I’ll be honest: writing this is fighting every voice in my head that says this story is old. Or, Nobody really cares. Or the voice that shouts: What does a white Afrikaner girl, privileged under Apartheid, have to offer the world from the story of South Africa? But then I get asked, again and again: What was it like growing up under Apartheid?
I noticed my answers are what shape my story now. They have become the reasons I care so much about being awake to injustice. So, I’ll answer:
- It was like living inside a giant, white bubble.
I grew up in a white house with a pool for Paarl’s 40-degree-heat in summer and no dog. I wore a school uniform to a crisp white public school. I played tennis and netball and, like a good Afrikaner girl, attended the Dutch Reformed Church on Sundays. I walked back home through the all-white neighbourhood and ate a traditional Sunday lunch: roasted lamb, potatoes, cauliflour with a béchamel sauce, gravy and a green salad.
We had a microwave, but not a dishwasher. Three channels on TV. A space heater in the kitchen for cold, wet Cape Town winters.
I had lots of friends and none of them were black.
- It was like having my face turned to a very small story & missing the really important one.
While the world watched the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11, 1990 from the Victor Verster Prison probably less than five miles away from my childhood home, I was completely wrapped up in my Grade 12 microcosm. Perhaps I was waiting for some trumpets to announce how big and important this day would be in the history of South Africa and the world. Like when Princess Diana and Prince Charles got married in July 1981 and our whole elementary school watched the wedding on a big screen in the assembly hall. It said something to my Grade 3 brain. Something about “Sit up and take notice. This is an important day.”
There was no assembly at our school to watch Mandela’s release. Instead I probably went to tennis practice after school, rode my bike home, watched Family Ties and missed a gigantic moment in history happening a 10-minute car ride away. It might as well have happened in another world.
- It was like sleeping through the fire that burned down my neighbor’s house.
A few weeks before Christmas last year, we got an unusual phone call from my sister-in-law at 7am. She’d just caught a clip on the early morning news about a house on our street that had burned down in the night. I was skeptical.
“You live on 58A, right?” she said.
“Yes, but we didn’t hear any sirens. It couldn’t have been here.”
“I’m sure they said 58A Ave.” She sounded convinced.
Phone in hand, I bounced out the front door in my pyjammies. I couldn’t see any burning houses, smell any smoke or hear any sirens from the front door. I walked right into the middle of the street, but still no signs of a blaze. Just the wind danced with a few plastic garbage lids in the cold morning air.
That afternoon, on the way home after school pick-ups, I took a left turn at the bottom of our street, instead of a right, and found the house.
I sat in the car, stunned that such a big event could happen right on our street, while our whole household slept right through it. I didn’t think it was possible not to hear and not to wake up to a fire. (For one, my three-year-old son goes gaga over a firetruck!) But if my sis-in-law hadn’t called, we still would have been blissfully unaware.
Growing up white in South Africa under Apartheid was like sleeping soundly in a comfortable house while my neighbors’ homes and shacks–just a few kilometers away in the black township on the other side of the cypress trees–were burning down.
Staying Hungry and Awake
I would like to hope it’s impossible to grow up in such great Injustice and not be awake to the many fires in our world today. Through many conversations and even more prayers, the shame and guilt I first felt have been replaced with a sense of responsibility and a fire in my belly.
Now I want to look Injustice in the face and point a big fat finger at it. I want to call others to come and look at it. I want to rise up against it and join the crowd of freedom fighters, whatever that rising up for me might look like.
I want to be part of making that 7am wake-up call.
Some might ask, why should a Christ-follower care? For many reasons, but especially because injustice outside of ourselves also affects the very freedom inside of us. I have learned that freedom—of nations and individuals—is not merely political. In the solitude of my home, during quiet times in the presence of God, I am still untying the cords of injustice that had wrapped itself so tightly around my spirit and my destiny, thanks to the heritage of Apartheid.
My cry for freedom, my incessant pointing of fingers at the injustices of our time, now rises out of an understanding expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
When the fathers of Apartheid created a system to keep others down, they didn’t realize how they were diminishing the destiny in their own seed. They didn’t get how it’s impossible to limit and contain others and not be limited and contained yourself. They didn’t understand the law of mutuality.
Every one of our stories matter.
Now I know from my own story how we are all tied in that single garment of destiny. That’s why the destiny of the people in Egypt matters. Or a referendum in Sudan. That’s why the story of the woman trafficked across a border into Thailand matters. That’s why it matters where our chocolate comes from. That’s why it matters when another woman in the Congo gets raped.
I might not be able to do much, but I can do something.
Here’s the thing: I’d rather march, write and speak for freedom than live white and tight in the diminishing that injustice brings. That’s why every day needs to be an awake day.
To echo former President Nelson Mandela: It is a long walk to Freedom, indeed.
- Thoughts? I’d really really love to hear yours …
- What resonates with you?
- Why do you think it’s important to tell our stories?
- What have you learned out of your own story?
- How has your story shaped the way you live your life?