Sunday, February 5, 2012

At Home


I passed these walls on Queen Victoria Street on Saturday. It was hot. Very hot. The sky was solid blue. I had walked through The Company Gardens (first planted in 1652 by the Dutch) for the first time in years and was returning to the parked car, where the female car guard had called me sister. The trees in The Gardens made thick green shade. As I walked under an enourmous magnolia with plate-sized white blooms, I heard singing. Nearby stood a semi circle of black people, young, old, some children, dressed smartly, singing. I did not know what they were singing. Or why. It was beautiful. It may have been a hymn. It may have been a Struggle song. Part of the reason my eyes pricked and my throat tightened was that I did not understand them. Because I belong to a generation apart. That's what apartheid was. It separated us, by school, by geography, by language.


I remember standing in my headmistress's - Mrs Mackintyre's - office at Rustenburg Girls High, trying to sell a grand plan: to swap schools with students at a black township school. Six of them here, in the bright white buildings around the green grassy quadrangle, and six of us there, in the dusty township. I wrote many pages in blue inked cursive to justify and explain my wish. I put my pages in a plastic binder and she read them. I think. She told me it could not be done. My parting plea to her was, Mrs Mackintyre, apartheid will end, because it is inevitable, and it will end in my lifetime. And we won't be able to understand each other, because we have not grown up together.

My father was involved in a case concerning the extreme violence in the townships in the mid to late 80's. On the surface it appeared to be a vicious internal squabble between residents, characterized by widespread arson, murder and necklacing (the placing of a petrol soaked tyre around the neck before burning. Our government sponsored television at the time showed a film clip, on the nightly news, a clip of a woman burning to death this way. I can never forget it.). The factional fighting was in fact a fight stoked by agents provocateurs and the South African Police. My father appeared against the police. His instructing attorneys from the Legal Resources Centre, an NGO, were Matthew Walton and Steve Kahanovitz and his junior advocates Paul Pretorius and Dulah Omar. Because that case was so drawn out, years in the running, these men, especially the first three, became part of our lives, and their passion and belief in justice influenced me profoundly. I developed a crush on at least one of them.

I haven't thought about them in a long time. If you sit here long enough, though, you start to think. I found a  lengthy transcript of a 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearing regarding what we called the KTC  case.

At that  time I had also met a man named Pro Jack, a dark bundle of warmth and infectious enthusiasm, with whom I, a group of adults and some politicians took what must have been the first ever township tour. He wanted white people to see that there were real people, with real lives, and real ordinary goodness and problems (big problems), living there. He wanted people to talk to people. We had been taught to be afraid of the townships. That fear persists even now.

I Googled Pro Jack, not ten seconds ago. He was shot dead in 1991. By members of his own party. Apparently - it's not clear at all. I had no idea.

And that is what so many of us say:

"I had no idea."

I don't know where I'm going with this. I was just going to post a picture of a wall and some graffiti. But no matter how American I may have become, I am South African.

I'm just not sure what to do about it.
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