I awoke, and in one heave threw my entire frame at him

Cape whites with English origins are the dominant tribe in Cape Town, where I have been with the British Council, tutoring on documentary film-making. They are as distinct and separate from the rest of South Africa as any tribe can be.

In general, I found them rather pleasant. Some of them have been my students in recent weeks, and found it difficult to digest a black West Indian with certainty of view. Throughout the course, I worked with a fellow tutor, Clifford Bestall, an admirable documentary film-maker and co-director of the award-winning Cage of Dreams, which exposed the violence in South African prisons. He guided me through the minds of the Cape whites.

Even with apartheid officially out of the way, they continue to carry the weight of white privilege. The exodus to other countries is huge and they have rejected the government of the ANC, particularly locally.

Cliff and I had four students, two white and two black, competing with four other students (with their own two tutors) for three prizes. The winners would have their documentaries commissioned by the local TV broadcaster ETV. Unquestionably, we thought, one of the prize-winners would be an African whose subject was the huge migration of workers from the rural areas to Soweto. It was a quiet and moving account of friendship, love betrayed and death. The narrative took us through the wills and wiles of two black male workers.

The judge, a Cape Indian broadcaster, did not agree. The tutors were called in and informed who the winners were: three white women, with a fourth recommended as an apprentice to an in-house documentary-maker. We were flabbergasted! I asked rather firmly how there could be competition for any thing in South Africa where Africans were excluded from the first four. I was on sure ground. I had in my mind John John's documentary about mass migration. The Indian judge blew his gasket. He was not prepared to discuss race. "In South Africa?" I asked. He knew very little of documentary-making and his lack of knowledge threw him into a frenzy. I should go back where I came from. A rather familiar form of abuse, I must say.

His interest was in money-making, he said, whereupon we the tutors chorused: "Had we known that, we would not have come." He walked out with his entourage, a black Uncle Tom and two white girls, one of whom boasted that she once worked with BBC Central TV. "Never heard of it," I snapped.

The tutors decided to award John John a special prize and promised to raise £15,000 from abroad. We are determined to set this huge injustice right, and see it as our contribution to the new South Africa in the making. We are careful not to crash into the politics of the Cape, but this lax and careless attitude to race cannot pass unchallenged.

English is John John's second language. He thinks in Xhosa and then translates. He is quicker than most, but in making his pitch to the judge he lacked the clarity and precision of English-speaking whites. He paid for it.

To my Indian detractor I say only this. He is barking up the wrong tree. He made known his idea of a good documentary - GI Jane and Emmanuelle. If that is the standard he wishes to set for the new South Africa, then he should depart in peace. The black African tribe and its development is central; all else has to be subsumed to this huge fact. Even the Afrikaners are moving to embrace this political truth.

There were lighter moments. I took to dozing off in the lobby of the hotel. The hotel security took to giggling about the practice. A young man dressed in brief authority decided to bell the cat. He slapped my leg and I woke up in Spain or Russia, I thought. I threw my entire frame at him in one massive heave and he ran at full pelt from the premises never to be seen again. Another disappearing act was Leroy from Birmingham. I hired this young man to do bits and pieces for me. He stole my room key and ran up a phone bill of £300. I'll see him again, I am sure. Any sightings, please contact me.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street