My childhood years were spent in a typical, “whites-only” suburb. The attractive houses prided themselves with exquisite English style gardens obscured by massive brick walls and heavy iron gates. Outside, the sidewalks were sprinkled with a kaleidoscope of colorful uniforms worn by the local maids and garden boys. The neighborhood sounds consisted of boisterous chatter and care-free laughter that came from the workers, sometimes from the white children. The atmosphere, from my perspective, was one of tranquility. Little did I understand the dark and desperate surroundings found in the townships and squatter camps only a few miles outside of our city. There, the tiny corrugated iron houses and cardboard shacks were squeezed in next to each other. They had the appearance of Lego blocks dumped out on a carpet by a two-year-old. There was no order, no gardens, no walls.
The schools I attended were Afrikaans schools, rich with opportunities and privileges. My time was filled with art classes, music lessons, photography, foreign languages and horseback riding clubs. Our teachers were well trained with fully equipped classrooms. Discipline was applied in and outside of the classroom. A holy fear for teachers and elders was demanded and an ever-immaculate appearance was the norm. Wearing shoes was optional though, and we pranced the streets with dirty feet just like real children of Africa. We were an all-white, Afrikaner school. This exclusiveness made sense to me since I was surrounded by my people who spoke my language and understood my way of life. I never knew or interacted with any black children my age, nor was I aware of the substandard education they received. This second-class schooling was due to a lack of government support. I was not concerned about this, since that had been the standard for many years.
No teacher ever taught us to hate black people. Our focus was instead directed to the brave, white South African. We learned about the Afrikaner’s rich contributions to Western society, our unique civilization and the great possibilities of our future. Our education focused on the unconquerable, brave Afrikaners. They fought many battles against the British and the African tribes who tried to rule the land. Finally, in 1910 South Africa became an independent country yet still clung to the prevailing feeling of white supremacy. It was only during my adult years that I realized my knowledge of South Africa’s history was partial.
I encountered black people every day of my life; however, my connection with them was superficial and reserved. There were the homeless relentlessly begging at our front door and the gas attenders, known as petrol jockeys, frolicking around our car while pumping the gas and cleaning the windshield. There were the cashiers at the stores, waiters in teashops and restaurants, garden boys and then of course, our maids.
My interaction with the maids was impersonal. We practically lived in the same house yet we were strangers to each other. In hindsight, there was one incident that gave me a peek into their world. Today, I feel honored to have shared this moment with them. We had a young, petite maid who worked for us in the late 1980s. Her name was Lina. I was unaware of the fact that she and her husband had been trying to have children for some time; however, her body was unable to carry a child to full term. She had several miscarriages over a period of five years.
I knew only of one pregnancy since her growing belly was hard to hide. When I was about fourteen years old, there was a knock on my bedroom door. To my surprise, it was the neighbor's maid standing at my door. She was clutching what seemed like a little package wrapped in old, wet newspapers. I was alarmed by the look of desperation on her face and asked if I could help her. She handed me the small package. It felt warm and confusingly heavy, “Please Miesies, you have to see if it is a boy or a girl!” she said with pleading eyes. I realized what I was holding. Lina had miscarried.
I knew that these women could not touch a corpse due to their religious beliefs. They had no option but to bring Lina’s small bundle to a white, naive teenager. I had never in my life seen a premature baby, let alone a dead, black baby. Dizziness and nausea wrapped around me like a dirty blanket. It took me a brief moment to steady my body. I noticed that more black ladies entered our house. They all came to support a grieving Lina, a mother who just lost her child in a tiny room, behind our house. I took the little weighted parcel to our living room and there, carefully unwrapped the soaked paper. I had no idea what I would find; nevertheless, there in front of me, lay the most beautiful, tiny boy I had ever seen. His features were perfect; his little bump of a nose, the tiniest hands and feet with little pearls for toes. It was a black baby, a lifeless, pale black child. Mixed emotions of awe and sadness overwhelmed me.
Carefully I rewrapped Lina’s package and went to the little room to deliver the news. The room was dark, filled with black faces and white, despondent eyes. Lina cried when I told her of her boy that would never be. Our eyes locked for a moment. I was at a loss of words. Who could understand a mother’s pain when her child was no more? It was a sad day. This was the most personal incident I shared with a black person. It was a glimpse into a woman’s life that was surprisingly real and not much different from mine. But we lived by a silent rule, a law that forced us apart. Everyone knew their place and crossing the boundaries was just not done.
Throughout my growing years, these women formed the backbone of our family’s daily lives. My parents, unlike many white employers, made sure our maids were well cared for, providing them with higher than average salaries, paying for their and their children’s needs, clothes, food and transport. They were indispensable to us. We always had delicious meals on the table and were served with trays of tea at least four times a day. Our beds were made and closets organized. Every room was consistently neat as a pin. The quality of their work was an indication to me of how much they enjoyed working for us. Or, could it have been that they were desperately holding onto a job in a country where every other black person was homeless?
At nights and over weekends the maid stayed in a tiny room on the land behind our house. This was their space. It was painted white on the inside and had a small, square window. There was enough room for an old closet, table and chair, and a bed that was strangely raised off the floor. It resting on four stacks of bricks. The elevated bed was to prevent the Tokoloshe, an evil, dwarf-like spirit, from climbing on top. This demon, the maids believed, was sent by the witch doctor to stab and bite people at night. That was just one of their many peculiarities we learned to live with.
We had maids who were not used to modern-day conveniences like soap, running water and electricity. My mother had to teach them basic necessities, for instance, how to use a toilet, cook with a stove and run a vacuum cleaner. I can remember the mud painted across their faces, their towering headgear, bare feet and distinct body odors. There were also the dignified, civilized workers who cleaned the house with a toothbrush, cooked gourmet meals and who ironed even our underwear. They were the ones who did not think twice about giving me spankings with the feared wooden spoon whenever I misbehaved.
Every day we lived within close proximity from each other. White and black. They knew our lives from the inside out. Did I know theirs? I can still call to mind all our maids’ names: Johanna, Sophia, Louisa, Anna, Lina, Rosina, Betty and Katrina. If I were asked whether they were married, had children or if they were happy, I would not have been able to say. Some stayed with us for years, others did not fit into our little world.
I grew up in a shielded environment. My awareness of the complicated racial issues that the country faced was very limited and came from watching the news and hearing adult conversation. I was ignorant of the economic sanctions, violence and unrest happening all over the country. My father, however, due to his position in the South African Defense Force, had to face and deal with the reality of Apartheid every day. In 1983, a car bomb outside an Air Force building took the lives of 19 people, and wounded 217 SADF members and civilians. I can remember watching the devastation on the news, but did not realize that my father was one of the intended targets. After this incidence, our property’s security was increased. Electric gates, alarm systems and guards were placed around the house. My protective father reassured us that there was nothing to worry about, and laughingly joked about the extra attention he was getting. In reality the situation was just another example of Apartheid at work.
Apartheid started to unravel in the beginning of 1990. The nation was ready for a change. In 1992 there was a referendum for whites only where we had to vote a simple “Yes” or “No”. “Yes” to end Apartheid or “No” to oppose democracy. The result was an overwhelming “Yes”. We, the whites, wanted Apartheid to end. Our president at the time, F.W de Klerk, released Nelson Mandela from prison and in 1994 the first ever multiracial election took place. South Africa was declared a new country with a new parliament and new, black President. People all over the world were celebrating the end of Apartheid.
It has been 23 years since the death of Apartheid. Like blossoms in early spring, signs of new life can be seen in the country. All-white neighborhoods are now proudly boasting a rainbow of cultures: Whites, Blacks, Asian, Middle Eastern, European. The churches are overflowing with multiple races, together worshipping and dancing to the African drum. School grounds have black and white children playing their childish games hand in hand as friends.
Nevertheless, change takes a very long time. We still have maids cleaning our houses and ironing our clothes. The gas still gets pumped by dancing young black men. Street corners and sidewalks are overcrowded by panhandlers and the homeless. The squatter camps and townships have not moved. Riots, strikes and discrimination have not ceased.
The extensive separation of blacks and whites has caused a deep, ugly wound. It may still take years for us to work through the pain, rejection and indoctrination of the past. Healing is stifled where forgiveness and mercy does not continually flow. We, the proud Afrikaners, need to humbly acknowledge a just God’s unconditional love for all men, then only can we truly befriend and love our neighbors. The book of first John clarifies this: “We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19.
When I watch my little nieces play with their black friends from across the street, I cannot help but feel hopeful. They look straight into each other’s eyes, without shame, fear or guilt. They gladly share their food and toys, their secrets and dreams. There is a curiosity and an excitement to explore each other’s world. This new generation see each other as fellow human beings, not as strangers separated by a silent mandate.
South Africa has a beautiful national anthem. It contains five different languages that signifies unity amidst diversity. It is a plea for the blessing of God that will stop wars and strife, a prayer for peace and freedom. This has become my song that I pray to God over South Africa:
“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo, Yizwa imithandazo yethu,Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso, O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho, O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso, Setjhaba sa South Afrika – South Afrika. Uit die blou van onse hemel, Uit die diepte van ons see, Oor ons ewige gebergtes, Waar die kranse antwoord gee, Sounds the call to come together, and united we shall stand, let us live and strive for freedom, In South Africa our land.”
“Lord, bless Africa. May her spirit rise high up. Hear thou our prayers, Lord bless us. Lord, bless Africa, banish wars and strife. Lord, bless our nation of South Africa. Ringing out from our blue heavens, from our deep seas breaking round, over everlasting mountains, where the echoing crags resound. Sounds the call to come together, and united we shall stand. Let us live and strive for freedom, in South Africa our land.”