The first ever truly democratic election in South Africa’s history took place on April 27, 1994 – just over eight months before I was born. My mother must have been pregnant with me. This is somehow the first time I’m realizing this.
Although Apartheid claimed its official chokehold on South Africa in 1948, my country had not known freedom since 1652, when Europeans first settled in the Cape, at the southern-most tip of Africa. They named it the Cape of Good Hope as they claimed a land that was not theirs.
Twenty-two million people showed up to vote. Despite numerous threats of violence, it was completely peaceful. A nation’s grief and turmoil and anger and confusion fell silent as Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress became President Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress. This peace was a miracle, I was told again and again growing up. I believed it. I still do. Much of life in South Africa seemed like a miracle to me. I am still convinced there is no more miraculous sight than the morning sun slowly filling African skies. The rays appear slowly and cautiously, and then all at once – smattering the skyline with colors as deep and rich as the African soil. Every other sunrise since I left seems like a muted echo in comparison.
The Boy in the Backpack
Awareness of race is something I grew up with. It is impossible not to in South Africa.
I cannot be entirely sure, but the first time I recall realizing race meant different people were not treated equally by society, I was young. Close to five. I was in my mom’s old, dark green VW polo hatchback.
Mommy, why do we have a car and they don’t? I asked, pointing a stubby finger at a dark-skinned boy, roughly my age, who was wearing a blue shirt and backpack half his body’s size. He was being rushed along the tarred pavement by his dark-skinned mother. We were both going to school.
I watched my mother’s eyes flicker briefly toward the boy and his mom and immediately dart back to the road.
It’s because of the old government, Bunni, she said slowly. Looking like us meant people could get better jobs more easily. The old government didn’t like black people, my angel.
But why? My eyes had not moved from the small boy and his enormous backpack. That’s my fair!
No, my angel. No, it’s not.
I remember it being sunny. It’s almost always sunny in Durban. My aunt and cousins were visiting from Cape Town, and they accompanied my grandmother on her usual route of collecting my brother and me from school. All six of us were crammed into my granny’s tiny VW.
We arrived at the gate to the apartment complex that my brother and I lived in with my mom – all houses, apartments, or town homes exist behind walls decorated with electric fences and barbed wire in South Africa. The keys. She left the gate keys in the car’s boot.
The rest, as devastatingly cliché life often is, is a blur. It might be because I was only five. Or maybe six.
Four men glided towards the tiny white car. I can still see knives glinting and bodies rushing and car doors yanking open and slamming. I can still feel my aunt’s arm wrapping around my small body and forcefully pulling me from the car. We stood in silence in the space where the car was just a few seconds ago and watched it disappear around the corner.
My grandmother had wet herself.
An official government study established approximately eighty-five hijackings take place in Durban daily, roughly four each hour. This is one of the greatest tragedies of my beautiful home: no one is afforded the right to mourn traumatic experiences because each incident is just a statistic. Approximately eighty-four other hijackings happened that day. And the day after that. And the day after that. If we grieved each crime, life would halt. And there’s too much life in South Africa for that.
The Belly Incident
Fuller female figures are typically more attractive to most South Africans. South Africans are also very comfortable talking to strangers – alarmingly so to foreigners. It’s the first thing I caution any friends visiting from Europe about. My warning – which follows roughly the same script: South Africans are a touchy, talkative people! Strangers are probably going to hug you. Don’t be freaked out, okay? – is usually greeted with a grimace that I assume is meant to be closer to a smile. But in South Africa, it really is not weird. For most of my life, it felt like there were no strangers in South Africa, just friends you haven’t seen in a while. A cliché does not make something any less true.
I was fifteen when it happened. The Incident. I was meticulously examining the chocolate bar options at an extremely ordinary petrol station – while my dad paid for the petrol – when a disembodied hand collided with my belly.
It looks good! exclaimed the possessor of the hand, which was now patting my stomach. I had not seen this hand before, nor had I seen the woman it was attached to. The dread that ensued can only be reserved for a stranger telling an insecure teenage girl that her awkward, chubby belly is, in fact, as chubby as she feared.
My home has a unique ability to teach people to find the humor in each situation. Even horrified fifteen-year-olds.
I have spent much of my life feeling angry. Sometimes angry and confused. Sometimes angry and guilty. But always angry. It is not loud. It simmers, cooking slowly. It certainly does not yell Yes, I like beer, okay! in a courtroom. It is not a hostile witness. I’ve come to understand this anger as quiet and just. It is often too easy to mistake volume for strength.
I was privileged enough to not be shielded from what happened before I was born.
In my mother not protecting me from the profound evil so many white people committed, she protected me from becoming another white person who perpetuates the same evil. My school teachers did the same. They never shielded us from what happened only a few years prior.
My generation is known as the Born-Frees. It makes sense. Legally, we were the first generation where all races were born free and equal. For the first time since my ancestors arrived on the continent. The thing about being South African is that none of us are ever truly free from Apartheid. It is too deeply entrenched in South African earth. We are buried and born in it.
I don’t remember the first time I felt guilty about my white skin. But I also don’t remember a time I didn’t feel guilty about the fact my lighter skin color meant things were easier for me. Because of Apartheid, the majority of white South Africans had better access to educational and economic opportunities than their darker-skinned counterparts. Many still do. Apartheid was a system brilliant in its cruelty. Almost twenty-four years later, its structure is still being dismantled.
I am still angry a lot, though it’s different now. I understand the world better now than I did as a child. Injustice is ugly. It is hideous that I am treated differently because I am a small white woman and not a Black man. This anger, it still simmers – but it propels me forward.
I worked at a nonprofit organization called the Domino Foundation the year after I finished high school and the year before I left South Africa. I loved it there.
There were many moments I loved. Moments that still make me smile. We worked with a low-income community forty minutes outside Durban.
It was substantive work. Immediately rewarding, often hilarious. Once such incident was when the foundation’s coordinator, Shaun, sent a clown to a day-care center that the organization runs.
The children, very young – no older than three – had never seen a white person before, let alone a ghostly white person with an alarmingly large and red nose.
Chaos ensued. To put it delicately, toddler shit hit the fan.
Chubby little legs speedily waddled as far away from the well-meaning monster as the four walls would let them, and shrieks bounced off every surface until the horrendous pale beast was successfully removed from sight.
It is one of my favorite disaster tales of all time, both fictional and non-fictional.
Shaun is no longer allowed to send people – red-wigged or otherwise – to the foundation’s day-care centers.
I once saw someone getting beaten by the police. He could have been a violent or dangerous criminal. He could have stolen food to ward off Death for another day.
We were leaving a successful day of being authentic Durbanites: freckles, pink noses and salty skin, barefoot and covered in melted ice cream remnants.
The Elangeni Hotel slowly passed my window. We snuck up to the hotel’s rooftop pool (reserved for guests) on several occasions; I was well-acquainted with the towering, white, beachfront edifice.
I usually have an alarmingly good memory; I’ve spent most of my life pretending I don’t remember as much about people as I do to avoid seeming like a creep. Yet, I cannot remember many details about what I saw. I can’t remember how many policemen were there or how many weapons thrashed through the air exactly. At least three. I think. I also cannot remember how old I was.
Old enough to know what I was witnessing was wrong. Old enough to feel nauseated. Old enough to feel the weight of shame settle upon me as I breathed a sigh of a relief when the scene finally moved out of my view.
Is violence part of South African DNA? I want to believe it’s not, but sometimes I cannot even convince myself.
The Cell Phone
My mom was very strict about cell phones. You can get one when you turn thirteen, Andrea was the response to my incessant and tormented nagging.
It’s my mom’s second favorite party trick to regale a time we walked past a cellphone shop in a white-tiled mall, and a tear trickled slowly down my cheek as I gazed longingly at the Motorolas and Nokias and Samsungs I could not have for another year.
Her favorite party trick is to whip out a letter – penned in my twelve-year-old hand – that she has scanned on her phone:
PLEASE, please can I get a cellphone. I promise I’ll never leave anything on the floor again, I’ll make my lunch, pay 4 airtime. I’ll do ANYTHING (beside eating avo, banana and butter*). It’s a matter of life and social rejection!
(If you don’t let her get a phone) soon to be socially rejected daughter
Oh to be an almost-teenager when a cell phone is the be-all and end-all of life itself. I miss it sometimes.
*Under absolutely no circumstance would I agree to eat these. Absolutely NO circumstance.
Shaka Zulu was a famous Zulu warrior and king who lived between 1787 and 1852. He is renowned for throwing his warriors he deemed cowardly in battle off a large piece of rock that juts into the Indian Ocean, close to his military base. SAHistory.org matter-of-factly recounts the mass deaths that occurred after the death of his mother, Nandi. He murdered people because he believed they did not show enough grief. He was – and still is – revered for his brutality.
I am very familiar with this rock as I grew up a twenty-five-minute drive from it. My friend’s family owned a sugarcane farm only five minutes from where so many Zulus paid the price for their perceived cowardice. We all stayed on Georgie’s farm at least once a year, for the Mr. Price Pro concert. The Mr. Price Pro (although there is a new sponsor now) is an annual surfing competition that attracts surfers from all over the world. We never cared much for the contest itself. It was the free ocean-side concerts on the Friday and Saturday nights we ascended upon the beachfront for. Thousands of people gathered to fist bump, sway, or get up to general mischief at Shaka’s Rock Beach.
King Shaka is an important part of our history. There’s an entire page on South Africa’s official government website dedicated to him. His real name was Sigidi kaSezangakhona, “King of the Zulus”, it tells readers. He is also responsible for revolutionizing how Zulu warriors battled. The assegai-throwing spear was replaced with short stabbing spears, enabling the Zulus to conquer enemies at close range. Many more people could be killed.
There everyone stood – there I stood for so many years – drinking and dancing on the land where so much blood was spilled, laughing and cheering as the tide lapped gently, gently over the rocks.
My Father’s Father
We do not know how my dad’s ancestors arrived in South Africa. Though it’s safe for white South Africans to assume (if we do not know how our ancestors arrived) that it was to further either the Dutch or British imperial agenda.
They were Dutch, later becoming Afrikaans as culture transformed and morphed. They arrived on ships, with slurs already forming on the tip of their tongues.
This, of course, is speculation. But that does not mean it is incorrect.
This is the thing about being South African: it is almost a given my white DNA (at least in part) comes from slave-owners or enforcers or supporters of Apartheid. It is sometimes difficult to accept how my family was brought to South Africa. It is hard to accept my genes are likely shared by administrators of evil.
I used to worry my DNA was contaminated.
I do not regret not knowing my dad’s family history, or even my dad’s dad. I think I’d rather not know. It’s easier if my speculations remain just that: unconfirmed ponderings.
The Street Vendors
Wherever you go, you will find street vendors. Ironing board covers, mass-produced Chinese goods, and seasonal fruit weave in between cars stopped at traffic lights. It is as South African as my seventy-nine-year-old grandmother deterring small grey vervet monkeys from burglarizing her house by threatening them with a water gun half the size of her entire body.
To me, South Africa’s vendors make its streets feel like home. No vendors more so than the beaders. The beads are captivating and bright and intricately molded into every shape imaginable. The beaders’ hands are limitless in their capabilities.
Sawubona! they yell across the car park. Hello!
Their faces are limitless in joy.
Sometimes you feel someone’s smile more than you see it.
I love my dad. He is incredibly generous – irresponsibly so, actually. And he is kind. And loving. I know he would do anything for my brother and me. But my dad is a racist. I’ve never known the full extent of his racism, but it’s always made its presence known. I remember flinching each time he used a word I will not repeat. I remember being confused at how kindly he treated people of color but how unkindly he spoke about them.
There was a time when I was about seven, two-ish years after my parents got divorced. I went to my dad’s house for the weekend, and true to character, he sent us back to my mother with a pile of random gifts. One of them was a flag, which I proudly showed my mom.
This is a BAD flag, Andrea! she said sharply, striding across the kitchen and snatching the offending item from my small hands. I saw horror and anger in her green eyes – my eyes.
I didn’t understand.
This the flag the old government used – the government that would have never ever let you and Jessie be friends. We do NOT use our flag. This is not South Africa’s flag anymore. She slowly walked over to the corner of our kitchen and dropped it in. The bin lid slammed closed.
No me and Jessie? Whose house would I go to on the weekends? Who would I play with at school? I wondered aloud.
Jessie and I have been friends for over 18 years. Ever since we shared toothless grins as five-year-olds. We’ve spent countless hours laughing and crying and laugh-crying. We’ve traveled through Europe and stayed in dingy hostel rooms together.
Jessie is a black Xhosa woman.
Then I understood.
My relationship with my dad is complex. It’s difficult to fully blame him for something that doesn’t seem entirely his fault. My dad is a twin. From what I’ve gathered from his sister, Diane, my grandmother was particularly partial to his twin brother. His dad, my grandfather, died before I was born. I was never sorry about this fact – he was a cruel, hard man from the stories my dad told us. I do not even know my grandfather’s name. He was Afrikaans, South African Dutch, and emulated every unfavorable quality an Afrikaans man could possibly possess: an inclination for beating and aversion to emotion, tightly wrapped in undiluted racism.
My grandfather is the reason my dad could never bring himself to even raise his voice at us. He was beaten first and taught later.
When my dad was 12, he witnessed his six-year-old brother, Arthur, accidentally fall off an apartment balcony. He was sitting on the ledge and he slipped. My dad watched as Arthur’s small body crumpled and cracked at the force of gravity pulling him toward the earth.
His family never spoke about it.
I love my dad so much. And his racism is so, so ugly. Some things just cannot be reconciled.
I had a favorite bedroom wall in the house I lived in between the ages of seven and seventeen. It was behind my door and it was glorious. My mom had a rule: if I didn’t draw or paint on my other bedroom walls (a tough ask for my younger self), I could unleash all the creativity I possessed on that ten-by-five-foot wall behind my door.
My friends and I loved – LOVED – Louise Rennison’s book series about a human disaster named Georgia Nicholson and her friends, the Ace gang. Noni, Jessie, Paige, Cally, Shianne, and I read all ten books and regaled each of Georgia’s antics around Eastbourne with more enthusiasm than we discussed our own, sharing our sandwiches and carrots and chips and peanuts with each other.
The day we learned a film of the first two books – Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging and It’s OK, I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers, was being made became one of the most thrilling moments of our pre-teen lives. So much so, we graciously overlooked the film was called Angus, Thongs and the Perfect Snogging instead of its original and significantly more amusing name.
We fell in love, along with Georgia, with Robbie as we ceremoniously gathered around the TV in my living room. More specifically, Aaron Johnson (now Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the most infuriatingly beautiful male specimen our twelve-year-old eyes had ever gazed upon. We were as horrified to learn of his relationship with a director over twenty years his senior as we were hypnotized by his face. We were outraged by his sheer audacity to not reciprocate at least one of our loves.
We lamented the love that was not to be as we scribbled his name and Andi or Noni or Jessie or Paige or Cally or Shi in hearts on that 10×5 foot wall behind my bedroom door well into the early hours of the next day.
The Tree Fellers
The first things that come into vision are tree stumps decorated with chainsaws and a sign reading TREE FELLING with a phone number. I wondered then, and I wonder now, if anyone ever calls the number. The Tree Fellers are refugees.
Displaced people who have fled other African countries, fled death. They are often doctors and physicists and teachers – people with so much to offer a society they will never fully be a part of. Bound by their need for survival.
And there they wait, all day. Behind the chainsaws on the tree stumps. Waiting, waiting, waiting for their phones to ring.
You have an accent!
Yes, I answer. We all do. Americans are not somehow void of an accent. People’s frequent inability to comprehend this fact astounds me. Depending on my how sassy I am feeling, I will add this. For the sake of peace, however, I mostly just leave it at Yes.
Where are you from?
I never grow tired of watching people try to connect my fair, freckled skin with my African nationality and heritage. Confusion slowly creeps across their faces, battling an innate societal understanding that it is not polite to tell someone they are not allowed to be where they are from.
Life imitates art, you know. In my case, the art happens to be Tina Fey’s pop culture masterpiece: Mean Girls. If you’re from Africa, why are you white? is my American national anthem.
The next question on the script is cued: What’s it like in South Africa?
Four years later, this question still stumps me. How do I start to explain the complexities of South Africa? I never want to scare people with our crime statistics. But I am also not ashamed of its troubles. How does a nation begin to fill a chasm that has been systematically eroded for hundreds of years? How do I explain the irrational sense of hope that persists? I cannot.
I settle for Ubuntu. I am because you are. This is what makes South Africa the most beautiful place on Earth to me, regardless of our beaches or game reserves or wineries. It is our people’s innate care for one another; the acceptance that we cannot function individually if one of us is hurting.
How are you? Unjani? Hoe gaan dit? Eleven national languages all express the same sentiment. How are you? Tell me. I want to know.
It is the sheer determination of South Africans to overcome – to refuse defeat – that marks my nation. South Africa is hideous and magnificent and its soil will always feel like home beneath my feet.
Andi McIver is a senior at Towson University. She grew up in South Africa and is a Mass Communication major. She has received the Elizabeth Wainio Memorial Communications Fund Scholarship for academic excellence, Patrick J.O’Connell Memorial Fund Scholarship for most promising Mass Communication student, and TSEM Information Literary Award.