Preface: I’m not going to put up photos here. I could poach some online, but the photographers often risked their lives to take them.
One of my earliest memories is watching my mother hide her excitement from a boyfriend. His face had gone limp – the colour of ivory; she carried a surreptitious rhythm.
The ANC had won the national election. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Elated screams came from the black crowds on the television. A few terrified white wails carried through our window.
That day, the Afrikaners went grocery shopping. They needed supplies for Uhuru – the ‘night of the long knives’. Canned foods sold out , guns, water, biltong, barbed wire, and petrol did well too. After all, if the black people would necklace each other, what would they do to us? My mother’s boyfriend said half a goodbye and left to go take care of something.
The phone rang every time a call finished. My mother chatted lyrically with her mother about how happy they were for their black students and colleagues. Some more of my more rural family phoned about emigration or how many of us could fit on a fortified farm.
It was a strange time. Nobody knew what to expect. Mandela had brokered a peace with the National Party, and South Africa avoided that African trope of democracy into dictatorship or genocide. The Afrikaners waited for a genocide that never arrived.
The country drafted the world’s best constitution. Human rights, freedom of the press and accountability of government were all there. Depending on who you were, it was terrifying, or fantastically hopeful. After Mandela’s 27 years in prison, after the Sharpeville massacre, after children carried pseudo-nazi flags down the roads in the name of the AWB, after the necklacings in the Inkatha Wars, there could be peace. There could be progress
That was the dream, but for the middle class white folks, it was slightly paranoid business as usual.
My generation had ostensibly average childhoods. We grew up in christian schools, sang morning hymns, did somersaults on rugby fields in recess, hated geography classes and agonised over inattention from crushes. We were too young to realise how interstitial our upbringing was. We learned Apartheid was over from teachers who weren’t sure what that meant, yet, even those that had come to terms with the fact. Some of us befriended the three new black kids in our school of 800, others echoed their parents hate at them. They were tolerated, but not accepted.
The government amended our curricula. The formerly oppressed determined what the oppressors’ children would learn in school. Afrikaans schools were slow to phase out old systems and teachers taught different narratives to our history textbooks. They tried hard to not teach the government’s version of history. But it was everywhere.
On television, in textbooks, on the radio, in political discourse, we heard the voices of people who had been muted before. Our parents did not know how to respond to these black people who were suddenly their equals, yet so incredibly disconnected from themselves. They did not know how to talk to us about what we were exposed to, having never been exposed to it themselves. We were bombarded with information about Apartheid that, often, the government had hidden from our parents. Some of us knew more about the evils of the regime than the people who’d lived in it.
So school taught us about our brave forefathers who’d been fed glass in British concentration camps, folk heroes like Racheltjie de Beer who died keeping her younger brother warm on a mountain, or the father of our nation Paul Kruger (who shot a lion when he was 11 years old). It also taught us about the 1913 Land Act, about student massacres, wrecked families and educational destruction. We learned about how babies in townships would have their toes chewed off by rats. Daily, we were being taught about the evil things done by our parents, or in their names, and our parents either had no response or, worse, felt it was all justified.
We were being told racism was in our blood and, by association, in all our history.
We could not be proud of the boere in the anglo-boer war because of the cultural cancer of Apartheid. We could not be proud that Jan Smuts was the only man present at the end of both world wars’ treaty signings because of Apartheid. The world’s first heart transplant, the military wonder that was the Rooi Valk, and fighting communism in Angola were all tainted with the sickness of Apartheid. We had to face the schizophrenic idea that the people who changed our diapers, sang us lullabies, fed us and listened to our problems were, in fact, awful human beings.
So there was a disconnect. We saw everything our parents had done, or had done nothing about. We kept hearing about the brutality of our culture, even though we never saw it in our suburbs. The question always came up “What am I supposed to do about it now?”
The general responses (at least in my community) were:
- turn your life into an apology for the crimes of our culture, and become ostracised by the community you damn;
- embody that culture and project all your parents’ frustration at a black government, become extremely critical of each failure of that government and blame any societal ill on it;
- become completely apathetic; or
- reinvent your cultural identity.
I think the first German children born after Nazism dealt with a similar issue on a different scale.
Many of us abandoned Afrikaner-ness. We grew up on American and British television and music. Our existential crises around our own history translated into vapid teenage ideas of the language being functional, but fundamentally uncool. We hybradised our language with English and, in one generation, we turned a beautiful language into an archaic one that few of us speak properly. We continued with little regard for where we came from. Even the teenagers who grew up as racists – longing for that fantastic utopian Apartheid era their parents would talk about after a few brandies – weren’t properly Afrikaans anymore.
Still, most of us grew up thinking that we weren’t individually and personally responsible and could not be held accountable for things that happened before we were born. I had to become an English teacher in a township school to realise how incredibly obtuse I’d been.
I had to see the real struggle. I had to see that Apartheid had left inhuman scars on children. These were kids who didn’t always have the money for the transport they needed to attend classes. Teenagers often had to take care of younger siblings because their parents were too busy or ill – often from Aids – to do so. Kids had to study without the privacy of their own rooms. They weren’t allowed to kick a ball around in recess because their playground was the teachers’ parking lot. No running, no playing too recklessly. Nine-year-old girls had to be vigilant about muggers, burglars, rapists, because they didn’t have the money to live in a neighbourhood where those things weren’t serious concerns. Those same girls would date boys double their age because they were so impressionable, vulnerable, without an adult with enough time to show an interest in their well-being. They had teachers like me, too green, underpaid, having to teach a class of fifty students, many of whom didn’t speak English at five-year old level. The truly brilliant ones were too often lost in the masses of students who couldn’t follow a lesson, or couldn’t be disciplined, and had to be given special attention. These kids were never allowed to be kids.
I went to my friends, some of whom still toted the line “Apartheid’s been over for more than 12 years. They’ve had equal schooling to us for an entire school career now.” These same people who understood a bad day at school as one where you had a bad mark or had a teacher yell at you, these people doled out judgment. They went to university and saw black students drop out en masse. They figured it had to be laziness or stupidity, and they were vindicated by the results.
I learned that the most horrendous evil in privilege is how the privileged get to define society’s weak without ever having to engage them. They are allowed to forget people with ruined potentials as a scuff mark on their shoes as they walked into bright destiny for them and their own children.
I went to the Apartheid museum with some South American friends, and I cried my eyes out watching video of young white children carrying a neo-nazis flag while shouting some rhetoric. I had snot dripping down my chin watching videos of white men in bakkies (pick-up trucks) forcing black men to break down their own homes, and give them the building materials to use for their own property developments.
“How could you?”
How could my parents let this happen?
How could the leaders, the ANC heroes who fought for freedom at the cost of their and their comrades’ lives, become poisoned by corruption? How could they take Africa’s greatest post-colonial triumph and then turn a blind eye to the people they fought for. How could they ignore the poor, the sick, the children whose innocences are being ruined on a daily basis?
God damn the government that is more concerned with gripping power than feeding and educating the people it’s supposed to care for.
I get so incensed at the disconnect between what could have been and what is, that I become numb on the Novocaine of emotional exhaustion. Temporary apathy is a psychological self-defence mechanism, and I think that the agonising burden of reality terrifies the Afrikaners my age. So many people in my generation spent their whole lives looking for a cop-out that would indemnify them from any responsibility towards their fellow South Africans. I’ve learned that it doesn’t exist – not if you’re honest with yourself. Us middle-class whites had our schools, universities, healthcare, infrastructure, and even our recreational parks subsidised by black suffering.
Growing up, for me, meant accepting the universal truth that power feeds on powerlessness, and then pretends to be wholesome. Even though I haven’t had a cushy life, I have directly benefited from Apartheid; my parents did not fight the system in any meaningful way, my community was comfortable being blind to our responsibilities.
Growing up also meant learning people are not good or bad in their entirety. People are complex, they are contextualised by their milieu, and their goodness or badness is relative. This does not only go for my own people. The oppressed also had good and bad people – reducing them all to a homogenous group of victims is backwards, and takes away their capacity for agency.
I try not to think of the small things I do for people as an apology. If I were to spend my life atoning for sins that I was born into, I’d sit with a condition analogous to Catholic guilt, which I think is fundamentally unhealthy. Rather, my aim is basic human decency, and egalitarianism. The future is built on understanding, not eternal self-flagellation.
Die bloubokkie se gal sit nie in sy kop nie. Ek wens julle wou dit sien.