Putting a face to a story, or finding someone who lived through an event always makes such events more “real” to a person. I’m living in a country where I interact daily with people who lived through the horrors of Apartheid-who were so crushed and oppressed, who lost loved ones at the hands of policemen. But we don’t talk about it, at least not on a personal level.
Maybe the pain is still too much. Maybe people want to put it behind them. Maybe it’s because I’m white. But the reality is that Apartheid still exists in many areas of the country, my village included. Racisms and xenophobia run strong, and racial tension is ever-present, pulsing in the background of my South African life. Maybe I don’t talk about Apartheid to people because I am afraid to hear their stories. Maybe it’s because I’m ashamed of what my race did.
During the December holidays, I had two poignant moments where the realities of Apartheid reached out and slapped me in the face. It became more real because I put a face to Apartheid, hearing the real life stories of my friends. One filled me with sadness, and the other with utter horror.
While at my PDC, I met some new friends who I shall call Priya, Sephiwe, and Josephine*. Priya is an older Indian lady, and Josephine is a young black lady, around my age. Josephine was too young to experience the darkest times of Apartheid, but she remembers the birth of democracy and has grown up in the period where the Rainbow Nation struggled to emerge from decades of oppression. Priya lived her young adult years during the worst periods of Apartheid. Sephiwe grew up during the 80s, when the violence was at its worst and the Apartheid government was realizing the end was around the corner.
We stood outside a museum, waiting for it to open, when Priya started talking about how her grandfather was forced out of his home during Apartheid. As an Indian man, he was no longer allowed to live in his neighbourhood with the Group Areas Act. One day he came home and found his belongings on the sidewalk, forcibly removed from his home. Can you imagine? After Apartheid ended, the government pretended to make amends by offering him land again. But how can you replace a home, once it has been brutally taken away, the safety of home shattered?
Sephiwe began talking about living in a township in the 80s, when he was attending secondary school. Townships were generally dangerous to live in, and the 80s saw many uprisings. One day he was at school and gunshots rang out: the police had come to shoot. He ran desperately away from the school, fleeing bullets and death. He also saw his classmates get brutally beaten by the police. Once home, he told his mother what had happened, who promptly beat him, then sent him to another school, away from the township.
All three recounted stories of friends and family who disappeared. Some emerge from harsh torture and interrogation sessions. Others were never heard from again. Their families desperately sought information about their fates at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to no avail. Even today, their fates are unknown.
Josephine reflected that it is a miracle that anyone survived Apartheid, which Sephiwe quickly affirmed. Meanwhile, I choked back tears.
A few weeks later, I sat in the home of a wonderfully kind Afrikaner family, enjoying a braai while getting to know some new friends. Kathy*, the mother of the family, was a spry, middle-aged mom who seemed like she’d be perfect at a PTA fundraiser. Around the dinner table, we started talking about Pretoria. Kathy, who had been a career military woman during Apartheid, started talking about the suburb of Hillbrow. During Apartheid, it was a black area and was very dangerous. She told us that they used to go to Hillbrow when people started getting “restless” and would start shooting, to remind them of their place. The gunfire would quell the violence and create a temporary peace.
I tried to hide my expression of horror. I couldn’t believe that this kind lady would speak of such shootings without a hint of shame or regret. That was the norm. That was her job. She did what she was supposed to do and doesn’t seem to understand the effects of such violence, even 19 years after Apartheid.
Living in a country where an oppressive government was so recently dismantled means I constantly navigate a delicate racial reality everyday. Rarely am I not aware of my race, but hearing these stories isn’t common. It is very difficult to hear them, and realize the pain and loss so many people went through. Furthermore, it is difficult to be reminded that many white people do not understand the horrors of Apartheid, and how much racism still lives.
As I look out at a group of women sitting beneath a tree outside my school, sharing a meal, talking, and laughing, I see a beautiful community. But I also see abject poverty and hardened, wrinkled faces. What horrors have these women been subjected to? What violence have they faced? Who have they lost? And yet they are resilient. They have come together today to clean our school, making it a safety and more beautiful for their children, the future of Africa. And when they see me, a young white women, they greet me and smile with laughter as I greet them back in their mother tongue.
This country has been through so much, and there is still much that is broken, struggling to heal from the deep wounds of Apartheid. I struggle with racial tension every day, but I also know that I have the power to change opinions. I see a gentle shift in my village and how people in my community relate to me. Maybe we are on the path to becoming colorblind, but it is a long, slow walk.
*All names have been changed.