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 and censored 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 a very early "township tour." A raw precursor of current tourist tours. He wanted white people to set foot in these black and brown satellite communities that circled every city and town, the result of apartheid legislation stating that white and non-white must live separately. Apartheid means separateness, literally. Its legacy persists. He wanted people to talk to people. We had been taught to be afraid of the townships. That fear persists 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.


  1. Politics ( and my very vocal opinions of Dr. Verwoerd) kept me out of your country.
    "I had no idea" was the phrase I heard from so many.It was a long time before I realised that that was true.They had no idea.

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

    I have a suggestion. It involves a very unhappy cat spending hours in an unattractive grey box.

  3. Your generation was so fractured, but is it different now? Is there contact among the younger ones? Cohesion? Some? I grew up in a white New England rural town in the 1950s and never saw a black person until adulthood when I went away in 1967. Now I live in a town nearby and I am often the minority at events or town meetings and it all seems so silly from before.

    My sons played ice hockey on a team in town where there were kids of every stripe. I asked my 11 year old one time what his mixed race teammate Ty was --- Indonesian? black? what? My son's answer: Ty? He's a right wing, Mom.

    My generation and theirs are worlds apart. Not perfect, not right, not yet. But worlds apart. Do you know young people in SA, those born after the mid 1990s? Can they understand the singers at the car park?

    It changes faster than we can change with it sometimes, and we don't see it. Maybe.

  4. I've been waiting for this post, Marie. South Africa is so beautiful, but the cameras in the trees and the very tall walls had me wondering what must be your experience growing up there. The Watts Riots occurred while I was in high school. Just twenty miles away from my home. During the Civil Rights movement, there was no in depth coverage on the news and all I knew was what was covered in a five minute nightly report. I never knew a person of color until I moved to Berkeley. Thank you for sharing this post.

  5. Ah Marie. Thank you for your honest and beautiful words (that have me crying at my desk on a Monday morning). I second Vince. Yesterday we were driving home from Kogelberg along Baden Powell and all of Cape Town was out. Fishing, swimming, braaing, flirting, playing along that gorgeous stretch of coastline. I turned to Don and said 'I love days like these, I feel so much a part of our country'. I can't quite put words to it. Sometimes I feel irreparable damage has been done, and sometimes, like yesterday, I think it's all going to be all right.

  6. I'm with Beence on this one. Coz

  7. All of your posts have been so beautiful and interesting. This one is important.
    Thank you.

  8. I grew up in the South, that South, in the days of separate water fountains and separate bathrooms... fortunately with one parent who thought that things should change. Some days I am pleased at how much has changed in the U.S., but more often I am sad that it is not changing faster. I don't think I will live to see racial calmness, but I think it is coming and that Laurrie is right. The children don't care, so there is hope.

    My wish is that it will happen faster in SA. Perhaps they/you can learn from our experience here and speed up the transition there.

    An important post indeed.

  9. I do not understand. You were against apartheid. Apartheid ended many years ago. Why do you live In the US when you could live in post apartheid SA and build the society you theoretically dreamed about? It is funny how many white South Africans there are on the US or UK when now you are free of apartheid.

  10. Your words are so honest. I suspect there are people from many parts of this world who struggle with the injustices in their homeland. Ours included. All the pretty flowers and vistas do not erase or cover the ugliness of the past, but we can only move forward. I imagine you are missing your husband and cat. It may be time to go home:-)

  11. I wanted to respond to this the other day, but too much for the moment I was in. I am constantly challenged by friends and acquaintances who point out the racism that occurs too often and every day in our country. I have to grapple with the feeling that I do not want to deal with what is still happening, and not dealing is pretty easy as a white man under white institutions. I thank those friends who re-orient my perspective and I'm constantly challenged when I become aware of my own racism. There are many bloggers talking about race in the US or racism in general, because honestly it's the same no matter where we are.

  12. The artist's street art (, always makes me smile, gives me hope.
    Our country has gone through alot of pain but it IS recovering - I believe that.

    From Cape Town resident that loves to be South African :)


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