It has been noted many times that white people seem to be comfortable when together with black people when it is a “controlled environment”. If the black people aren’t too many, primarily. But the experiences I had at the end of 2006 was not controlled, this time I chose to break out of the box.

I was doing a holiday job assisting the marking of matric exams. They appoint students from the universities and technicons to help with this. Usually a majority black students, and a group of white students, and the previous time I did this, I simply flocked to the safeness of the white crowd. Plus, I had a white roommate that time.

I arrived at Nelspruit high school on the first day. Upon registering the white administrative woman at this predominantly white school offered to put me in a room alone, so that I don’t need to be with a black person – if it was possible. When walking into the room where all the other assistants was already waiting, I found only four other white students. I immediately went to sit with them. At lunch time I went into Nelspruit with them. They were all living in Nelspruit. We sat around doing nothing during the whole first day (yes, don’t think that in writing this I’m going to make as if our current government system doesn’t have mistakes). At some point during the day I at least met some of the black students, who was asking me about what I was reading (Soultsunami at that stage).

At this specific marking center they were marking African languages and Computer studies. African langauges had only black markers. Computer studies I belief only white, but computer studies was a very small subject. All the white teachers preferred to find other sleeping arrangements, rather than spend the night in this predominantly black space. At other marking centers the white markers use the arranged sleeping quarters, but here, the number of blacks was just too many I guess. And the other white assistants went to sleep at there parents homes. I think I might have been the only white person in the hostels those nights. My room-mate’s name was Eugene.

The next morning, when walking into breakfast (or maybe this happened at lunch, I cannot remember), I had to make a choice: Get food, and go over to the table of white students, and proceed with life, knowing that every night I will be the white man alone. Or get food, walk right past the white table (that was largely empty) and sit with the people that weren’t off to there parents every chance they had, that stayed in this space where I was bound to stay. I chose the path less traveled, and that has made all the difference.

It was obvious from this point onwards that I was an outsider to the white group. Some decent dialogue still happened at times during the next 8-10 days I guess, but for the most part, this was the end of the short friendship we had on day one. But I made friends I could never have imagined. They were all Swazi’s. They taught me about the culture in which I grew up in. We simply became friends. Especially one person stand out from this time. Sibitiwe. We met on day one I believe. She was the daughter of two Lutheran pastors, grew up in church, but couldn’t believe that any straight-thinking young person would spend six years studying theology. So we got talking. She explained the tension between Zulu’s and Xhosa’s to me at the time when Jacob Zuma was starting to become visible as a possible next president. But mostly we just talked. About the squatter camp, about psychology, about the future, about life. And then one night she gave me the compliment of a lifetime, and not one I’m sure I deserve: “You have a black heart” she said. Even though you are white, you are different. Yes, they also knew that I had to in a way end the relationship with the white students if I wanted to spend the time, both day and night, with the black students.

In this time I remembered that I was given a Swazi name as a little boy in Swaziland. I didn’t even know it anymore. I found it from my father, and shared it with my new friends. Hi, they named me Nhlanhla : Lucky.

White boyfriend challenged

February 26, 2010

By the time I was finishing high school I have developed strong anti-racism sentiments, and learned to see black peers as friends and equals. I would go into university quite sensitive to the strong undertones of racism in the first residence where I lived (Sonop), and very comfortable with the mixed racial environment at the second one (Taaibos).

But my transformation was not finished. I fell in love at this stage, and no, not to a black girl (not that that would have been a problem in my eyes). I fell in love with the girl that would years later become my wife: Maryke. In the early years of our relationship she challenged me in a number of ways, but the two I remember most clearly was:

  1. I learned from her that I couldn’t think of God as male. That this was a male construct (without her having any feminist training, she was just being a woman, and sharing the honest experiences of being a woman).
  2. Although my friendship with Tsidi teached me that black people was equals, I felt like I must be a racist when I met Maryke. She wasn’t only willing to have black friends and think in terms of equality. She was totally comfortable in relationships with black people. I knew black people. She seemed to know the name of every black girl in her year-group! She seemed to be colorblind!

In the years following she continued to challenge by just living a life of total and absolute equality. It was some of the most amazing experiences the few times I went to the movies of to functions with her friends. Catolic, Protestant, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist. White, Black, Indian, Oriental. Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Mandarin, and a host of other languages I don’t even know. All of this were found in a group of maybe 10 or 12 people. They weren’t making a statement, simply living life together, and finding more in common than that divided them.

Some of these friends still visit us from time to time, and we keep on being enriched by there uniqueness.

White kid in a white school

February 24, 2010

When I reached the age of 6 or 7, it was time to go to school. So started some of the most formative years of my life (obviously). Where the community in which I lived was mostly black, and I had a lot of interracial experience, although it might not have at that stage translated into amazing friendships, the school in which I found myself was all white. Race was not an issue, since we never dealt with it.

I was in grade 1 in 1991. Before the referendum of 1992. I remember my parents voting, and I remember that the outcome was good. I can’t remember Apartheid being discussed much in the house, but I had no doubt about my parents’ position on whether blacks may vote etc. I think it must have been around this time that the black lady that worked for our family, her name was Eniy, did Bible study with us in the mornings.

But somewhere around this time I must have picked up some implicitly racist ideas. I remember singing a song at primary school with these words:

Strawberry lippies, die kaffers gooi klippies

Mandela’s ‘n kaffer en nou moet hy suffer.

Kaffer is the most oppresive term white people ever used to refer to black people under Apartheid. The rest translate as follows:

Strayberry lips, the kaffers is throwing rocks

Mandela is a kaffer, and now he must suffer.

If ever I was a white man toi-toi’ing against the struggle, it was when we were singing this song. I do remember that it was with some discomfort though. This wasn’t how we were brought up. But although the school would never have propagated Apartheid ideology in those years (remember this was very close to ’94), and since I was living in Swaziland I never knew about all the Apartheid issues (I heard about pass laws only while in high school), the system in which I was finding myself was strengthening the idea that black people were somehow lesser humans than white people. It’s not something we argued about, and about which people made explicit cases for, but in our jokes, in our talking, somehow as if it was in the water, in our blood, we knew that we were better, and that black people were dirty.

In about 1995 I remember the fights for transforming the schools. I know my father was taking a leading role in our school to have them open up for black kids. Eventually they did. But I remember the day when we were driving to the high school to pick up the high school kids that were living in Swaziland, and seeing the march of armed white men who was fighting against the first black kid that was allowed in the school.

Some black people were different though. We had a child from the kingly lineage from Swaziland, a Dlamini, in our school who was our fastest athlete. Somehow he was considered to be touchable. I remember Chester Williams (Invictus reminded us of him), he was a hero of sorts. And I guess there were others as well. Some called them “good kaffers”, which in a brilliant way describe the experience that some had when they realized that there were black people that was really just better than white people in something. Usually sports was a good first place to notice this. How do you recognize the fact that a person is truly contributing to the school while still being inherently racist? But even when black students performed, you’ll find the jokes like “he can run so fast because he used to run away from the police”.

There was good coming out of this system. We were getting to know black kids, but usually we remained divided along language lines (actually if I remember correctly the school was mostly divided along language lines even before 1994). But 5 years later, by 2000, I was even more of a racist than before. And if I still wonder if I was a racist as a preschool kid in Swaziland, I know I was one by early high school. Even though still in a reserved manner. I was well-trained by my parents never to speak of maids or kaffers or openly discriminate against black people. None of my friends would have considered me a racist though. In most circles I would have been considered very open to black people. It took an “other” to help me realize my own inherent racism.

I’ve started many blog series over the past few years, and didn’t finish many of them. So when this series started bubbling up in my head I decided to first write everything, and then start posting. I think it might have been Jonathan Jansen that kicked these thoughts into creation by saying words which became part of my white experiences in Africa at the South African Missiological Society meeting in Bloemfontein, on 13 January. On this experience I will reflect later on.

In the days after this experience, I had the urge to write down my stories, and reflect on them. Several stories from my life was crystalizing as formative moments for who I am today regarding race. Many more than those I write here, obviously, but in looking back over my life so far, these experiences stand out as radically changing the way I think about my own whiteness in South Africa. I wrote these stories down on 14 January 2010. I spent some time reflecting on these, at some point thinking that maybe I’ll write reflections on them as well. But I’ll leave the reflections and comments for the rest of you..

The series will consist of seven stories. These stories open up wounds, I am aware of this. The stories may ignite lots of emotions from different people. And you might reflect totally different on these stories than I do. Please take part in my journey.

I am a white male. An Afrikaner. I am 25. We only moved to South Africa permanently on 19 July 1994, yet Apartheid is part of me in ways I am still discovering. This is a story of stories which made me who I am today. It will continue for a week or so.

Recently a group of black theological students of the URCSA studying at UP visited the Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto together with some fellow theological students from the DRC and some visiting students from the USA. Some time after the visit, the students said (in a discussion) that the Hector Peterson memorial “is not a place to visit with white people” since “it only makes you angry”. What had made them angry was that the white students said at the memorial: “We were not even born when this happened”, without any acknowledgement of their connectedness with their parents and grandparents who had been  born at the time and without owning up to the fact that they had benefited from their “whiteness”, even though they were never in the position to support or perpetrate apartheid. The unwillingness or inability to acknowledge white privilege flowing from the apartheid system is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in South Africa, and it will have to be addressed in a reconciling mission praxis.

From a paper entitled “RECONCILING ENCOUNTERS IN LUKE-ACTS” delivered by Prof Klippies Kritzenger at a conference in Stellenbosch, May 2009.

More than once I talked about the Afrikaner tribe in a series of posts on Afrikaner identity written after Amahoro 2009. I’ve been thinking about a number of Afrikaans songs for years now, and the song which probably best formulate the thoughts of many young white South Africans is that of  “Nie langer” (“not any more”) by Klopjag, that shouts out that we won’t be saying sorry any more. It’s been bothering me ever since I first heard it.

The reason can partly be found in the paragraph above: it’s not acknowledging the fact that we benefited from being white, since we are connected to our parents and grandparents. But my discomfort has been growing ever deeper, and it’s more than simply the fact that we benefited from the past. What bothers me is the fact that we actually disconnect ourselves from our own history with this song, with these words. The URCSA students maybe have a much more natural understanding of belonging to a group, to a culture, to a tribe.

My thoughts on this found special meaning in an experience at Amahoro, really a conversion experience, where my Afrikaner identity suddenly found meaning for Africa, where I believe I became an African theologian in my own eyes. Not by forgetting the past. Not by disconnecting from it in the way that the story above tells. But exactly by connecting, by remembering, by saying sorry (not out of emotions of guilt, because I honestly can’t say I experience these emotions, but in a process of reconciliation), by admitting that my tribe was wrong.

My call to Christian Afrikaners is to join your tribe. Not in opposition to the South Africa of which you are part. Not on Loftus at a Curry Cup final. But by embracing your connectedness to the past. By visiting the Hector Peterson memorial and not distancing yourself from what it says, but by connecting, working through the pain and the hurt (and my non-Afrikaner and non-white readers must hear this, embracing the connectness is a really hurtful process!), so that we can find the reconciliation on the other side. Also, to find, as a white man, liberation within Africa:

After telling our story, the story of our people, proud at times, standing guilty at times, one of my new Kenyan friends said these words: “You need to come to Kenya and come tell your story! Our people need to hear that someone can admit that they were wrong.” Those must have been some of the most liberating words I’ve ever heard!

Quoted from How one Afrikaner became an African theologian

(and on a side-note, I was part of the group that visited the Hector Peterson museum from the story above)

After visiting the Apartheidmuseum while at Amahoro I made a kind of a personal vow that I will for the coming months take people their, and let them reflect on what they experience. Saturday was our first such a trip, with 11 people in their 20’s, 2 in their teens and one in his 50’s.

The museum has just too much to take in in one visit, so I picked about 5 stations which I didn’t spend time on last time, and really worked through them. The first was the Helen Suzman exhibition. What struck me was the part where she said that the stories of Jewish oppression (I think in the Holocaust, but it might also have been some other, or a few other, instances of anti-semitism) which she remembered was a strong influence in her fight against Apartheid.

For 13 years Suzman was the only member of parliament wholly against Apartheid, but she kept on fighting. Remembering Apartheid, not in order to experience guilt, but in order to change the future, has become very important to me, so Suzman’s remembrance of Jewish oppression and how this influenced her fight against Apartheid is a story which I also think should be remembered.

Well, will visit the museum with another group of interested people again in about a months time. Let me know if you are interested.

Steve Hays shared some remembrance from Apartheid, he still remembers.

Chris asked me today what Amahoro meant to me. My answer probably surprised the room: Amahoro called me back to the white Afrikaner people. Amahoro called me back to the Dutch Reformed Church, the white one. Linking with everyone from Africa was a great experience, and I look forward to joining the family next year in Nairobi, but for me the calling of Amahoro was not primarily to the worst suffering in Africa, but to a small tribe of people who are known for the efficiency with which we could oppress.

I probably need to explain.

This probably started when I seriously began digging into the missiology of David Bosch, and seeking for an approach to the emerging field of public theology which would take the work of Bosch into account. Up to now this haven’t really happened in the public theology conversation. Part of my discussion of Bosch was understanding his ecclesiology, specifically the way he used the alternative community concept of the Anabaptists, combined it with his own Reformed theology.

Bosch talked about the church as God’s experimental garden. The church is not only the community that is sent out to change the world, but also the place where we show the world what God’s dream would look like. For Bosch in the Apartheid years this would have meant showing an Apartheid government that black and white can live together, that the world isn’t going to come to an end when black and white share a meal.

What exactly all this mean to me I don’t know. But I do know that I pray for my people, and yes, I call the Afrikaners my people. I pray, and hear the voice of God calling this, that these people can in the years to come journey out of our heritage, and become part of Africa, of this continent with it’s struggles, with it’s African theologians and our beautiful way of talking about God amidst suffering. It’s like the way Bosch understood the reign of God, it’s here, but it’s still coming. The Afrikaner is part of Africa, but we are also still becoming part of Africa.

In different ways we responded to Amahoro. For me it wasn’t walking away from this church that still refuse to embrace Belhar, but embracing this church. Not embracing it as it is, but this deep feeling that I cannot go without them. I need to see these people transition. I cannot run and call them from afar, tell them how wonderful it is here on the other side, where we are wholly part of Africa. I need to walk with them. The world need us to make this journey, to show that yes, whatever you might remember about this group of people, through God even we can make this journey.

Nic said it at one stage at Amahoro. We pitch our tents out far, and then come back to the church and journey with them. Amahoro stretch the road to when my tent is pitched even further, but it also sent me back, I’ve seen something of the road, now I must go on the journey with others.

This is most probably not the last time I’ll blog on this. I just know that these words it not what’s going on in my head, but I need to start to try and formulate this truckload of thoughts that’s still racing.