It’s Just Not Fair

Face of InnocenceMy first time in South Africa was in the early months of 1998. The country was less than four years into its seismic shift of political power and tensions were palpable especially among the white population who, for many, were unable to see anything positive in the change.

Apartheid had been the lay of the land since 1948 and therefore was entrenched in several generations who knew no other way. The end of this sometimes brutal and always unfair system of power came to an end in 1994 when the country went to its first true democratic election and chose as their president Mr. Nelson Mandela.

I had traveled up the Garden Route from Cape Town, eventually stopping at Port Elizabeth where I booked a train to Johannesburg. It was on-board this train that I would be confronted in ways I had not anticipated; a token glimpse into the lives of black South Africans pre and post apartheid by a slice of rhetoric that has stuck with me ever since.

A conversation that so vividly portrayed misunderstanding and fear that to dismiss it as being the rambling or pea-cocking of one man would be tantamount to condoning. His words represented more than just himself. He included friends and peers in his comments many times, making me believe that his opinions were generally accepted among his layer of society. 

As I have said, this conversation took place in 1998 and my hope is that if I were to conduct the same interview today, with the same man, then his responses would differ greatly; at least that is my hope.

So began a train journey where I had the good fortune to be seated opposite a talkative, opinionated, and very candid man who disturbed me greatly. A twenty-three year old South African who explained the state of the country to me throughout our entire eighteen hour journey.

The words written below are from a journal I kept at the time in order to record my own experiences.

“What do you think about the end of apartheid?” was my opening question.

“I think it is a good thing ya. I am not a racist. If a black was to walk into this cabin now I would have no problem if he sat right here next to me…provided he doesn’t smell of course. You know they smell like kaka” and then he added without being asked, “Blacks cannot be trusted you know”.

I asked why he would say that and this led into a story about his grandmother and the maids who would always steal from her. A story so rife with condescension that I listened only; kind of stunned.

“What about Mandela, what do you think of him?”. I have to admit reading back over this conversation I am not sure I would ask the same questions under the same circumstances but whether it was youthful naivete or a wish to push the envelope given the answer to the first question, I cannot say.

“Mandela is a murderer and this country is now fucked up”. He goes on to explain how government workers are now enforcing restrictive land ownership for whites even if the land has been in the family for generations. He leans forward like someone about to reveal a secret and tells me that he, along with all his friends, want to leave the country; “there is no future for here for whites in South Africa.”

Our conversation circled this theme the entire journey; his demeanor calm and matter of fact; never once raising his voice in protest at my conflicting viewpoints. He was set in his opinions and they were no doubt generational in origin. Change was not going to come easy to him or for others like him over the coming years.

My opinion at the time, and one I wrote in my journal, was that “white South Africans are having an extremely difficult time relinquishing inbred supremacy. Even if they pretend to be equal they still feel superior yet are upset and disgusted that black South Africans are now in charge”. I felt a pang of guilt for being white.

“It’s just not fair”…the silent cry of the South African white man in 1998. South Africa quickly became a country from which whites fled.

In 2014 the BBC reported the following statement.

“Hundreds of thousands of whites left South Africa following the ANC’s landslide election victory in 1994. Twenty years on, the exodus shows signs of slowing, even reversing.”

In 2015 the Guardian reported the following statement from the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation regarding the continued racial tension and xenophobic crimes taking place in South Africa.

“Foreigners have fled for safety from a recent eruption of xenophobic violence in which at least five people have died, shops have been looted and torched, and South Africa’s reputation as a haven of tolerance for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of a turbulent continent has been shaken. “The fabric of the nation is splitting at the seams; its precious nucleus – our moral core – is being ruptured”

When I began to write this piece my intention was not to pick on South Africa nor was it my intention to be an alarmist regarding the state of affairs in another country. My intention was simply to record a conversation and research my hope regarding how time had healed the wounds of a diabolical system. My intention was to prove my hope true and be glad that South Africa had emerged as a beacon of how this kind of reconciliation should work.

I will keep my hope and revisit it another time.

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24 thoughts on “It’s Just Not Fair

  1. Sadly time is the only thing which can heal these kind of wounds – thankyou for writing such a personal piece Tim – it’s interesting to hear that people actually openly admit those kind of thoughts to a stranger out loud – kind of goes to the point that they truly believe what they’re saying to be true.

    I have been kind of detatched from my world politics recently, though had assumed that racial tensions in South Africa were long a thing of the past. Will keep hope with you also.

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  2. That must have been an intense time to visit. It’s always so sad to think about apartheid and racism–wish people could change a bit easier. Glad it’s moving in the right direction though–would love to visit South Africa one of these days!

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    1. But that’s the point of the post Jenna; it’s not moving in the right direction. The last few paragraphs talk about present day South Africa.

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  3. Raw post there, I loved it. It is amazing to see how people judge others, back then and now. I long for the day when the color or our skin does not form an opinion or attitude with others. Why can’t we all just “be”?

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  4. Thank you for the interesting read! I’ve been to South Africa once, only for one week. It felt like I saw multiple countries in those seven days. Some worlds are so far away from each other. There’s definately a lot of things going on still, I sincerely hope it’s all going to a better future.

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  5. I was in South Africa 1.5 year ago and even if things really improved since your visit I still could have seen some tension. It will take few more generations for South Afrikaans to change their attitude, sadly…

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    1. Thanks for the update Kami. I suspected as much and agree with you completely. When someone does not know they are racist, how do they change? That’s the big dilemma.

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  6. We have never been to South Africa and although we will go eventually and do look forward to it I also know these tensions are one of the thing that would be in our minds. It is interesting to hear about the situation from a different perspective from the media even if it is one which is not easy to hear. I wish people could just live together in peace but past events always taint the future.

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  7. Thanks for sharing it on your blog. It´s interesting how people think and it would be great to know how the person would think today.
    I cannot say anything about the situation in South Africa because I haven´t been there but it was interesting reading about it.

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    1. It would be very interesting to see if his views had changed…I suspect not but time changes many things so i could be completely wrong.

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  8. I often think of the Apartheid situaton in Africa, understanding India’s ties to it from way back when. But while I believe India will always have a “white people” fascination, the situation has been long forgotten over here.

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  9. Those are hard conversations to have, aren’t they? Trying to respect a person and their opinions when they go against everything you know as right – and then turning that into some sort of cultural insight that leaves you still with hope for the place and the people and the time. Here’s wishing that, by the time you make it back there, you have more reason to hold onto that hope.

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  10. Really interesting piece! I’m visiting south Africa for the first time in June and also plan to travel the Garden route from Cape Town. I will be travelling with my South African girlfriend who’s family left South Africa in 2008. I’m interested to see if she notices any change within the country, even in that short space of time!

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  11. Very interesting read, it was great to read about something different in a travel blog, not the usual stuff. Unfortunately racism in a latent or a more obvious form is still present almost everywhere, a post like this a great reminder. Thanks for sharing!

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  12. What an intense post Tim. And much kudos to you for keeping your journal as it would have been easy to second guess this interview in hindsight. It’s awful how slow things have been to turn around there, but the racism was so bad with white South Africans, that it’s a big hole to dig out of. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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    1. Thanks A.K.. I really had a tough time deciding if I would even post it but once I began researching the state of affairs in the very recent past I realized that it was still timely.

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  13. Tim — unfortunately racism and religious bias still exists, not only in South Africa, but it is in the news again here in the U.S. and certainly across the Middle East. People just cannot accept other people who aren’t just like them.

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  14. Keeping hope alive is what we can do, right? Because it takes many generations, I think, to change this very kind of thinking. It’s sad and as your essay is titled, it’s just not fair. I am embarrassed to say that I have not kept up with the political climate in South Africa, so I have no knowledge of what positive steps they are taking to promote equality.

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    1. This story took a turn I wasn’t expecting when I began. It was only supposed to be about a page I read in an old journal of mine but as I researched more modern news it appeared that surface changes had been made the underlying issues were alive and well. It struck me and I was more than a little surprised and saddened.

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