My 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.