Being a cheeseboy or girl all depends on who is looking in

A sandwich with cold meat, lettuce, tomato, and cheese.
A sandwich with cold meat, lettuce, tomato, and cheese.
Image: 123RF/David Kadlec

A man who went to private school his entire life recently asked me what a cheeseboy is.

He was perplexed because a young woman he works with identified him as one and he had no clue what it meant.For those in the dark about what a cheeseboy or a cheesegirl is, it is someone who grew up privileged.

Back in the day, this would be easily identified on the playground if you had a cheese sandwich which was seen as a luxury food item in the black community. Children of educators, nurses, grocery shop owners and policemen were some of the school kids who would once in a blue moon have things such as cheese and peanut butter on their bread, with some orange juice to take it all down while other children had to run home during break to eat mabele and morogo or maybe they would be able once in a while to afford a quarter of fresh white bread with some soup and atchaar, accompanied with sugar water or ”skambelele”.

But as the above-mentioned cheese boy and I were discussing this term I realised that there are different levels to this cheeseboy and cheesegirl thing. For example,the girl who labelled him as a cheeseboy could definitely also be seen as a cheesegirl because of her job and where she lives.

It all depends on who is looking in.To someone who grew up in rural areas, every single urban-living person could be seen as a cheeseboy or girl. Or, if you stay in a township and travel to the suburbs to go to school, people in your community would definitely view you as a cheese kid.Even though many of us grew up poor with domestic workers for mothers or mineworkers for dads, if you happened to grow up in Johannesburg other children would envy you.

I would travel every year to my hometown of Zebediela and other children would call me a cheesegirl because I had a twang but meanwhile I was just as poor as them.And even within the twanging space there are still levels to this. Someone who speaks “good” English could be seen as a cheesegirl, and they could see someone who speaks with a Model C school accent as a cheeseboy, while that individual could see someone who has a “northern suburbs” accent derived from upper echelon schools as the most privileged .

As someone who went to a model c school, I definitely viewed the private school kids as the real cheese boys and girls. These are the Motsepe’s and Ramaphosa’s who probably went to Disneyland as children and had shares in their parents companies while they were still in nappies.

Even universities have this tension. During the fees must fall protest us Wits students were accompanied to the union buildings with buses and security guards. At the end of the protest one of the Wits buses was threatened with fire allegedly by a group of TUT students who queried why we were being chaperoned and given snacks by our university. In true cheese boy and girl fashion, some of the Wits students were taken back to Johannesburg with the Gautrain. But to someone who didn’t go to university there is no difference between Wits and TUT, everyone is potentially a cheese kid.

However with all of this being said, just because people call you a cheese kid doesn’t mean you are being bullied. I’m now speaking directly to Buhle Samuel’s who this past week said she was bullied because her classmates thought she was a black American since she only spoke English. So to the woman who called my friend a cheese boy, you are also seen as a cheese girl to someone.

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