Although I’ve never lived in a world with an incarcerated Mandela, I was nonetheless born slightly too early to qualify as one of those ‘Born Free’ kids – those young South Africans lucky enough to have arrived after what we think of as the end of apartheid, of racism, of oppression – those special children we hoped would live their lives untainted by the scars of our traumatic past. Too young to have any memory of it, I often imagine the sense of hope and optimism that must have hung around that new dawn for those who had suffered through the dark days of apartheid. Real, profound change, unfortunately, very rarely turns out to be that categorical, and now, more than two decades after the birth of the ‘new’ South Africa and nearly three decades since my own, I find myself living in and trying to love a country where fear, mistrust and hatred abound, where we’re far more likely see our neighbour as a threat than a person just like ourselves.
I suppose every country has their own particular pathology that makes them unique, and here in South Africa ours, or at least one of them, and not without good reason, is our deep obsession with race. We cannot help but see our world like this – its in our bones. Despite the fact that we know that the entire concept is a lie and a myth, its effects are all around us. Furthermore, we live with the irony that its normally those who claim never to see race who at the most fault for perpetuating its problems.
For my part, I find myself something of a racial conundrum. Born and raised in Cape Town by two coloured parents; one who grew up steeped in some of those gorgeous jumbles of far-flung influences that make up coloured culture, the other classified as such due to the comical absurdity of apartheid logic, the hilarity stifled only by the traumatic consequences of it forever alienating a small child from his otherwise Indian family.
While I comfortably tick ‘coloured’ on government forms and as the answer to the almost mandatory inquiries of any new acquaintance, I fit in on the Cape Flats much like a polar bear in the Sahara Desert, constantly scorched by the flippant, callous racism of so many of my otherwise lovely coloured aunties and uncles. With my indisputably Indian appearance and my childhood spent attending formerly-white-(still-currently-white) schools, one might understand me feeling somewhat adrift in a place where one’s racial box is so intimately tied to one’s actual fate, of how the world sees you – and how you see yourself
To complicate matters even further, I grew up in a home where my activist parents, having not forgotten their lessons in Black Consciousness, have never thought of them and their children as anything less than black. Questions of the, “Mommy are we coloured?” variety where invariably answered with: “Boy, you’re a proper darkie, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Though I’ve always worn that slur, and the designation as ‘black’ in general, as a badge of honour, I found myself rudely evicted from my briefly inhabited racial identity with the scorn and rejection received from those who’d refer to themselves as ‘actual’ blacks – for all its faults, apartheid was incredibly successful at making those who they oppressed take an active part in oppressing each other.
Besides this, leaving home in Cape Town, with its distinct, quieter and I think more insidious, flavour of race relations, for Johannesburg I earned myself a further point of awkward difference – a Cape Townian in Joburg while at the same time, though somewhat more of a relief, a Joburger in Cape Town during my perennial trips back home.
More important for these purposes, however, is the fact that in the instability of my identity and having to constantly re-navigate my understanding of people from different backgrounds and levels of experience, I’ve so often had to confront the sudden appearance of my own prejudices and their commonality with those of others, always surprised at the efficiency of its camouflage; little invisible biases hidden in almost every nook and cranny of my being. In the end this has made me acutely aware of what I think is an eternal truth: you cannot get rid of what you don’t even know is there.
For many years I couldn’t help but walk around with the feeling of being a foreigner in every potential identity, fitting easily into no box, which in this South Africa is somewhat akin to being without a home.
These days, I’ve come to understand my particular situation somewhat differently – I’m not simply a child of nowhere. I am a child of everywhere.
My generation – the youth of South Africa – know that things cannot go on as before. We are no longer content with the meagre victories of 1994. At the same time, the solution is in many ways, so much more opaque. There is no clear enemy – no monolithic National Party government at whom to direct our anger and despair.
In all those years feeling myself as an alien, I think I was taught a lesson that may be of some use: every instance of hate, prejudice or discrimination I’ve seen has had at its cause the exact same root – ignorance. Humans are all pretty much the same in that what we do not know, we fear. And more often than not, if not swiftly dealt with, that fear turns to hate.
My experience of discomfort in so many situations has taught me that the most racist people are those who have never met and never spoken to very many of those towards whom their distaste is directed. Similarly, those who have surprised me by their tolerance and acceptance of difference have invariably been people who listen – who wear their ignorance on their sleeves, ready to admit their prejudices but being open to correction.
In a country with so much racism, there don’t seem to be very many racists. Our national motto could very well be, “I’m not racist but…” This has resulted in the fact that if not taking place in and with those of our small, safe corner of the South African cultural landscape, much of our communication takes place at, not with, one another – with our fists closed in our pockets, ready to fight and defend ourselves at the first sign of threat.
Perhaps we’ll find a little more success, maybe even a little peace, if we changed that South African motto slightly: “I am a racist, but I want to be better.”