The South African Series

White People Really Need To Talk To Their Kids About Apartheid

As whites, we don’t teach our children about apartheid. For us, it’s not important. But the Blacks…they make sure to talk to their children about apartheid. All the time. It’s the complete opposite.”

I had the opportunity to make a new acquaintance in George on Friday night. As I’ve explained on numerous occasions, the demographic I’ve spend the majority of my leisure time with skews white, primarily because my income bracket affords me the chance to engage in trivial pursuits like laughing yoga, drum circles and drama classes. I am generally the sole woman of color in these environments. If I lived in a more cosmopolitan city where there are more people of color in the middle class -like Johannesburg – I suspect that I would not be so much of an outlier. But this is the Garden Route, so there you have it.

In any event, I am grateful to exist as a rarity in recreational settings. Particularly where there is lots of wine at the ready. You’d be shocked by the sorts of things people feel comfortable saying to/around me, simply because I’m not considered “that sort of Black.” In vino veritas, as the saying goes and while it doesn’t take much goading to get an Afrikaner to give his/her opinion on any given subject, alcohol makes the lessens the inhibition further, often with hilarious results.

Except for when the subject is racism/apartheid. There the declaimer becomes all passion; all befuddlement; damn near a knot of complete resentment. Friday night at a local pub was one such occasion.

Marshall and I were invited to listen to a live band play at a pub. As to be expected, we were asked by those unknown to us where we lived, what we did for a living, etc. I gave our address and was met with a pleased reply by a woman we’ll just call Gerta.

“We are neighbors!” she gushed. “I live just round the corner from you. Wonderful neighborhood, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I love it. It’s central to everything and our landlord is really easygoing. Such a change from renting in Plett.”

Gerta is a supervisor at an organization that does charity work. She’s worked there for close to 30 years and has seen the city, labor force and social dynamics of George change over time. Whereas her department was once exclusively white, she now works with Black and Coloured women. And while we were on the subject of housing, she wondered aloud about a recent conversation she’d had with her colleagues.

“You know, I’ve dropped some of my colleagues at home from time to time, and I look at their living conditions. Sho! I can’t believe it.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I asked them ‘How can you live like this? Where do you wash? Where do you go to the toilet? Where do you do your laundry?’ I don’t understand it. I couldn’t live that way.”

Marshall and I were stunned. Surely, this woman of nearly 60 (by the looks of it) understood how townships were formed? How townships were designed by the architects of apartheid to trap and dehumanize the Black population? That these people were herded into the locations after having their land seized from them? Surely she didn’t need two Americans to explain her country’s history to her? We gave her the benefit of the doubt.

The Group Areas Act was the title of three acts of the Parliament of South Africa enacted under the apartheid government of South Africa. The acts assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas in a system of urban apartheid

Photo credit: Getty Images

“Oh yes. I know all that,” she said glibly. “There by where you stay, there was Coloured family that used to make furniture. We used to play with their kids in the street. But then the government came in and took their home and said they must move to their own location with their own kind. We didn’t have a problem with them living there…that was all the government. That wasn’t our feeling.”

“Okay,” I pressed, “but do you understand that it takes three generations to build wealth? And we’re talking about the end of apartheid in 1994. Most of the people in these townships aren’t building lives from zero…they’re building from six steps under zero. Apartheid took more than land from people of color. It robbed them of future prospects and opportunity.”

Gerta was having none of it, which is to be expected. People who have a dug in position on structural racism cannot be swayed by the presentation of facts, especially when (recent) historical events aren’t even a topic of conversation.  

“As whites, we don’t teach our children about apartheid. For us, it’s not important. But the Blacks…they make sure to talk to their children about apartheid. All the time. It’s the complete opposite. Where’s the room for forgiveness if you always talk about the past?”

She went on to describe how she grew up poor; one of nine children. She didn’t have new books and if she couldn’t pay her fees, she was expelled from school. And yet she’s been able to make something of herself without South Africa’s version of Affirmative Action: BBBEE. As far as she is concerned, Black people really ought to work harder and improve their communities.

With what resources, I wonder? This is a dangerous train of thought. It implies that the poor are lazy, or that poverty in itself is a result of a collective moral failing. It ignores the influences of systemic corruption, disenfranchisement and gatekeeper dedicated to maintaining class hierarchies that thrive with the masses at the bottom.

Kurland Township, the Garden Route
Photo credit: Marshall Grant

I understand the white reflex to ignore the aftershocks of structures built on racism and amnesia where apartheid is concerned. No one, none of us, wants to be held accountable for the sins of our fathers or the decisions that they made. However no matter how hard we might wish it away, we will have to confront the consequences of those decisions. Just like generations unborn will have to grapple with the scourge of plastic that we are failing to deal with, it is incumbent upon this generation to educate the next about the destructive force that apartheid unleashed on an entire nation. Refusing to talking about a problem never solved it.

The dangers in failing to do so are numerous, but most disconcerting for me is this: By white people avoiding discussions about apartheid, it gives room for false narratives to be crafted, and most that place blame at the feet of the victim. I know this because I’ve witnessed it in the United States. There are privileged white men with large audiences who truly believe that the institution of slavery kept Black families together, that slaves were well cared for and housed, and that race-based slavery may have actually saved African captives from a dreadful fate – when a plethora of data reveals the opposite. It is not so far fetched that a similar mindset will take hold here in a few years, if honest conversations based on facts/reality are not had.     

By the end of the segment, Gerta did admit to something that we all can take a little comfort in.

“It took hundreds of years for apartheid to get us to where we were. And we can’t expect it to be fixed in just under 30. It’s like a stew. We will just have to cook this tough meat until it softens, I think.”

I nodded and raised my glass to hers. I could drink to that.