“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
For hundreds of years, as far as history has been written in ink and retold around camp fires, the people who walked the plains and mountains, beaches and forests, of the achingly beautiful land that would become known as South Africa, have fought each other, conquered each other, enslaved each other and brutally reigned over each other.
The grim things they did to one another do not bear thinking about and can only be rationalized by minds who truly understand the clawing need that is the draw of power, the mesmerizing promise of great wealth, the slippery territory of humiliation and dread and fear and maybe the jagged edges of a truly broken mind.
I am a white child descendent of the Boer people who could not live with the English under the shadow of Table Mountain but when they moved to the other side of the mountain, they found they could not stomach each other either, so they colonized South Africa in search of autonomy. Growing up in the 1970’s I was expected to understand that there was a natural order in my world:
There were masters and there were (literal) servants.
The servants were told where they could not swim, receive medical attention, walk, hell—even sit. To break up the monotony of all the don’ts a bit, they were also told where they had to live (and if they wanted to travel from their home they required a type of internal passport called a pass to move around the country of their birth, a pass that any white person could legally request to be presented at any moment).
And that was only the formal, legalized side of Apartheid.
Countless small humiliations like eating out of separate plates at the houses where they worked and the fact that their medical results were routinely shared with their employers rather than themselves underlined their inferior position on a daily basis. I forced myself to sit through ‘The Help’ and came out heaving a great sigh of relief because it was tame compared to the things that were standard practise during my childhood.
Underneath the surface of order that existed when I was born huge forces were already at work. Forces that would eventually change the future of South Africa. But as a white kid all I could see was a predominantly white world, sparkly clean and sanitized by and from people of color.
It’s quite the trick to hide 90% of the population, even in a country as big as South Africa.
Then something went horribly wrong.
At around the age of seven I realized that I was a faulty specimen. My head refused to behave and think the way everyone around me did.
In spite of the centuries of breeding for the characteristic, it turned out that I just wasn’t a racist. (I also had trouble with some other things like sexism and eating meat that the very fabric of my people depended on…)
This had catastrophic results within my family and my community. My heart was broken repeatedly by arguments with the people closest to me. People I trusted instinctively but then had to relearn to question the hard way.
They said black people are loud.
I would explain that it was considered rude to talk quietly in their culture as it might infer that you are gossiping behind someone’s back.
They said black people have weak handshakes.
I would say it is because they think it offensive to try to dominate another person in a social context.
They said they stank.
I said you try to survive on what you pay your maid and pick between buying food and deodorant before you walk eight miles to work in an African summer.
To this day I flinch a little whenever someone uses the word ‘different’. People think it is what they want—that individuality is fabulous. But really it is the person who can do something that most other people can find an affinity to that reaps the most benefit. The human race does not really champion ‘different’ if it isn’t compatible to large groups of beings’ expectations or interests.
Really different does not look like Lady Gaga’s twitter follower count. Really different is alienating and lonely. I do not wish it for anyone.
(When I asked for a full frontal lobotomy for my 16th birthday I was only partly joking.)
It was around this time that I also realized I had as much of a chance at changing the way the people around me behaved and thought as they had of changing me.
I stopped arguing. I gave up.
And as soon as I left school I fled North of the border. To the peaceful countries of Botswana and Zambia where there is no history of fighting and where people to this day live together graciously.
Peace was my personal cop out. Everyone who stayed in South Africa by choice or necessity continued the fight.
Also around this time Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. A man who hails from a warrior tribe that did not only fight the white man but also rival black tribes. The man who went on to broker the biggest peace-deal in history.
Even when the entire world ground to a halt for his funeral I still wonder if people truly realize what the man achieved. While I could not change the mind of one single person in my own family Tata Madiba changed the minds of a nation. Not enough to accept each other or convincingly embrace the thought of living together. But enough to refrain from killing each other en masse.
When he first came into power the white people said ‘I give it five years’. After five years, the refrain suddenly became ‘I give it ten years’. Today, at double that and counting South Africa is still standing even though it has become no more homogenous.
It is nothing short of a miracle. Or one man’s lasting legacy.
My own bequest to the future is far more humble. I could not dig deep enough to find the courage to continue taking a stand, but I do have the honor of raising three children, who all hold South African citizenship and believe that people can be whatever they want to be whether they are male or female and regardless of their racial profile.
I wasn’t up to the task of changing minds but it turns out that all things being equal and the slate being clean, even a coward can teach love and equality.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum