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.