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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