I write today with great sadness after learning about the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. You see, I have a long history with South Africa and every time she graced me with another memory, I was forever changed. Her imprint wasn’t the kind of imprint other country destinations leave; it was if South Africa’s spirit spoke to me each and every time, as if she had to teach me something larger than myself…a bit like Mandela did over the course of his lifetime…
As I reflect on Mandela’s impact and his important life work, I began thinking of all the talks I have heard him give including a dramatic one in person in the 1990s, and zeroed in my own South African story, one which he influenced by his actions, his courage, his resilience and his solitude. He changed how I absorbed not just culture, politics and history, but how I viewed humanity and the world.
My story goes deep. Endure me on an important life journey for a moment, starting in a pre-Mandela world.
Apartheid was still very much in place when I lived in South Africa as a foreign exchange student in 1984, two years before the country’s declared State-of-Emergency.
Being white, I was placed with a well-off English speaking white family in a ritzy Johannesburg suburb and sent to a prestigious white school. In this bubbled existence, I was meant to be protected from the waging cultural war that was brewing under the surface. We wore uniforms and lived colonial lives, with two tea breaks a day at school, private tennis lessons and trips to the stables for horseback riding. And, it was oh so very proper. Girls hung out with girls, and boys hung out with boys even at co-ed schools.
I also studied at a white Afrikaans school just outside Johannesburg. Boys played sports and marched — remember that military service was mandatory for South Africans – my boyfriend at the time served in Namibia for two years.
Below one of my teachers from Hyde Park High School instructs a black gardener who serviced the grounds during a ‘tea’ break.
Meanwhile, another world existed outside Johannesburg’s wealthy white suburbs. While we played crochet, ate strawberries and cream, and sipped champagne by the pool, black South Africans lived in their own neighborhoods, a far cry from the world I had begun to know. Imagine a world where life existed for your entire family in one room with nothing but a tin roof or a leaky plastic covering to protect you from the rain.
Violence was rampant and deaths occured daily in townships between black communities (many westerners don’t realize that fighting happened not just between whites and blacks at the time but between local tribes who disagreed). Important movies like Cry Freedom & A Dry White Season made the world aware of the social injustice, all driven from the top.
Unfathomable stories came into the international spotlight, unveiling atrocious crimes of white police beating and killing black prisoners, many of whom didn’t deserve to be arrested in the first place. Buried in a corrupt system under the guise of Apartheid, some whites turned a blind eye, while others lived in their own colonial bubble, oblivious of what was happening behind the scenes. Then, there were a few brave white souls who risked their lives to bring these heart wrenching stories to the western media and fought hard and long for equality and a united country, not one divided by color.
Outside the cities, black South Africans lived in straw huts in the rural countryside. The below shots were taken in the northern Transvaal and Swaziland in 1984.
My naivity at the time still dumbfounds me. While I may have been a smarter than average teenager, the siloed education I received in small town America limited my awareness of global politics and injustice. While it’s not rocket science to understand the concept of a segregated country by color (crikey, we had our own until the 1960s), but since I had never ‘lived it,’ I wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed. This lack of preparedness and awareness resulted in me living in a world blinded by sugar-coated glasses for the first few months. During that time, I avoided probing too deep when answers to my questions remained unanswered or even worse, were undigestable.
I used to ask questions that perhaps a ten year old might ask, such as “why does our maid live in a shack behind our house? Why can’t “they” sit with us at the same table? Why can’t they go into the restaurant with us? The answers of course never made any sense, nor did the sneers I received from my boss at a Sandton restaurant where I was hostess.
I’d talk to the “black” boys who cleared away the dishes and the dishwasher crew and whenever I did, I was told not to and in hindsight, they too seemed confused by communication. There were so many times I was told “not to” during my first year in South Africa, that it started to numb my understanding of what was at play on a large and deeply turbulent scale. “Not to engage with, not to play with, not to dance with, not to talk to, not to buy things for, not to give a hug to…” The list went on. And yet, my true understanding of what was happening in the early months of living there was closer to a young child’s understanding, not a mature one.
I experienced different behavior when I lived with a white family on a rural farm in the Northern Transvaal, not far from the Zimbabwean border. Below, I am cooking on the grill with the oldest brother of my host family, who was one of the best hunters I had ever encountered – I once saw him kill a snake which came flying out of a tree into our window early in the morning in a nano-second. He seemed to have a unique relationship with their servants in a way I had not yet witnessed in the country’s urban areas, something I would later learn would add to the puzzle of why South Africa’s black and white history is so much more complex than meets the eye. No history book or novel can prepare you for the intricacies of its long and painful racial struggle.
He used to woo me with his knowledge of Zulu, Xhosa and something they referred to as Fanagalo, a pidgin (simplified language) based primarily on Zulu, with English and a little Afrikaans thrown in. It was often spoken in northern South Africa and in more rural areas, between white farmers and their black servants and staff.
In those days, people still referred to Zimbabwe as Rhodesia and many had getaways up there, so much so that we used to head over the border to waterski on Lake Kyle on weekends. (you know you’re not in Kansas anymore when they tell you about the risks of crocodiles, so be sure never to fall). In Zim or Rhodie depending on who you talked to, the relationship between blacks and whites seemed milder, less hostile, less fragile and less haunting. There are a host of reasons for this but it wasn’t until I crossed that border several times with my ex-husband in the 1990s did I feel the intensity of the tension the moment we were back on South African soil.
While South African tourists may most remember sipping wine on some of Stellenbosch’s best vineyards or their visit to Kruger National Park, there’s a whole other side to South Africa, a world where white and black South Africans worked together, tended the land, hunted and killed to eat.
Below, I am with one of my host families in the northern Transvaal after a day out in the bush, which almost always meant in those days, bringing an impala or kudo home for dinner.
I eventually learned who Mandela was, but it was only after I ventured beyond my rich white suburbs and started conversations with people who I sensed felt uncomfortable with my questions, as if I were a private investigator probing rather than an everyday civilian having a healthy dialogue. It was at this time I met some white radicals (or at least that’s what some people called them) at the Wits University campus, one of South Africa’s most famous universities. It was then that I discovered how deep race issues were and how close to a very dangerous edge the country was living. Little did I know how much violence was brewing and how close we were to a transformation that would not just change South Africa forever, but the world.
What would be deemed as a curious and socially active student in a free democratic country was classified as radical and dangerous in a 1970s and 1980s South Africa world. That year, I fell in love with musician Johnny Clegg and even had an opportunity to meet him and shoot one of their concerts from the edge of their stage. His music more than moved me, it transformed me from an innocent and ignorant bystander of life to a curious and caring one. If I wanted a life full of purpose and passion, I knew my life could never be one where I’d stand on the sidelines observing life, but one which involved diving with both feet even if it was sure to be a painful dive.
Above, Johnny Clegg in rare form, his passionate music echoing into a winter night on the grounds of Wits University. While he wasn’t the only musician to write about this volatile time, he was a revolutionary at heart who led the way on his home soil. Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City,” a song that protested the South African policy of apartheid was also instrumental as was the follow on support by such musical greats as Bruce Springsteen, Run DMC, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Jackson Browne and dozens more. Let’s also not forget Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which came out in 1986 and featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their music brought South Africa’s pain into our hearts and understanding in the west even if we could never begin to understand day-to-day life for people living under an Apartheid regime.
Below, locals just outside the Transkei are about to load a pick up truck with chickens, okra, tomatos and bananas.
Below, children sing at an all black school in a rural area.
To say that my experience living in the 1980s and 1990s in South Africa was diverse is an understatement. From rural farms to living with Afrikaans families in cities and towns, and then wealthy English families in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, to breathing in the land and its wildlife on various national parks and nature reserves, I felt the pulse of a country in pain.
While today Soweto is freely traveled to and even houses a Holiday Inn, back then, it was off limits to whites and considered incredibly dangerous. That didn’t stop me however and I can recall the experience as if it were yesterday. People ask me all the time: weren’t you afraid?
The truth is, no I wasn’t afraid. The truth is…I was greeted with warmth and generosity despite the fact that there was mass hatred of whites and an extreme number of violent incidents at the time. I realize that things could have gone south and a different set of encounters could have resulted in my not being alive to tell the story today. The same could be said for venturing into certain parts of Harlem and Detroit during their most volatile times. And yet, back then, talking to locals felt urgent somehow, even though I didn’t have a clue what to do with their stories.
A few years later when I was studying and living in London, a mere stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, the home of daily South Africa protests, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to join the crowd. Times were complicated and the circles I traveled in were diverse.
Below, I was out on a bush walk with an American missionary who was stationed in southern Africa for many years. Everyone and their brother seemed to be involved in stirring up a pot, whether it was religious, political or social.
In 1990, I returned to South Africa to live, this time with my South African ex-husband. Not much had visibly changed in every day life, except there was a shift in sentiment and more importantly, laws. It was the year the then President Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end Apartheid and the official abolishing of Apartheid occurred with repeal of the last of the remaining Apartheid laws.
The result would be the country’s first multi-racial democratic elections in 1994, which as we all know, was won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela. To this day, the vestiges of Apartheid still shape South African politics and society.
That year, we drove up and down the country a few times, and eventually made our way north to Malawi in an old fashioned boxed van manufacturered sometime a few decades earlier. Economically, nothing had yet changed for black South Africans but Mandela had become a household name.
When we weren’t working in Johannesburg in the hospitality industry, we were on the road and that meant living in our van or pitching a tent when the mosquitos weren’t rampant. We picked up hitchhikers along the way and made friends from around the world over the course of nearly two years.
Life couldn’t be more free; no one told us who we could talk to and who we couldn’t, or where we had to be or when. Below, we stopped the van along side a cliff somewhere on the Cape’s Garden Route and here, we made dinner, opened a bottle of South Africa Shiraz and toasted to a new world.
If we wanted to go into a rural area or township and have a conversation, we could and we did. To say this was widely accepted just because the Apartheid veil had been legally lifted is far from a reality.
Considered as dangerous as it was in the 1970s? Absolutely. If you recall, violence soared before it leveled off and there was a tremendous amount of mistrust and cultural ‘sorting’ in Mandela’s early days. Also remember that there were a lot of disgruntled white South Africans (in and out of the National Party — which later became known as the New National Party) by De Klerk’s radical political move.
It was a different vibe in rural areas however, particularly the bush. Life was much more simple and chatting about life around the fire at night was easy. Here, I sensed less anger and their personalities were more fluid. It doesn’t mean that white hatred didn’t exist but the energy was more relaxed and trusting. Below, we drink coffee late at night listening to hyaenas in the distance, an experience which always felt spiritual to me.
Below, a shot of a family we picked up in our van in 1990, who wasn’t sure (at first) whether to trust us or not. Behind them, you can see our mosquito net which we slept under every night.
Below, drummers go wild in Hillbrow just outside Johannesburg’s center.
In the early nineties, life was still very much segregated in the cities and the towns.
Young white South Africans (as my ex-husband, his brother and wife and our friends were) shifted their attitudes and wanted to make amends somehow. It wasn’t uncommon to hear things like “we have a black friend now,” or “we just did X with Z,” as if to make a point that they were progressive in their thinking and not white South African racists. It wasn’t their fault; after all, the country had conditioned them from childhood, a white racist government who created white racist schools and taught History the colonial way, which was from a very different textbook than the one I used when I taught in a Kenyan school a few years later.
Most of their attempts at doing the right thing, at least in our circles, came from a pure place. Those with candy colored glasses who were so brainwashed under the old regime would either take decades of reconditioning to truly understand the atrocities of the Apartheid system or never change their mind.
Yet, during that time, things were vibrant, wild and new. It was a time when the unexpected happened and the country had a chance to start over.
Around that time, I was asked to do publicity for a black musician and his white wife who needed help opening a white & black nightclub in Johannesburg, a groundbreaking and bold move for the time. They weren’t interested in traditional communications and media strategies, nor exposure from CNN. For them, it was all about grassroots efforts, from educating locals to alleviating safety concerns across three generations of whites whose lives were about to change in ways they never imagined.
Meanwhile, Mandela’s respect was growing with diverse supporters and new voices (both black and white) were amplifying.
There were times we’d be at a braai (equivalent of a western barbecue except they’d often grill game) in someone’s backyard, see smoke bombs going off in Soweto a mile or so down the road and suddenly be brought back to reality. Sirens would follow and we knew a death had happened or two…and yet we were untouched behind our walled gardens in some white suburb with guards by the fence.
Life could also be melancholy and surreal at times. People were struggling with all the changes, many in disbelief, even those who felt it was positive for the country and had fought for decades to see an integrated South Africa.
Other times, the intensity of it all was too much. Everyone spoke of politics and violence all the time and it became all consuming. Female friends in their early twenties were carrying hand guns in their purses to be ready for attacks, whether it was walking into a fast food joint to order a burger or get petrol in their car.
While we never carried a gun, we took the rotor out of our van every time we parked it since so many vehicles were being stolen, sometimes at gun point. We often didn’t stop at red lights because that’s where so many hold-ups happened and white South Africans were losing not just their cars, but often their lives. Break-ins became more commonplace and would sometimes result in a death not just a theft. It became a way of life and people assimilated into a new but more violent South Africa.
We eventually left the city and headed south to Cape Town where things were less unpredictable. The reason for this lies in the fact that Cape Town had always been more integrated than the north and as a result, the environment was milder. We stopped at red lights again and started to breathe a calmer air. We also brought sandwiches and wine out to the ocean’s edge and sat on the rocks at sunset, talking about politics, democracy and war, both of us so aware how different the dialogue would be had we been back in the states sharing food with friends on the Boston coast instead.
Through all of this, I wrote. For so many reading this, it’s hard to imagine a time before computers, but then, I didn’t have one, nor did anyone I know. It was a world without cell phones, iPads, iPods and laptops. Texting was inconceivable and if you wanted to leave a message for a colleague you were planning to meet in Tanzania in two week’s time, you’d send him a note through a PO Box or leave a handwritten message on an old fashioned pin-up board in a known hotel travelers knew about.
And so, with so much uncertainty and violence in the air, I wrote. And, I wrote. And, I wrote. I filled a suitcase with notebooks.
I wrote everywhere and anywhere I could and didn’t need a power chord or an Internet connection to do so.
My brother-in-law at the time loaned me a typewriter so I could process my thoughts faster since there were times my head was spinning out of control. Late at night, my mind whirled and swirled trying to make sense of the growing violence and political changes. History was in motion as Mandela was about to take the reigns.
My favorite place to write was under the stars by moonlight. There’s nothing like an African sky….it made me feel closer to the earth than anywhere else I had ever spent time or lived. When you consider that southern Africa is where man began, it makes sense. I was lost in time on more than one occasion under an African sky, an experience that is now but a mere memory, but one I’d gladly relive.
After we left South Africa and returned to live in Boston, the country was never far from our reach. While we didn’t have Facebook, we had friend’s letters, phone calls, access to the BBC and Johannesburg newspapers that my then mother-in-law used to send us. We continued to listen to South African music, drank rooiboss tea, received packages of biltong and attended South African get togethers in New York and Boston every year. We couldn’t let “her” go. She had grabbed ahold of us and made us forever hers.
We watched Mandela’s progress from afar, listened to his speeches and routed him on. It wasn’t until 18 years later in 2008 that I returned. A trip that was slated for three weeks turned into several months, which included an extensive drive up and down the country and along the mystical and magical Garden Route in the south.
Returning to Soweto was nothing short of surreal for me. Blacks and whites shopped in the same mall and sipped coffee at the same cafe. Below is a shot I took while relaxing against a rock on a sunny afternoon.
Prophet gave us a historical account of activities; the stories felt so far removed from the South Africa I had experienced so many moons ago…pre-Mandela.
Two brothers play together in a nearby park, both of them with smiles on their faces.
In the south, in a small village on the coast called Arniston-by-the-Sea, more seemingly happy children found me and my camera and couldn’t wait to pose.
I was blown away by the positive attitude of the children, all of whom are removed by a generation from the inequality their parents and grandparents faced. They gave me a sense of hope and joy, so much so that I created a photo book on this hope. Have a look at the most precious images of what hope looks like in my book I call Post Apartheid Kids.
All this we have Nelson Mandela to thank. As CNN so eloquently put it, “word of Nelson Mandela’s death spread quickly across the United States, bringing with it a mix of reverence and grief for a man who was born in South Africa but in the end belonged to the world.”
His activism is a pure example of how to make a horrible wrong right. The South Africa I experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, while is full of beautiful memories and encounters with people who did make a positive difference, is an uglier South Africa than the one Mandela created over the course of his presidency.
While for many Europeans and Americans, the death of Mandela may feel akin to losing one of their own, it goes much deeper for me. Having gone to high school in South Africa, having been exposed to the rawest form of racism I had yet to experience in South Africa, having married a South African and having been transformed by its activists, its musicians, its professors, its authors and my friends, all led to a deep connection to the country, as if the country had become my own.
South Africa is imprinted not just in my memory but she is in my blood. Mandela is part of that imprint. Mandela made more than an impact on South Africa – his resilience and spirit has taught us all around the world what it means to be human and what it takes to step up to the plate and embrace humanity. I bow down and honor his life and am grateful for how he has touched me and the world at large.
May God grant you the peace and serenity you so deserve Nelson Mandela. As Obama so beautifully said in his speech, “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”
For a beautifully reflective and heartwarming end to this tribute, listen to this heartfelt song by Johnny Clegg performed in 1999 with Nelson Mandela on stage:
Note: For those who are interested in a deeper dive into South African history, culture and tribal influences across centuries, please read one of my favorite authors Andre Brink, who I still dream of meeting over a glass of Shiraz one day. He has written countless novels and memoires, all of which I have read, however my favorites include Looking On Darkness, The Other Side of Silence, Rumors of Rain, An Intant in the Wind and A Chain of Voices. Let’s just say I have read this list of novels more than once.
Photo credits: Top image of Mandela from UK Telegraph. All other images Renee Blodgett.