Longreads / Point Of View

Reflecting on 20 years of freedom in South Africa

I can still remember it, my then 80-year-old grandmother and mum returning home from voting for the first time, they were smiling ear to ear, my mom with her fist in the air saying Yes! Yes! They had voted at the South African embassy in Zambia where they had been in exile for the last few decades.

That day mum’s dream came true. Decades earlier when she was just a girl, she, my then pregnant grandmother and grandfather with their seven children in total left the home he had built for them in the middle of the night. My mum being one of the younger children was told it was just a trip. Later when she’d ask ‘when are we going home?’ she’d learn there was no going home. They ended up in Zambia but mum always wanted to return home.

So months later off we were, grannie, mum, my three sisters and I. Many South Africans living in Zambia decided not go back and maybe it was right because South Africa was not home anymore. And sadly mum’s dream in reality meant home was nothing like she’d probably imagined. She was a foreigner in her own country.

We settled in the Cape coloured community (though be careful if you ever visit South Africa to just label a person as identity is very personal). We were referred to as ‘from Africa’ people always asking us ‘what is Africa like.’ To offer some background, the Western Cape province in South Africa, Cape Town especially, is notorious for lack of a better word pride in being different from the rest of the country because, it is ‘so much like Europe’ or ‘where’s the real Africa’ tourists often say. Why it’s developed with its Mediterranean climate, beaches, mountains and vineyards. Because development is not synonymous with Africa – but that’s a topic for another day.

In 1995, I was one of two black kids in a coloured high school where I occasionally would hear the K word or the N one. Whilst the rainbow nation concept was being sold globally the story at home was different. One of my sisters, a biomedical scientist worked in a private lab for 7 years without a promotion or potential for it, some of her superiors often requested someone else to communicate with when discussing lab tests she’d run herself because she did not speak Afrikaans. We know she was deserving of a promotion because just months after she moved to the UK, she was promoted to a senior position because she had the knowledge and skills to lead a team.

What is perhaps even sadder is on her first day at work at the Cape Town branch of her employer in the late 90s she reported to work and the cleaners (all black) saw her put on her lab coat and said ‘so you know how to do this?’. They had thought a new cleaner was employed. That’s what apartheid has done to people’s minds; it was inconceivable to them that she be qualified to do that job because in South Africa jobs have been traditionally assigned according to race. For example, black women were cleaners and housekeepers and black men gardeners.

As a teen I went looking for a waitressing job. I understood Afrikaans but was then not a confident speaker. I had to fill in a form. The owner spoke to me in Afrikaans saying fill in your name here. I repeated after him in English to confirm. He said just leave if you can’t speak Afrikaans, you can’t work here.

I’ll never forget the reception a family friend from Zambia received in the mid-2000s, a well-published Professor (black) who was taking up a post at a university in Cape Town. He arrived the weekend before he was due to begin his post so he visited his department. The woman who would be his secretary had dismissed him and was in fact rude to him refusing him to walk the halls, he did not say who he was until he reported for duty on Monday and her face fell.

Being black in the professional world in South Africa comes with its burden too. In 2004 I took on a post as the first black woman media liaison in a small political organisation, on my first day my boss (a black man) called me into his office and told me that because I was the first black woman in this role people would be watching and judging every movement and that it would either pave or destroy the way for any other black person to hold this post in future. What a weight!

Later I realised that he was trying to help me, warn me to be on my guard. And he was right to do so; I was underestimated at every turn and sometimes even sabotaged. Later an older Afrikaans man married to one of my superiors but junior in rank would reprimand me and call me ‘girly’ as he tried to force me to follow his instructions on a matter in which he had no right to have a say.

A while later when I took on a senior post in a publishing company, one of my colleagues said to me she wanted the job but didn’t get it because she wasn’t black.

The lasting effects of white minority rule mean that people have a mindset of racially profiling what groups should have certain jobs, where they should live and right down to what music they should listen to.

My youngest sister and I listen to an eclectic mix of music and often are the only two black girls at a rock concert. At The Killers concert in 2007, a guy came up to us and asked ‘so you know this band?’ it was harmless so we just giggled and said we usually drove nearly two hours from home and spent lots of money to see bands we didn’t know.

At Bon Jovi’s concert in 2013 we asked a guy who’d been obnoxious all night to quit smoking; it was a no smoking venue. My sister and I were with an old friend (a Muslim woman). After he said a few loud nonsensical things he ended with ‘I have Indian friends.’ There was nothing to say, all three of us just looked at each other and laughed.

At the Bruce Springsteen concert early 2014, we were asked after the concert ‘how do you know this music?’

That said it is not lost on me that by being able to attend these events I illustrate that am not the average black South African. I have disposable cash to spend on concerts.

Furthermore, these stories are not to illustrate that racist thinking only happens among white people. Black people too are very guilty of it especially when you don’t fit what a black person is supposed to be. As a first language English speaker I am often asked Where am I really from? Why don’t I speak my own language?

Having been born in Zambia, the black languages I speak are from there and when we moved to SA we settled in the coloured community so Afrikaans was widely spoken after English, besides that my grannie was coloured so that’s the language we were familiar with. I identify myself as black but that was not good enough for many black South Africans because I did not speak the black South African languages.

Once at a party in Norway that was a sort of reunion of the Dutch friends of a friend, I was asked are you also from Holland? I was taken aback because I realised that‘s a question that would never come up in any South African setting because with my skin colour I am already assigned my label of who I am.

When I speak, in the white world in South Africa I am told ‘wow you’re English is really good’ what they want to say I think is your English is really good for a black person. In the coloured world I am told ‘why are you speaking white?’

I have accepted being a racial misfit in the racial codes of South Africa, it’s a beautiful thing; it gives you more freedom because you don’t have to assign any label to any moment. It is why I have an affinity to those who are also ‘other’ with backgrounds from everywhere regardless of skin colour. I pick what I like about these various parts of my identity. It’s why I have a problem with how the government has officially classified us into African, coloured, white, Indian/Asian. I like to think we’re all Africans living in South Africa and prefer the term black. It is not a swear word.

Now we have the so-called born free generation – a term I so hate because freedom and democracy is more than just being able to exercise the right to vote. Freedom is access to the most basic of services like livable shelter, food, clean water. Access to education and jobs to support oneself with a decent wage. Freedom is also the lack of gated communities (on the rise in South Africa), walking in a white neighbourhood without people calling the cops because you’re not wearing your workers uniform and therefore suspicious otherwise you’d blend in fine. Freedom is going to a restaurant where not all those serving meals and washing dishes are black or not being allowed into a venue because you’re being racially profiled. Freedom is safe reliable public transport for all, healthcare for all and not reliant upon your financial means. Freedom is also the absence of xenophobic violence towards African migrants when many of these migrants come from countries that have provided homes to South African freedom fighters.

I love my country and miss it daily and I am proud of it even when I criticise some of the madness. I am proud that South Africa is a country where gay marriage is protected by law, as is a woman’s right to choose, that we can speak out against the leadership without being thrown into jail and we have a free press though the latter two freedoms are under threat.

As we head to the polls on 7 May for another round of democratic elections we have to think about this. Who can really deliver what we once dreamt about? This election is for me the battle for the soul of South Africa.

Very sadly for me, an administrative mistake means I cannot vote at the SA mission here in Addis Ababa.

We’ll never have a leader like Mandela, the guy who stepped down after one term as he promised unprecedented on a continent that runs its governments like monarchies. The guy who surprised people when the value of his estate was publicised, some said was that it? Why yes, he took his salary and made money off his written work. He didn’t use the nation’s funds as a personal kitty, build obscene post presidential residence. The rot of corruption is widespread. In July, a Transparency International report, the 2013 International Global Corruption Barometer, found that 47% of South Africans who came into contact with government officials paid a bribe to them in the past year.

It is a great shame that this is the very generation that fought for our freedom.

I have seen a few reports on the news of late with some saying how much has changed in the country since apartheid. It is true but I don’t think it’s enough to compare South Africa now to what it was during apartheid because anything will look pretty amazing then. You can’t resolve 300 years of slavery and several decades of apartheid in 20 years but what you don’t do is syphon off funds whilst at the same time hoping rhetoric of how it was, really scare tactics to prevent people from choosing otherwise, will be enough. We get over a brutal past by ensuring economic freedom. Taxing accordingly is a great start. We do have great public servants and a strong civil society but they need our help to shine through.

I am a dreamer by nature. I never met my grandfather and he never lived to see the fall of apartheid legislation. But I know he and grannie (who long outlived him) were dreamers when they left their home in South Africa. They dreamt a better life for their kids. My mum dreamt a better life for my sisters and I when we moved to South Africa at what was then like the golden age of hope. I dream a better country for myself and the generations to come. The blood of thousands of unnamed has already been shed over decades for the dream of a free, non-racial and equal South Africa. Would it not be the greatest shame if it remained just a dream?

nelson mandela, cape town city hall

Outside Cape Town City Hall a few days after Mandela’s death in December 2013. Click on image to enlarge

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4 thoughts on “Reflecting on 20 years of freedom in South Africa

    • I remember always that I stand on the shoulders of those before me, this is a small way to keep them alive and thank them for the opportunities I have today. Thanks!

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