Severity in 2016 and the book was well received. Pan Macmillan then signed him up and printed more copies.

Pikoli was a multimedia journalist and studied film at the University of Cape Town. This is his first book.