“You do know it was the English who brought apartheid to South Africa. Everyone thinks it was the Afrikaners, but it was the English!”
I raised my eyebrows in mock amazement. I did this for my inquisitor’s benefit. Generally, men feel more at ease when they feel like they are in a position to teach you something, and I wanted this man to feel comfortable in my presence. After all, this opportunity is what I had asked God for just a few hours before at dusk, wasn’t it?
“Really? Yes…yes I read something about that somewhere,” I replied.
Of course I knew the British were responsible for bringing apartheid to South Africa. Anyone who has read closely on the subject knows the role that Rhodes and Churchill played in laying the foundations for the unholy regime. But we also know that the Boers built on that groundwork and took it to unparalleled heights. I attempted to make this point.
“But what about Verwoerd and…”
“No, no, no,” the man said patronizingly. “The English.”
You may at this point be wondering what the substance of my prayers was on the night in question. Having just come from the Walter Sisulu and Hector Pieterson Memorials two days before, I wanted to have the opportunity to speak with a South African of Dutch decent – to ask them to give account and defense for the Bantu Education act (which one older Boer once told me was of great benefit to the native blacks because it gave them a “trade”), for the level of force employed by the police at quelling upheaval and what could be done to bridge the gap in wealth and opportunity that 50 short, but grueling, years of apartheid had thrust upon the country. Now before me stood a mountain of an Afrikaner man, who is at least a foot and a half taller than my husband’s 6’2”, who had a voice like a disturbed pool of water, and who – despite vowing never to speak the English language a day in his life (so proud was he of his heritage and so great was the contempt he had inherited for the English) – had deigned to do so for the benefit of the “American girl”. This was my gift horse, and I was not about to crank open its jaws and inspect its molars. I let him talk.
“The thing about apartheid is that both sides were responsible – both black AND white,” he continued.
Now I was genuinely shocked. This, I had never heard before. I steadied the beat of my quickening heart before I whispered my next question. I felt he was about to tell me some horrible secret.
“Both sides were wrong,” he said as he made to touch my shoulder, but came centimeters away from doing so.
I looked at him quizzically as an image flashed through my mind. If unprovoked, you put your boot on my neck and I manage to slap your balls in order to free myself, how do I share blame in the wrongdoing? He could see my mind racing and offered me a little smile.
“You know that picture of the guy carrying the boy?”
“You mean Hector Pieterson?”
“Ja, ja. HIM.” His tone was not kind. “Do you know how the shooting happened?”
“All I know is what I’ve read. That the students were protesting because…”
He interrupted my speech before catching himself. I must’ve said something out of the ordinary.
“Tell me what you read.”
I told him that the students were protesting because hitherto, their instruction had been in English, and that not only did they have the task of mastering their mother tongue, but they had to be proficient in a foreign language that was generally adopted already. Now the law said that all study must be in Afrikaans. (Which was ironic because it was the British who first attempted to force English on the Boers, who rebelled against the effort.) It proved to be too much. Black teachers (or their pupils) couldn’t speak Afrikaans and therefore couldn’t instruct their students in it. Matric rates fell to all time lows as did morale in education over all. The students of Soweto decided to march and deliver their mandate for education reform to the local police station where they were fired upon by officers.
He seemed satisfied with my answer. And a bit smug.
“Ahhh…but what they didn’t tell you is that those students were also armed.”
This was nonsense.
“Yes! “ He said triumphantly. “The history books will not tell you that there were weapons found among the students. They were not so innocent. The history books will never tell you the whole truth.”
Then perhaps the history books need to diversify their sources, I thought. Because on Wednesday, my family spent the evening with a woman who is an active member of the PAC and was present when the massacre took place. The PAC supported the student march and its members did indeed carry firearms and weapons as it flanked the students. I’ve seen no stats on how many officers lost their lives in the uprising, so no one in attendance went there with the intention to shoot to kill, obviously.
As I contemplated all this, he must’ve taken my silence for a concession of defeat, because he repeated himself on the one point that I found (and still find) utterly repugnant.
“As I said, both sides were to blame – both black and white. The history books only show you the faces of white police officers, but there were black officers who shot at those kids as well.”
“Yes, I know that. In any system of oppression, you will always find members of the oppressed group who will betray their communities for their personal benefit.” (Cue KRS-One)
He became adamant.
“But you can’t revolt for everything you want! Anytime these…workers or students want something, they toitoi and that’s not democracy.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
“But the French might say that is the only way to achieve democracy. Remember when the working class stormed the Bastille and…”
“Ja, but you can’t replicate everything you see and think it applies to where you are.”
Y’all. He actually SAID that to me.
Since we were at a ministry conference and he was clearly not going to convince a woman who’s read far too many books that her race shared equal responsibility in its own demise (something I can actually accept, because if Black South Africans had given the Boers the same medicine they administered to the British, they’d be better off), he switched topics to something he thought we might both agree on: religion and its role in the abysmal state of South African education. I was ready to engage, because education is very important to me.
“Do you know! They are teaching my son – my 12 year old son – about forefather worship in school?”
“Yeah…my daughter had to study that as part of social studies last year. Along with Hinduism and some other things.
“It’s nonsense,” he declared.
“I don’t think…”
“No, no! Nonsense! You know ZUMA does forefather worship? That’s why he and Mugabe are thick as thieves. In fact, they go to the same fetish/voodoo/spiritual woman. She sits out under a tree with her bones and leaves. That’s how Mugabe has been able to stay this long. Because of HER spiritual influence.”
I asked him the question he must’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but dreading.
“Do you think Zuma will be able to maintain control as long as Mugabe?”
He gave it something before he answered. “I don’t know. All I know is that the ANC is a mafia and Zuma has a lot of dirt on top people. That’s why they won’t confront him and that’s why he kicked out Gordon…because he wasn’t able to corrupt him.”
And then I looked into the eyes of this mountain of a Boer man and saw that he was afraid…that he was actually afraid. We’re human, so we all harbor ours fears. It’s only natural. What I saw was a man who despite declaring his position as an anti-racist, was too afraid to allow his child to learn about the cultural norms of the racial majority around him. That though he may be a Christian, perhaps neither he nor his white Christ was not strong enough to mitigate for his child the spiritual influences of a 500-word blurb in a history book. I saw a man who is afraid that history will judge his race and his Afrikaner culture as they deserve, which is fairly. Because if the truth were to be told, it would condemn them in the eyes of generations to come. I saw a man that despite his efforts to portray the contrary, was afraid of change.
But I also saw his efforts.
In the hundred or more people who gathered at that conference, he was the only white male, and a proud Boer to boot. That certainly counts for something: That he was able to overcome his myriad fears and place himself in an uncomfortable situation…the sort of situation that is not so unfamiliar to Black people: That of “token”.
In my reading, I’ve known the Afrikaner to be many things: Greedy, stubborn, subversive, passionate and proud. But I’ve never known them to be described as frightened. They’ve always seemed (and portrayed as) incapable of possessing that particular trait. Knowing that the mountain of a man harbors fear comforts me; not because I would seek to use it against him, but because it assures me that his is an Afrikaner, yes, but he is human first.