The news that Nelson Mandela has died, though sad, was hardly unexpected. What I hadn’t expected however, was how reflective it would make me feel. People all over the world are mourning and/or paying their respects to the life of a man who not only had a profound effect on his own country and people but to others around the world. I’m reflecting on the effects he, and the struggle against apartheid, has had on me.
It was as an A Level student in the mid-1980s that I first became aware of Nelson Mandela, South Africa and apartheid. I was horrified at the injustice of it and refused to buy anything with a ‘Produce of South Africa’ label. This was my first engagement with politics and realisation that the world was an unfair place. Everything was black and white to me (no pun intended): white South Africans were all evil and powerful; black South Africans were downtrodden victims.
Later, living in London, I would frequently walk through Trafalgar Square, stopping to stand with the protesters and sign their petitions outside the South African Embassy. It was whilst I was living in London that Nelson Mandela was freed. Soon afterwards a huge celebratory concert was held at Wembley Stadium and he attended and spoke to the crowds. Even though I can’t remember what he said, I clearly remember the awe, the exuberance and the emotion of the day.
It just so happened that at this time I was planning an overland trip though Africa. I was going to fly to Nairobi and head vaguely east, west and south. Any way but north really. Having by this time lived in Israel for a couple of years and met lots of South Africans (it being one of the few countries they could go to without a visa), and found out that most of them, despite being predominantly white, were actually quite nice, I was still horrified by the thought of apartheid but realised that things were maybe not as black and white as I’d originally assumed.
Living in Israel during the first intifada had given me a tremendous insight into how politicians and the media (and anyone else with a self-interest) manipulate situations and distort truths. This is true of all involved sides and my experiences both of the intifada and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and my conversations with South Africans, including those who were not white, had made me re-assess a lot of my own beliefs. It was realising that the best way to understand a situation is to see it from the inside: be there; talk to the people involved; experience it first-hand, that made me determined to finish my African trip in South Africa. A place a few years before I wouldn’t have dreamt of visiting. The freeing of Mandela and the transition that would have to follow also made a visit at this particular time an exciting prospect.
The majority of African countries at that time, would not allow anyone to enter if they had a South African stamp in their passport. I always carried two passports, a habit I’d got into during my Israeli days as Israeli stamps were equally unwelcome in a lot of other countries, but even so, it seemed easier to make South Africa the end rather than the start of my journey.
As I travelled through the countries of East and Central Africa I’d started by keeping quiet about my plans to finish in South Africa. Yes, Mandela was free and apartheid had been abolished soon afterwards but the country still had white rule and was a hotbed of racism. But although I didn’t mention South Africa, other Africans would bring it up. ‘Are you going to South Africa?’ My cousin lives there. I hear it’s wonderful there’. I was bewildered and confused. Did they not know? Was cousin lying to them?
The more I travelled in Africa the more I understood. Africa is a tribal society and most of the countries I travelled through had their own forms of apartheid. It might not have been as obvious as different entrances and water fountains, but the better jobs, houses and chances in life went to the people of whichever tribe had a member in power. I was travelling at the time of the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. This was an horrific example of how this tribal mentality had been taken to extremes. Although the minority tribe, the Tutsis had been in power. This power had been misused and after years of discrimination the majority Hutus had overthrown and massacred the minority Tutsis. Once I got my head round the reality of black Africans discriminating against their own countrymen, I could kind of understand the draw of South Africa. Yes, you would be a fourth-class citizen there, but that was nothing new and at least you could make more money than you could in your own country. The realisation of this didn’t sit comfortably with me, but I had to try to adjust my Western, Euro-centric way of thinking and understand things from what was a completely alien perspective.
After a year wandering around Africa I finally arrived in South Africa. I spent over 3 months hitch-hiking the length and breadth of the country, sometimes camping, occasionally staying with friends, but more often than not staying with complete strangers who’d picked me up on the side of the road and couldn’t do enough for me. Most of the people I was picked up by and stayed with were white, but I stayed with an Indian family in Durban for a few days and spent several weeks in Cape Town staying with the family of a coloured friend I knew from Israel. Although things were changing and apartheid had been abolished the white government was still in place and everything was in flux. A year of two before I’d have been breaking the law if I’d stayed with my coloured friend’s family. The husband of the Indian family I stayed with was a late middle-aged psychologist. He had a PhD, worked at the university, drove a Mercedes. The height of respectability. Yet he told me that a couple of years before when a British psychologist had visited the university and he’d given her a lift, he’d been stopped by the police. She had been taken to one side and the police had tried to intimidate her into making allegations against him. She was white, he was Indian.
Most of the people I met accepted that things were changing and were pleased their country would no longer be a pariah state. Of course some saw the whole idea of black people being intelligent and capable of ruling as laughable and made jokes about the stupidity of the black Africans. But these people tended to be the minority and it was easy to see that they were not exactly well-educated or articulate and so were the chip-on-the-shoulder losers that every society has. Once their white superiority was taken from them they’d be even bigger losers and so really did have more to worry about than everyone else.
Although people tended to have accepted the change, as an outsider it was easy to see how it’s one thing to say ‘oh ok, we’re all equal now’ on a conscious level, but much more difficult to change underlying prejudices on a deeper sub-conscious level. The language of South Africa revolved around colour. People weren’t just people, they were blacks, whites, coloureds, Malays, Indians. There were white buses and black buses, white taxis and black taxis. In my language a white taxi would be a white coloured car, just as the moniker ‘black cab’ refers to the colour of the vehicle and not the passenger. In the language of a South African a white taxi was a yellow car for white passengers and the white coloured car (actually a minibus) was what was called the black taxi because this is what black passengers used.
I would rarely hitchhike for long. In even the worst possible places someone would stop within minutes to pick me up. They would be curious as at this time there were very few foreign tourists in South Africa, so they would want to talk to me, ask me about their country and what I thought at this turbulent time. How did they know I was a foreign tourist? Well because ‘you never see women hitching in South Africa’. Hmm, I’d think, ‘Isn’t that a woman hitching over there? And another one a bit further down? And what about the two down there?’ But of course the other women were black and so that was different. You didn’t even need to say the colour out loud for the implication to be there in your sentence.
Hitching through Transkei I was picked up by an off-duty Afrikaans policeman on his way home from a meeting. He was young, married with two young daughters. He took me home and I ended up staying for a couple of days. The Afrikaaners were known as the more conservative of the white people and the ones least tolerant of change. The police were also not known for their amenability towards black people. As my host was a combination of the two I expected him to spout right-wing drivel at me and I was psyching myself up to bite my tongue. Instead we had a deep and meaningful conversation about how he realises the country has to change, that it was unfair before, that this is a good thing that’s happening, but how hard it is to change your feelings inside when you’ve spent your whole life being brought up in a particular belief system. How do you suddenly change like that? He knew he had to because as he put it, ‘My daughters will grow up in a different world. What happens when they bring home a black friend? Or their first black boyfriend? If I can’t change I could lose my daughters.’ Speaking to him, more than anyone, made it clear to me that it wasn’t a case of ‘bad white people’ and ‘good black people’. It’s the system that is bad, not the people who have been brought up to believe it to be the truth. Of course this doesn’t excuse the people who go to extremes and abuse others because their belief system says they’re sub-human, but this goes some way to explain how the system could have remained in place for so long.
Towards the end of my stay in South Africa I had an experience which completely contrasted with all the positive experiences I’d had and showed just how some people were doing their best not to accept the changing situation. I was taken by friends to a white girl’s birthday party. It was a private party held in her house and the guests were a mix of white and black people. The front door was open as people were coming and going. The party was in full swing when the room began to fill with gas. Eyes streaming, noses burning, everyone ran outside and tried to climb on to things to get higher than the low lying gas. Candles were lit, newspapers were set alight to try to burn the gas off. We’d been tear-gassed. The security police had been noticed sitting in a vehicle a few doors down watching the comings and goings. When the canisters of tear gas had been thrown in through the front door they had disappeared. The girl whose birthday it was and her friends were completely unsurprised by this. Apparently they’d been active supporters of the ANC, hence the black guests at the party, for a long time and were well known to the security police. They were used to harassment of this sort. That it was still going on showed the last desperate measures of a doomed regime to still exert their power. As it happened their show of power that night amounted to nothing because once we’d got rid of the gas, the party continued as if nothing had happened.
Not long after I left South Africa the first elections were held in which everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, could vote. The ANC got in with a landslide victory and Nelson Mandela, former high-security prisoner, became the country’s first black president. The hurt and remembrance of atrocities which had happened over the years and decades in South Africa wasn’t going to just go away because there was a new government however. If the country was going to descend into anarchy and civil war this is the time it would have happened. It could well have happened too, if the new government decided to exert their newfound power and do unto others as had been done unto them. The more extreme and militant whites would have had no hesitation when it came to fighting back and would have had the perfect excuse to try to take the country back to the bad old days.
What actually happened instead though was a policy of reconciliation. People, black or white, told their stories, met and questioned their attackers, atoned and asked for forgiveness from their victims. When crimes so bad have been committed it must be the hardest thing in the world to turn the other cheek and not seek revenge. It’s far easier to burn up with hatred than it is to quash that hatred down and rebuild your life. But under the leadership of Mandela the South Africans managed it. I look at other conflicted countries, countries that have tried to find peace for years but been unable to do so, even with the aid of the world’s best peace negotiators on hand. The only way there will ever be peace if everyone can follow the example of South Africa and accept reconciliation no matter how gutting it may be to see someone ‘get away with it’.
How has all this had an effect on me? I have learnt that no matter how repugnant the other side might seem it’s important to make the effort to understand it if you want to have any chance of ever changing it. I’ve also learnt not to put my euro-centric slant on everything, but rather to stand back and examine each situation from the point of view of the ‘other’. I don’t have to like it, but at least I can look beyond my prejudices and respect that others may have a different worldview to me and that this alternative worldview can be as equally valid as my own and may even make more sense. And of course, I know that there’s no point dwelling on what has been done as that doesn’t change, or help, anything. It’s far better to focus on the future and use what has gone before as part of a learning curve to ensure that that future is a better future.