What it was like growing up white under Apartheid. Or: why I care about a world in flames.


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?
Idelette McVicker
I like soggy cereal and I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women. I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth. My word last year was “roar” and I learned it’s not about my voice rising as much as it is about our collective voices rising in unison to bring down walls of injustice. This year, my own word is “soar.” I have three children and this place–right here, called shelovesmagazine.com–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen. Give me sweet chai and I think I’m in heaven. I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 11 years ago. I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us. I blog at idelette.com and tweet @idelette.
Idelette McVicker

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Idelette McVicker
  • Thank you Idelette. As a white South African you help me to start to understand the awakening, of some white Afrikaners. Thank you for your brittle honesty, but also your brave work and this, is not insignificant. Its doing a lot.
    BTW: I also stayed in Paarl, but I attended school at Ebenezer Primary School, on the ‘rug’; My world was part of the ‘other side’.. the darner side of town.

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  • Kelley Johnson Nikondeha

    ‘ injustice outside of ourselves also affects the very freedom inside of us.’ powerful words.

    I grew up as a middle-class white girl in Orange County, CA… the lap of luxury by most standards. Marrying an African, adopting two African children, befriending many more Africans and traveling / residing on the continent are all episodes that opened my eyes to deep injustices.

    I never knew… really. In the early 90s I was busy graduating from college and beginning my life in Santa Barbara. I missed the horror of the Rwandan genocide and the redemption of Mandela’s release, and later the glory of his election. I didn’t know… it is what I say, not as a defense… or is it? As a child of great privilege, I had the luxury of not paying attention as the world burned (in horror or with bright redemptive glory). How sad that privilege can buy you so much diversion from truth…

    Now, like you, I feel I cannot ignore injustice anywhere. I no longer want that luxury… I want to be a voice, I want to be an advocate, I want to follow Jesus into the hard places – because I know He is present with those who suffer.

  • @Reggie, thank you so much for your words. I think you might suspect how much it means. I can’t wait for the day we may share a meal together as families and talk God, stories and justice. Thank you for being part of my long journey into Freedom.

  • @Kelley You really nailed it with these two thoughts for me: ” I had the luxury of not paying attention.” And “How sad that privilege can buy you so much diversion from truth… ” // Wow. Thank you …

  • Carol cardinal


    • @Carol, you always make my day brighter. And yes, YOUR story is definitely important. Love you too. xo

  • Please never stop telling your story – it will never be old. Thank you for allowing it to cause an awakening in so many others. You bring awareness and hope and create a desire to not allow injustices to happen on our watch.

    Thanks – I love and value you more than words can say. xoxo

    • @Helen Thank you so much … I am so grateful to be part of the Sisterhood you began in us.

  • I’ve been thinking about this whole move from indifference, through guilt, towards responsibility a lot lately. Thank you for articulating it in such a beautiful way.

    • @Cobus “From indifference, through guilt, towards responsibility.” That’s the only way, for me, this story has any redemptive value.//Thank you for your encouragement and your own struggle through this.

      @Lyn Dankie, Lyn. Thank you for your honesty and sharing some of your struggle. Thank you for adding your voice. And prayers are definitely needed, for all of us.

  • Dankie Idelette, en dankie Reggie! And thank you also to the rest of you for your comments. You open doors windows through your stories that help all of us grow. My awakening was much slower, and in many ways shaped by my involvement with HIV and the church and how this exposed me to a wider Africa and South Africa.
    Because of this journey I can today say with you, as a fifty year old white Afrikaner, “I’d rather march, write and speak for freedom than live white and tight in the diminishing that injustice brings.” But for me, and in me, in so many ways, this also remains a struggle. I pray for all of us – “aluta contiua!”

  • Sjoe, meisie.

    Ons tel nog elke dag die stukkies op hier. En soms het ons ook die skreiende luukse om hulle te laat lê en te hoop iemand anders sal die hart hê om hulle op te tel. Mag ons weet waar om te vat en waar om te los. Mag ons weet om bowenal hande te vat.

    So well worded and concise, yet deeply heartfelt. I guess you’ve had some time to think about it. Thank you for asking no poor-little-rich-girl pity, but still inviting others to understand. And WELL DONE for the guts to post this story. It shows that you have indeed come a long way from the all too familiar guilt and shame.

    • @Cara, ek hou van hoe jy se: “om bowenal hande te vat.” //It’s so crucial to walk this out together. That “togetherness” is such a key word. Thank you for your words.

  • Sharon Starratt

    You sound the alarm to wake us up to be’mountain movers’

  • Wit Broodjie

    Well done Idelette! I notice that you are still sleeping through most things happening in your life. (neighbour’s fire + apartheid) What an interesting post – after 20 years you’re still breaking the freedom of apartheid.

    I watched Mandela’s release as a school boy – it was a big event for us in Paarl. We knew that nothing would ever be the same again. Like all things it was only the finale to a long political course.

  • Wit Broodjie

    – carrying on…
    I feel that you are 20 years to late – things have changed – we’re living in a new South Africa. I am not surprised that you do not stay here. The African reality would probably be too much.

    Why do we always have outsiders like you commenting on our country? Why do white people always want to make Africa better? What is wrong with Africa? If you understood Africa, you would know that THIS is Africa.

  • @Sharon Thank you so much for being part of the awakening and the moving of the mountains.

    @Wit Broodjie Thank you for your opinion.

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  • Idelette, I love this idea for a magazine. Well done friend.

    • Thank you, Jonathan! One of the reasons I felt really all over the place in writing my contributions for The Practice of Love, because it came right as I was burping and changing this baby in its infancy. But I knew I had to participate in what you were giving expression to-Love being in the air and all. So appreciate what you are doing, Jonathan.

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  • Lamoy



    world in flames indeed you braindead bitch.
    i hope you are raped to death by the niggers you love so much.

  • Lamoy

    Lol. noticed two of your other articles have the word “honor” in them. as if you have the slightest concept of honor.

  • Hasan Ahmed

    there is more i feel. so write Idelette….i will read

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