A life lived under apartheid
November 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
*this originally appeared on the Cape Times on August 27 2013
“You are lucky, you have now lived more years in a New South Africa than you have under apartheid. I have lived most of my life under apartheid than outside it.” These were the words of my uncle to me a few months ago. “And for people to tell us blacks to be over it when most our lives are defined by what we experienced for longer is asking too much.” I am still very bitter he said. And it makes me extremely bitter when I hear that we are obsessed with it by people who did not go through what we had to go through.
My uncle is approaching his 70s now. He talks fast and has a very strong voice, to the point of almost being gruff. Ever since I’ve known him, he has had way more confidence than most people I knew. Xhosas are generally very expressive, my uncle is always without doubt the loudest person in any room or kraal, which is where we were when he said what he said to me. As he spoke, the men from the village who were there to enjoy the sheep, which had been slaughtered for some family festivities, nodded in agreement.
He had gone to work in Johannesburg in his 20s to his late 30s. In that time, he was able to save enough money to start a taxi business. This was when the taxi industry was still at its infancy in the 80s. He managed to make himself and his family a lot of money in that time. His one taxi became several, employing his sons and others to drive his taxis. Eventually he had a prestigious shop in his village of Sugarbush.
He did so well that he built himself an enormous house in the village. It was nicer and bigger than a lot of houses you could find in the suburbs. It obviously had no indoor plumbing because this was a village that had no such luxuries. He also had tractors which he use to hire out to teal, plant, harvest and fetch firewood for villagers. His tractors did the work for several villages. He became really wealthy businessman in the village during apartheid. Yet, with the demise of apartheid, so did his wealth but that is a story for another day.
My uncle spoke about how he used to teach new white employees how to do their jobs. Although he taught them, they got paid more. How they acted like they knew even though they didn’t know. They couldn’t bare the thought of being taught by a black man to do anything. He told me how the same people he’d taught to do their jobs would do everything to undermine his intelligence when they had become his boss. He says that he felt as though he was a reminder to them that black people weren’t inferior like they thought.
The other men in the kraal said that there were things they experienced in the hands of white people that they did not want to repeat and reveal to me in case they wash away my idealism. They spoke of how they always had to be invisible to their white bosses. They couldn’t seem too bright or too smart because if they did, they got mocked for trying to be clever and or lost their jobs. How they had to balance between being invisible but being visible and being there when needed. There was a struggle to be invisible even though they hated the idea of not being seen.
One of the men told a story that we have heard many times in South Africa. He worked as a gardener in Johannesburg for a certain family. He talked about how the family dogs were allowed in the house at any given moment, yet he was never allowed to go inside the house. How an animal was more important than a human being was something he never got used to, even though he worked for the family for years. “I don’t hate white people. But for the majority of my life, they have treated me like I was not worthy of being a human being. I can’t trust them, but I don’t hate them. Most of my life has been under apartheid. You on the other hand have lived most of your life outside apartheid. I don’t expect you to completely understand.”
There really was no bitterness in their voices, talking about their experiences felt like a therapy session for them.