Nelson Mandela and Black People ….

We are driving home from school yesterday and Connor tells me about the theme they are doing at school. It’s all about Mandela and how things were pre-1994 and how things have improved/changed for people of colour since then.

Georgia goes: “Apartheid was when rainbow children went to a rainbow school, black children went to a black school and white children went to a white school…”  It would be nice if it was that simple, but yes, that was one of the things that was in place pre-1994.

Connor started asking me what I thought when Mandela was released.

I said – quite honestly – that at the time I did not really know who he was.  I knew he had been in jail, I knew that there had been a lot of jostling and negotiating to Release Mandela, but further than that, I really knew little about who Nelson Mandela was.  I did not even realise we had “apartheid” going on. Of course I never stopped to think where the black/coloured people went after the sun went down.

Connor asked me what it was like when I was at school and black people were treated unfairly …… I actually am embarrassed to say it, but I really was not “aware” of what was going on.

I recall when a state of emergency was announced.  As far as I knew “black people” were rioting and causing damage.  I recall us talking about how  “black people” were going to come to our school and burn things and some kids opted not to go to school – my mom didn’t roll that way, and riot or no riot we were going to school.

In our home we did not discuss politics – it was like we sat in this little bubble and lived in fear/concern of the others. We were always taught not to treat someone differently because they were not white.

But we still referred to “garden boys” and “petrol boys” and “nannies” as girls, so I guess we were being taught one thing, but in practice experiencing something totally different.

We never say black/coloured people as my school was white.  When I caught public transport I seldom saw black/coloured people unless I travelled in to Cape Town.  And they all seemed to be busy doing what ever it was they were doing, and I sort of got on with what I was doing.

The first time I started to question whether Apartheid was something that I should maybe think about was when we had to do an unprepared oral in Standard 9.  I was at a new school, and was up in Kimberley.  Kimberley Girls High was a small school, and a lot of the students did not live in South Africa.  They lived in Botswana or some of the other neighbouring countries.

The girls were far more liberally aware than I was.

Unprepared Oral and Lyndsey McLaren stands up and starts explaining how the Apartheid system is like a badly built house, that mustn’t be taken down one brick at a time, but is so terrible and such a danger, that someone should go in with a bulldozer and flatten it.  She made a plea to release Nelson Mandela as well and all with a great deal of passion.

I sat there and thought that Lyndsey was clearly demented.  But it was like someone had flicked a hole in a rather smooth and clear wall in my head …. little bits of light started to go through the cracks.

I might have argued against the destruction of the Apartheid system.  I think I had read an article about how much better it was if “everyone kept to their like” so that everyone was comfortable, and everyone kept their own culture, traditions and so on.  Clearly a Hendrik Verwoerd inspired article.

Sounds fair, except the part where we were being kept separated so that white people could be treated better, and everyone who was not in that group, got treated pretty shit when it came to government contribution, laws and employment, and pretty much daily life.

I have digressed …. so in answer to Connor’s question, I said that I was there pre-apartheid, but really was not aware of what was going on.  Like no idea.

It was not something we spoke about or discussed, or for that matter saw.  I often used to wonder how during the Holocaust German people could say “but we did not know what was happening” and I always used to tsk-tsk-tsk and go, “of course you did, idiot!”

I was oblivious to an entire system in operation around me.  I think from standard 9 I started listening more when people spoke and asking questions. I still think even up to Nelson Mandela’s release I really did not understand what had occurred and was happening.

I recall how uneasy I was when Chris Hani died and there were demonstrations that turned in to riots in Cape Town.  I knew something was happening, but I was sure our policeman would sort it out and tomorrow all would be fine.  Nothing quite like  “white optimism” for you.

I recall how unsettled I was when the flag changed — I rather liked our liked our flag before ….. I knew there was something going on that I did not quite grasp.

I am not sure if it was just the way it was. I finished school in 1989 – did anyone else have access to a bit more information than me — did you have a clear idea what the hell was going on?

{About two years ago we went to the Apartheid Museum – what an incredible place.  You need a few hours to look at the images and read the captions, but for me it was quite dramatic in terms of me remembering “the time” and suddenly seeing a photo and a caption which put it in to context and thinking HOW THE FK COULD I HAVE NOT SEEN IT?}


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  1. Veronique

     /  July 7, 2013

    Great article – so many home truths. How blind were we?
    Also really love the photo – I would really love to paint that photo but not sure how I would acquire rights to do so. Any ideas where I could start?

  2. Suzanne Pfeifer

     /  May 1, 2013

    I love the Nelson Mandela photo, where did you get it, may I ask? I would love to track down a copy.

    • reluctantmom

       /  May 1, 2013

      I also love the image. I really have no idea where I found it, but I added a bit of photoshop to it ….

  3. carioned

     /  August 27, 2012

    I too left school in 1989 but I was in the UK. I was well aware of the apartheid era as I had studied SA literature and history. We saw the news reports on the television, read about murders and house arrests and banning in British newspapers. We sang ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Specials, we marched and rallied, attended benefit gigs boycotting Sun city. We boycotted Barclays (I still do!) and SA food imports. We knew who Steven Biko was, who the ANC was, read the books by Donald Woods & Mandela’s ‘No Easy Walk to Freedom’ which had been smuggled out of his prison cell in parts. We also saw the Richard Attenborough Film ‘Cry Freedom’ and I don’t think for a single minute we thought that white SA’s didn’t know what was happening in their own country. From over here it simply looked like everyone knew what was going on and wanted to keep the unequal, power status quo, so I’m glad I stumbled across your blog this morning, thank you for providing a different perspective of what it was like living in the middle of it. It just goes to show that sometimes you can’t see the wood from the trees.

  4. Claire

     /  August 20, 2012

    Like Kat, I also grew up with an activist in the family, who was imprisoned for “high treason.
    But even while I heard adults discussing the injustices it never really hit home until I was about 10 or 11 when I needed a stamp to post a letter and strolled into the nearest post office, only to be told that I was not allowed to buy my stamps in that section. Confused the hell out of me cos the entrance on the other side was chock a block and would have taken ages, while the side I was in was empty, and it would have taken less time to sell me the stamp than it did to tell me to walk around the building.
    That was the first time I realised things were segregated and I began to understand why sometimes people snuck into our home for a quick shower and a few hours nap late at night and left in the early hours of the morning. Or why sometimes my mom and aunt’s friends would come visit wearing “maids uniforms” or grubby gardening clothes.
    And once aunt had been sentanced, the security police would make our lives hell – we were followed, our phones were tapped, one of my uncles (from my fathers side of the family) was fired from his job, as it required a security clearance, car tires were slashed and many more examples.

    But it is something that was not discussed in most households, it was something that was taken for granted and not recognised as horrific – it was just the way life was. And very often it was just plain embarressing for our parents to try graple with, most people favoured the ostrich approach rather than deal with their conscience

  5. An event that stands out for me was when Chris Hani died. I was very young (about 8) and we were on our way to/through Joburg. The roads were blocked off and we saw the big protest march. I remember being scared but not sure why. I also remember the ‘necklacing’, though I can’t recall why.

    We had black and coloured kids in our school and although we were friendly towards each other, we never mingled.

    My parents raised me to see all people equal but in our soceity the whole ‘feeling’ that you had to keep to your white friends was apparent.

    What really, really gets me is if people are derogative in today’s day and age. I recently forbade one of my husband’s friends to ever set foot into my house after he spoke down to my childminder (she’s like a second mother to my kids). I even had to educate a little girl coming to visit my little girl (they’re three) that she is not an ‘ousie’. That she has a name and we treat her with respect.

  6. It is very difficult to stand up as a white person and say we are sorry – the truth is that we were not aware of any of it. We also grew up without the right to question back then. The law was the law and you just obeyed.

  7. We lived in the Transkei (back then, now part of Eastern Cape) for my last few years in school where the school we attended was multi-racial which I think we adapted to quicker than our parents. So we got used to people of different races attending school together, partying together etc. Even then I did not really know who Mandela was until after his release. I travelled home to Umtata once on the same plane as him but only realised after arrival when I saw the crowds gathering at the airport. Total chaos it was and then I started realising the impact he was having on everyone.

  8. Loretta

     /  August 20, 2012

    Interesting to read your perspectives on this. Why do you think were you not aware? Do you think its because your parents never raised the issues or your schools never did? The country was burning in the 1980s. Whilst the news coverage was poor and often not a reflection of what was really going on in the townships or often a distortion thereof, it was there – would that not have raised questions amongst young white South Africans? I ask because it puzzles me and I ask because it frustrates me when white people these days lament about how bad things are under the current government, because how can it ever be worse than what we experienced under Apartheid. Reading your post gave me a bit of insight, but I would like to understand….

    • reluctantmom

       /  August 20, 2012

      Trying to cobble together a response …. will get back to you ….. the system we had was cruel and of course if you were white you could get by without noticing that things were not equal — and I think as a child (me) it was possible to go through the period and not realise … and I am not an obtuse person.

  9. pamiejane

     /  August 20, 2012

    I also finished school in 1989 and lived in a similar bubble to you. I first became aware of it when our school “allowed” a black child (yes, only one) to attend. He was a diplomat’s son or something. I was in Std 9 and it was the first time I really wondered why there were no other black kids. The fact that he became one of the most popular boys in school started a lot of people wondering why others were not allowed.

    The bubble was on only our era though. My sister is 10 years younger and although integration had occured a bit she still lived in a bubble. We drove past a township one afternoon and there were loads of fires and smoke. She was about 16 at the time and said “look, so many people are having a braai tonight.” I had to explain that they did not have electricity to cook on so that was how they cooked every night.

  10. I knew something was wrong because my uncle had left the country or he would have been jailed. He was among a group of young english whites who protested against Apartheid. My Dad was a member of the Progressive Party and I can remember helping to put together posters and place them around town. I guess I was more aware as a child because my Dad’s family were politically involved. I didn’t really understand any of it and I don’t think that many white children did. It was a strange world to grow up in.

  1. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. |

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