What do you do when you’re an eleven year old kid in a – for all intents and purposes – foreign country where even your own home feels unsafe? That was what it was like when my family moved from Canada to South Africa in the early 1990s. After the initial glow of newness wore off I realized that the land of my birth, a country I hadn’t seen since I was 4 years old and then only for a year and a half, was a pretty disturbed place. Here I was, in a school with children who spoke Afrikaans, not English, and where it was life-threatening to form relationships with people whose skin-colour was different from my own.
I really wanted to love my birth country. My family was proud of its Afrikaner heritage and expected the same of me. And yet I felt confused, not proud, as the apartheid-era rhetoric filled my ears. Our return was four years before Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first black president of this nation and there was chaotic, even dangerous energy in the air. No one knew whether we would end up with a civil war on our hands. And in this mix of political angst and outdated Afrikaner pride I emerged uncertain of how to shape my own identity.
At eleven, I was still puzzling over what racism meant. Canada, too, had had its share of discrimination – as I’d seen myself in Prince George, where First Nations children were ostracized for their dirty clothes and different ways. But it’s different when you form part of the (white) majority seeing your peers discriminate against the (Native) few. You know it’s wrong but you can sort of forget about it. Those who are marginalized, you know, can’t really fight back.
In South Africa, though, things were different. Afrikaners numbered approximately 6 million in a country of close to 30 million black people. We were the minority who had somehow taken power away from the majority and were holding on for dear life. In fact, we held onto power so tightly because we thought that giving it up would mean our own massacre. The massacre didn’t happen of course – largely thanks to leaders such as Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others preaching the value of forgiveness and reconciliation. I think a lot of Afrikaners were skeptical whether this approach could work. As were many, I am sure, black people who felt no desire to forgive and move forward together.
There have been ups and downs on the road to recovery. I no longer live in South Africa so cannot speak on how far we’ve come. The last time I visited, in 2004, a new black middle class had begun to emerge. But HIV was wiping out generations of South Africans and crime was at an all-time high. Was that progress? The poor were still largely poor and the political arena was rife with charges of corruption. A “brain drain” was occurring – with those with education and means seeking out opportunities in foreign lands instead of engaging in the difficult task of rebuilding a country that had been through so much. But there have been positive changes too. South Africa successfully hosted the World Cup Soccer in 2010. South African trade is thriving again on the international stage with the lifting of sanctions after the fall of Apartheid. And a new generation of post-apartheid youth are stepping forward to lead the way to a fair and equitable society.
As for me, I am still sorting out how to shape my own identity. I no longer proclaim loudly to the world that I am an Afrikaner. Why would I when – even to me – that word conjures up images of township massacres, political prisoners and repressive policies? I am still teasing apart the legacy of oppression that is my birthright, learning how to convert it into a constructive force. I have severed ties from the community that spawned me – from the biological family that I once belonged to. I have committed myself to forging new bonds with those who, like me, want to create a future that is inclusive of all of us, regardless of skin colour, race, sexual orientation, gender expression, or class.
I believe it is in the sharing of things, ideas, wealth, that we allow each other to flourish.