Read: a footnote in South African history
My dearest darling Gussy,
On the day you arrived on your first visit to South Africa, we heard the news that this country’s greatest leader, Nelson Mandela, had passed away at the age of 95. Then, on Sunday 15 December 2013 you were baptised, it was your father and my 3rd wedding anniversary and Madiba was laid to rest in Qunu in the Eastern Cape (don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to pronounce that one day). I simply cannot pass up the opportunity to tell you a piece of family history, in the context of these auspicious events.
You see, you were born in England, but you have African blood that runs through your veins. Not just African, but Afrikaner blood. You are very lucky to have this hybrid identity – it makes you an interesting person with interesting stories to share. It is very important to me that you understand what that means and that you know where you come from.
Since Nelson Mandela’s health started to wane earlier this year, people began to write about what he had meant to them and what he had done for South Africa. I guess this is my version, my contribution to the collective history. You see, every South African has a ‘Mandela story’. People who have either met him, nearly met him, known somebody who has met him or nearly met him, or was once in the same room/building/town as him.
Our family also has a Mandela story, but first, you need to understand that when I was young, uttering his name in the wrong company could get you into serious trouble. This is hard to believe now when you see his name on every billboard here and his iconic face printed smilingly on every second t-shirt. There was a time when he was certainly not in vogue in polite conversation and considered a terrorist, communist and a sinister threat by most White Afrikaners. Now everybody loves him and wants to be associated with him and what he represents. How did that happen? What took place for such a shift to occur in a few short decades?
If Nelson Mandela is an example of anything, it is that one person can change the way he or she sees the world – we all have the innate ability to change…for the good. For me this is his legacy. So how is our family involved and how did we change?
In the early part of the 20th Century, South Africa was ruled by a minority of White Afrikaners. They instituted a policy called Apartheid that benefited and promoted white people above all races in every aspect of society, schooling, healthcare, housing, public services. If you were any other race, you received inferior versions of the above, and many many more. They did this because they believed white people were superior and more evolved, they even preached this from their pulpits, declaring that God agreed with this viewpoint. I won’t go into the full effects of how this impacted the country, but I will say this: although our white Afrikaner family worked hard for things and weren’t particularly wealthy, systematically we benefited from this terribly skewed law. There were no handouts, but doors were certainly wide open and opportunities for excellent education were there and jobs followed. This meant that I too gained from this.
But here’s where the story gets a bit interesting. Both my oupas were members of the Ossewa Brandwag, not particularly active, but members nonetheless. This organisation was for white Afrikaner men who fully supported the Apartheid ideaology and didn’t think Hitler was all that wrong either. So my parents grew up in this context and had every reason just to carry on with their lives like good little Afrikaner boys and girls were expected to. Except that they didn’t. In their early twenties they made life choices that enabled them to be surrounded by open minded and free thinking people, and they soon realised that Apartheid was not only wrong but fundamentally unChristian.
By the time I was born South Africa was becoming a politically charged place, because when you try to suppress a majority of people, there is bound to be resistance. Children in townships threw bricks at armoured police vehicles – a seemingly futile retort but the minority government was frightened. The security police became more covert, more people were arrested, tortured and the rest of the world imposed strict sanctions as a way show their disapproval.
My parents joined a multifaith and multiracial group of South Africans who wanted democracy. Early on in this phase of the country’s history, known as ‘the struggle’ there were whispers of a true leader who could bring about peace and restore the brokenness of the country: Nelson Mandela. At that time he was already serving his long prison sentence on a small island off the coast of South Africa, but even from that outpost he had the ability to inspire hope and simultaneously strike fear into people’s hearts.
People of the struggle wanted Mandela to be freed from prison. There was no way that this would ever happen because he was locked up for good. But they hoped, prayed to all their gods, campaigned and the struggle continued relentlessly. Not everyone took part in violent protest. But everyone showed solidarity in whatever way they could. For my parents, this meant attending and connecting with people in this multifaith organisation. Black people would pull up outside our house for meetings in our white suburb and the neighbours sometimes called the police. My dad was part of a ‘silent’ protest for some time where he would catch a ‘white bus’ in the mornings with colleagues from other races. This was kindly observed by the Canadian ambassador, whose presence meant that my dad and his co-conspirators were never arrested. Oom Willem, my godfather, wore a t-shirt in public (sometimes) with the slogan ‘Free Mandela!’. It sparked outrage, which I think he enjoyed. He was openly opposed to Apartheid. One night, a mysterious bullet was fired through is bedroom window. He would surely have been killed had he not been doing press-ups at the that very moment. The humour of this situation was not lost on him. But we were all shaken by that.
My mom attended many rallies with other women and would lose her temper with the police who surrounded a church where they were meant to be meeting with ugly barbed wire. One of them made the mistake of calling her a ‘lady’ (this was during her raging feminist days) and I guess he didn’t expect such a fierce reaction from just a white Afrikaner woman from the suburbs.
These are just a few examples, there are so many many more things that happened during this crazy time. My parents’ actions may appear insignificant in the greater scheme of things but they paid a price for it. They had no support from their families. They were labelled as ‘communist’, a label which still stings a bit today. My dad was asked to leave the church where he was a minister because of his political views. But they had the courage of their conviction and wanted Nelson Mandela to be freed. They stuck their necks out when it was inconvenient and awkward.
But then the miracle happened and Nelson Mandela was freed and South Africa did become a democracy. And the country didn’t plunge into the doom that the Afrikaners thought it would. He could have chased all the whites into the sea but he didn’t. And slowly, over time, everyone realised what he stood for and began to see things his way. He inspired people to change, because he had also changed. That’s why today there is only a handful of South Africans who don’t admire him.
Your oupa once shook hands with Nelson Mandela when he received an honourary doctorate from Unisa (every university has given him an honorary doctorate, by the way!). Oupa was the Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the time and met him briefly before the academic procession took to the stage. When he introduced himself, Nelson Mandela’s eyes lit up and he said ‘Oh, did you write the dictionary?’. It wasn’t him but oupa’s uncle, MSB Kritzinger, who compiled the well known Afrikaans dictionary. Oupa explains that with 27 years at his disposal, Nelson Mandela chose to spend them furthering his studies and learning Afrikaans, the very language of his oppressor.
So Gus, what I want you to take from this is:
no situation is ever hopeless
it is important to stand up for your beliefs
your oupa and ouma are truly brave people from whom you can learn a great deal
Nelson Mandela’s legacy will impact on your life too
Love you big boy