I am a white girl who was born in Boksburg in 1979. For those who don’t know, Boksburg was at the heart of the apartheid movement, and the laws governing that place were as vicious, oppressive and cruel as ever could be in our darkened history. I came from a poor family, but still a daughter of privilege in the sense that my skin colour allowed me access to the local swimming pool, public toilet, the library and to picnic and walk by the legendary Boksburg Lake. My happiest early childhood memories include train rides at the little park for children next to the Lake, winning a fancy paint-set at a Christmas colouring-in competition at the library, and long summer afternoons splashing freely in the pools. To the outside world, apartheid never affected me negatively as a child, but that is not entirely true. I was guilty of the sin of acceptance, albeit unconscious acceptance. I was taught by my societal surroundings that black people were not capable of keeping the lake clean, unable to respect the value of books and words, and, in horrifically extreme cases, taught by the church that blacks were the sons of Ham, who, according to the Bible, were cursed to live under the oppression of their white brothers forever - and it was their own fault. I accepted these teachings as a small child, never questioning them or the authorities who told them to me. I was a white child in South Africa, being taught to be a racist.
My parents were involved in missions, and opened a Christian school in the Boksburg town center. This was the only school there to have both white and black students attend together. And this is where I first noticed that something was not right. When my black skinned friends were not allowed to come with me to the library, I asked my mother why, and she explained to me that while it was wrong and an injustice, that the laws prohibited it because of their skin colour. This had me baffled. I could not for the life of me think what could possibly be different between my friends and myself – we played games, laughed and learned together. One of my friends had managed to get a hold of green nail polish and I thought it was the most fabulous nail colour I had ever seen. She was my hero! And she was just like me, surely?
But as I grew older, it was continuously reaffirmed to me that no, she wasn’t. She was black. Therefore inferior. It wasn’t her fault, it was her skin colour. We as white people could be kind, ‘un-racist’ and loving towards these lesser beings – we would open our homes to them when the fighting in Vosloorus (a local settlement development where black people were removed to in the 60’s under the apartheid regime) was too dangerous for them to go home – we could give them our old clothes and tins of food when they came begging, but we were, of course, by all accounts, the superior race. I lived in a protected bubble where I was not exposed to the true atrocities that were happening. But the curse of the privileged is the belief that we deserve our privilege, and others don’t. I was being gently coerced into being a delicately tailor-made racist. A nice one, but a racist none the less.
Mandela was released from prison when I was ten years old. I remember the hushed, outraged grumblings, talking about how ‘those’ people celebrated by breaking bus windows and causing a general destructive ruckus. How ‘they’ were celebrating the release of a terrorist. I heard, but I didn’t ask too much and carried on in my blissfully ignorant existence. What I of course didn’t realize yet was how much he had done, how tirelessly he worked to change those wrongs that had touched my little life so mildly, how he labored to save me from believing the racist lie, and how significant that day was to the entire nation.
Mandela became president, and though I was not interested in politics but rather honing a fondness for shoes, I could see all the good that was being done in his name. My Granny read ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and often read out extracts to us. She had been a Boksburgian herself, but was thoroughly converted, discussing the importance and greatness of this man. We teased her by nick-naming her ‘Comrade Granny’, but I didn’t realize until later how those afternoons with her, listening to her in her bedroom, my own beliefs about racism and oppression were being shaped. He had done some terrible things, Granny explained, things that many people were not willing to forgive, (the same people, incidentally, who were more than happy to forget the terrible things that had been done to him and his family and friends first). He was fighting in a war I had not seen – a war for freedom. And he had done the time when convicted, coming out of prison with a more powerful weapon than before – Love. He forgave those who oppressed him, but did not accept the oppression and vowed to do everything he could for the freedom of ALL South Africans. Black, White, Coloured, Indian, Men, Women, Gay, Straight, Christian, Muslim, Jew – he committed the rest of his life’s work to the equality of us all. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” And that is what made him such a great man.
Rest in Peace, Tata Madiba.