I was watching a review of 2016 on eNCA that outlined instances of racism that made headline news in South Africa during 2016. This question of colour has to be one of the most invidious ills of this era, a time when it should be so far in remission as to be non-existent. But the opposite is true, not only in Africa but globally.
Growing up here in Swaziland I was pretty well protected from the day to day unfairness of the apartheid system. My mother would mutter darkly about the “Nat Government”, the word communist was bandied about by other adults, we had to watch what we did and said when we crossed to border into South Africa. I had no idea what they were talking about, and I only gradually awoke to the realities of the political system that dominated all our lives, even those of us resident in so-called independent territories or protectorates when I reached early adulthood.
My first brush came at the age of 17. I was working for Khosi Noge who had started a factory under the newly formed SEDCO called kuKhanya kwemaSwati, making dresses out of Java print and tishweshwe. She had to go to Johannesburg to buy supplies, and wanted me to go with her – a white in the party would carry more more weight, even a gangly uninformed teenager. That part I only figured out much later. Khosi told me that they would book me into a hotel in Germiston, while the rest of the group would stay with her brother in Katlehong, the perennial satellite township associated with towns in South Africa.
I agreed nervously when still in Swaziland. But I had been in boarding school in Pretoria for 6 years and I knew that Germiston was a hotbed of rapists, murderers and thugs. The closer we got the more I felt fingers of fear clutch at my innards at the thought of being alone in some dimly lit hotel in this town of lurid iniquity. As we reached the outskirts, Khosi gave instructions to start looking for a place. That was it.
“Khosi, you are not leaving me alone in a hotel in Germiston. I’m coming with you.”
“You can’t come with us,”
“I’m coming with you. I’m not staying here on my own.”
Silence. Muttered conversation.
“You are not allowed in the townships.”
“Only black people stay in the townships.”
“I don’t care. I’m a Swazi. I’m staying with you. You are not leaving me here alone.”
It was an interesting week, starting with having to hide on the floor between the back seats of the Toyota Hi-Ace, covered with blankets, as we entered Katlehong. I had to stay hidden during daylight hours, emerging only after dark, protected by a throng of youths who constantly made sure the coast was clear, as I went to call home from the callbox. Our last night there one of the children had a birthday, and Khosi’s brother had organised a movie which was shown against the wall of the garage. It seemed most of Katlehong turned out to watch. One old lady came up to me, touched me, then patted my chest, tears streaming down her face.
“I never believed I would see a white person here with us. I pray God I live to see the day when this happens all the time.”
Back in Swaziland my mother was having many nervous breakdowns, convinced each time the phone rang it would be someone to tell her I had been arrested under some arcane law. Now I know I must seem incredibly thick, but I still did not get it. I lived here, among Swazis. My mother was a civil servant and we had people of all races and cultures walking into our house, and had done since I could remember. My father had broken tradition way back in the 1950’s by insisting a number of clerks in his office be allowed to join the Piggs Peak Country Club because they were good tennis players. My neighbours were black, the nurses who took care of me when I was desperately ill in hospital were black, what was the big deal?
At the end of that year I went to Johannesburg to work and study speech and drama at evening school. I struggled at times, mainly because I didn’t remember to look at the signs. I would stand at the wrong bus stops, enter the incorrect section of the Post Office, sit on wrong park benches. Sometimes people would correct me gently, other times they looked at me with deep resentment, sometimes they shouted.
I still found it hard to understand the arguments that waxed around me, so I had no firm opinion, and the propaganda machine was efficient enough to ensure that no white person of my age really knew what was going on. It was only when I came back to Swaziland and began to read books banned across the border that the penny began to drop. I started with Robert Ruark’s “Uhuru”. That icon of the BBC World Service, Mick Delap sent me Donald Wood’s “Biko”, where for the first time I got to read a transcript of Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia trial and realised the extent of the misinformation disseminated by the “Nat” government. For the first time in my life I felt uncomfortable in my white skin. It worried me. I had many conversations with the late Tars Makama, who would seek to reassure me, but he couldn’t. When the crunch came, as I believed it had to, no one would have time to ask if I was for or against the black man. My skin would be my downfall.
That was then, the seventies, which soon were followed by the turbulence of the eighties. During those decades I came to terms with who I am, and decided to embrace my whiteness, not allow anyone to make me ashamed of who my God created me to be. At long last the nineties arrived and sanity seemed to prevail: black and white stood side by side for hours in election queues, the prophets of doom and naysayers were silenced as a rainbow nation was birthed. No one was naïve enough to believe the transition would be smooth sailing – there was a lot of history to overcome – but there was definitely a pride that South Africans across the colour spectrum had achieved what many other nations had not: a peaceful transition from oppression to freedom. The future beckoned, hope burned powerfully as the constitution was drawn up, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission got underway, the will to make South Africa strong and united was incontrovertible.
So where did it all go wrong? Or has it gone wrong? Are the slurs really slurs, or have we become over sensitive? If so, why? Let’s face it, many expectations have not been met, poverty persists, the divide between rich and poor seems to widen inexorably, the have’s seem secure in their wealthy arrogance while the have-nots dwindle into ever increasing despair. And through all the insecurity generated by uncaring politicians suspicion of anything that does not look like me creeps menacingly through our societies and explodes at some insignificant person’s thoughtless rant.
Many of us have been called names, mostly based on colour or gender, age too, any difference will do, and for the most part we ignore this, knowing the name-caller is reacting to some stress in much the same way as we ourselves have done on occasion. Every now and then I have to breathe deeply as a black brother or sister merrily trashes me in the vernacular, unaware that I understand what they are saying. But I have a choice. I can react, take it to heart and lash back. Or I can swallow it, and determine not to allow that speech to colour my attitude towards others. Not easy, but if we are grounded and sure of who we are, we can do it.
Prejudice is born of fear, and fear is the opposite of love. Scripture tells us that perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). I hate that which I fear, and I fear that which I hate. It’s that simple. What is not so simply is figuring out what I fear, and why.
Back to the racism discussion. Every now and then, a racial slur hits a nerve. And on reflection, I think it needs to, in order to remind each one of us to watch our tongues, to search our hearts for attitudes that are not pleasing to God. Leviticus 19: vv11-17 describes very clearly how we are to deal with those around us, dealing honestly with all, considering other’s needs as much as our own, and by so doing honouring God.
My prayer for 2017 is for each one of us to experience that love that drives out fear, that soothes the torment of insecurity, and allows us to live in peace, respecting those around us. I pray, too, for our leaders, all through southern Africa, that they will respect the roles they have been given, to take care of their people, and deal fairly with all.
May the wounds of the past remain in the past, and may 2017 be the start of a new season, rich in blessing, in peace, in love.