You know, every now and again I stumble across something which makes me cringe, big time. Inside my olivey, untanned, so-called “White” skin, it makes my flesh creep.
I recently joined a group that celebrated and shared memories of the lovely place in which we were lucky enough to grow up. An old friend and I once agreed that we were simply privileged to grow up in such a place – a small, community-orientated village, with its own game reserve, river, health committee, doctors, etc. It was fairly isolated (no buses) and as a result, growing up was fun. Kids got up to all sorts of nonsense, had freedom to run around, play, be kids.
Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t paradise for everyone but near enough was for those lucky not to come across the few trolls. So I joined this group and I sat yesterday and in fits and starts whilst I slept and healed, I read through the whole lot.
Living away from where I was born and raised is always a bit of a headfuck. You end up with bits of your heart all over the place. And groups like this take my heart back to those days.
Today is 8 years since Dad died and our family started to crumble. Nowadays it is like we are blown to bits on the wind. So I let myself be indulgent. I was feeling sorry for myself anyway.
It is a joyful, happy group, full of reminiscing about blowing up post boxes, the Nazi-like traffic cop we had, riding horses, missing the one bus home (we did get a bus for a little while) after a night out, people remembering each other, commemorating those who had died, happy-happy-sad-happy and what it proved was there was still a community there, all those years later, spread across the globe.
I giggled and I laughed and coughed a lot and cried a little.
Then I saw it – someone saying they had revisited a place and it was “SO black!”. Unfortunately the comment was way too long in a post in the distant past (several years ago) to challenge it.
But you know, I was jolted back in time, back to those giggling schoolgirls, the ones who said to me after an awful general election “ah, at least we were on the winning side” and “so, why DO you like K******s?” or just sniggered and turned away.
Because there one was. She didn’t have the excuse of being of an older generation. She was part of mine. She was there when history was made in her own damned country and none of it, not a single bit of it, made an impact on her.
I wanted to scream “Of course it’s Black, most of the population is Black you stupid bloody White tool, so what?!”.
There is always a danger to be had in revisiting the past. Let’s face it, growing up as anti-apartheid activists in a country with racism embedded at its very core was never going to be easy. Having parents with Black, Asian, Indian, Chinese and a whole mix of friends was going to make us stand out in a neighbourhood full of pale faces.
School friends were few and far between, especially as over a few short years I lost my tolerance for both the overt and covert racism of my peers and put a lot of distance between me and them.
I suppose you could call me “radicalised”, that’s what people called me then. “Radicalised”, as if I had no brain of my own and was being brainwashed by all this “Black“ influence. They also called me other names. They don’t bear repeating but they all included the “K” word.
To give you an indication of what it was like, even at the point that Mandela was being released, I have two short stories:
I was invited to a work colleague’s party. After the relaxing of the Group Areas Act (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_Areas_Act), this colleague had bought a small property in a “white” area. In truth, it was already a mixed area but in law, it was still a “white” area.
She was lucky enough to be a girl who had been able to carve out a good education for herself and who was seen as a “professional” and given the right to buy a house there.
Just reread what I have written. A single woman, in her early 30s, born in South Africa who had, by dint of her own and her parent’s efforts, managed to stay in education full time, finished schooling, was working as clerk in what should have been a forward thinking NGO (but that’s another story) … was granted the “right” to buy a house in that area.
I won’t rant, it’s pointless.
So there we were, early in 1994, celebrating her house purchase, her ability to buy a house in a nice area and generally all things good and great. My boyfriend and I were celebrating right alongside everyone.
It was an awesome party, with nommy food, good vibes, good people, good music.
In the middle of this party, one of our other colleagues said to Emgard in front of me, “you know, of all the people who work with us, the only one I could see here was Boudie, you were so right to invite her, she‘s not a fake”.
I stopped abruptly. Yes, I had noticed that my boyf and I were the only pale faces there. I had kind of assumed that people had been invited and not able to make it. I hadn’t realised that we were the only white people invited.
It wasn’t tokenism, it was simply that she and I were such good friends in a work environment that was mostly toxic that she had invited me, despite the colour of my skin.
She and I had transcended the state of seeing each other as labels and simply got on with being women, together.
And she was right – most of the white people there had an assumed eligatarian attitude. They were “liberals“, going with the flow. At work dos, the whites would congregate in one corner and the blacks in another.
God help me when I entered a room with just whites in it – the whinging and whining and racism was out then, like a viral genie out of a bottle. I remember walking in such a room one day and walking out of it again shortly afterwards. So I knew which ones were doing the job because it was a job. And I knew the very few who were doing the job to try and even out the chances people had, give people a step up and a way forward and even then, they were tokenistic about it.
And of all the people we worked with, all of them, she had seen through them all.
She worked with them, day in and day out, smiled with them, shared stories of their families, shared history and work and effort, knowing that they, beneath the surface of their pale skins, believed she was worthless of true consideration, purely because of the colour of her skin.
I wanted to cry.
Just after this – Mandela had been released, elections were looming. The press were rabidly awaiting various things, depending on which side of the fence they sat: civil war, peace, the far right to stage a coup, you name it, it was discussed.
There was a virtual civil war going on in the townships in the province in which I lived, with apartheid government’s stooge’s Buthelezi’s Inkatha (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inkatha gives a pretty good outline) warlords realising that the game was up and jockeying for positions and land.
However, there was also an air of optimism and hope. For years, people we knew had had none. As the noose tightened around the apartheid government’s collective necks, they grew nastier and more oppressive. Lies, slander, murders, torture, banning were all part of their bag of tricks.
Over time, people became tired – tired of fighting (even peaceful battles), tired of losing loved ones, tired of funerals and a distinct lack of justice, tired of moving against the odds. But now .. there was hope, something missing for so long…
We had danced, laughed, held hands, sung:
I swear one of the most moving versions of Nkosi Sikhele iAfrica I have ever head was the one we sang in my parent’s garden the day my mother held a party for all the people she had spoken to over the years, who had been brave enough to call in with reports of police brutality, Inkhatha youth being armed with guns and going on killing sprees, their children killed in the street, all the horror we had experienced, them first-hand, us second-hand, the only difference between us was our luck in being born white in a country that allowed us some privilege and protection (even if we consorted with the K*****s).
It was second only to the version I had heard years before, sung in a church when we had a service to protest against forced removals at Lawaaikamp and to pray for the community, with the police surrounding us, the song starting at one place, bouncing from one group to another, the church’s acoustics perfectly suited to what started as a prayer and ended up as a rousing song of defiance sung in the faces of those who dared to oppress such brave people.
We had dared to hope and dream and fight and subvert and give others hope to dream and fight and subvert, we had treated each other with compassion and love and given each other strength.
And it was nearly the end of our fight – a new South Africa was coming. It wouldn’t be perfect, it wasn’t going to be trouble-free but it would give everyone hope and a place to start again.
Some time later we were sat round the dinner table one night and Dad said, “you know, I think they are tapping our phones again”. In those days, before the advent of electronic tapping, there were two types – live tapping where people sat at the exchange and listened as well as recorded what you were saying (on a bad day, you could hear them which was a little self-defeating) and recorded only.
We couldn’t believe this, so I placed a call, and yes,, there they were: click, click, click. My Dad and I shared a terrible sense of humour and within minutes we had a plan:
He called me from the fax line, I answered. He said something like “hello, I am a friend and I am sad to tell you that we have found out that despite everything, the security police are still tapping your phone”. I expressed surprise and horror. Dad continued “but we have a plan, we are going to fix this. After we finish speaking I want you to put down the phone and not touch it. It may ring or make a funny noise but please don’t touch it. It will be live. We are going to send 20,000 volts down the line to electrocute anyone listening in.”
The sound of taps being removed at speed at the exchange was hilarious. We could laugh at their craven stupidity or we could cry. We laughed.
Some time later, we discovered that our special branch police files has been destroyed. No photos, no details of the surveillance on our family was left.
It was beyond history, it has never apparently happened.
So here I am now, 25 years later.
And 25 years have gone past since people obtained the basic right in South Africa to vote, to live where they want, to be seen as people rather than property.
And those 25 years have clearly passed several people by as if they never happened. People like this have stayed in their “white” bubble, still whinging, still whining, still obsessed by the colour of their own skin.
And they contribute to the problems that South Africa has by continuing the hate, the scorn because every time they revisit their attitudes onto people with a different skin tone to them, they reinforce the view that white people are exactly as they were 25 years ago.
And you know, what some still are.
South Africa is not perfect – there is crime, there is corruption. There are also millions of people who just want to get on with their lives, raise their kids, have reasonable paid jobs and be who they should be, who they are entitled to be.
Whenever I see a politician railing that South Africa’s problems are because of apartheid, I want to scream and kick him/ her in the genitals.
I want to say don’t blame the past, fix it and get on with the future.
And then I come across people like the one in the group and I see exactly what they mean.
South Africa’s true disgrace, still in a white skin, still whinging.