By Vuyiswa Sidzumo
Driving from George to Beaufort West on Youth Day, June 16, I tuned into my favorite radio station, Umhlobo Wenene, a national Xhosa station. They periodically play clips about people’s views about June 16, a significant day in the history of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. On that day in 1976, students in townships across the country went to the streets to protest against apartheid laws.
One of the callers commented, “Apartheid happened! It is now gone—we should get over it”.
Of course, this is not a new sentiment among the “born-frees”, as the youth who did not experience apartheid are fondly referred to in the country.
On this day, however, it strikes a chord.
I’m still feeling a bit raw after spending a few days with anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs during his visit to the hometown of the organization I work for, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, in Flint, Michigan.
During his visit, Albie gave a brilliant lecture at the University of Michigan-Flint on “Nelson Mandela: A Leader and a Friend” to an audience of more than 165 people who hung on every word he said. As one colleague later put it, “It was like a book I didn’t want to put down”.
The next day, Albie spoke at the Mott Foundation and I had the privilege of introducing him to what was mainly a Mott internal audience. In my introduction, I wrote something about not being sure if I wouldn’t be emotional when introducing Albie, and indeed I was.
I found myself choking and not able to speak, and Albie reached over and touched my shoulder in a gesture of sympathy. I felt overwhelmed by emotions, simultaneously thinking of the pain he suffered from his car bombing while also remembering what apartheid was like.
I wondered afterwards why exactly I became emotional.
My guess is that I was processing a lot of pent up emotion. I’ve always said that most of us who grew up under apartheid are time bombs waiting to explode.
We’ve never processed how apartheid affected us as individuals. We rushed into creating a rainbow nation without analyzing the personal impact, and we avoided finding the space to deal with our own emotions.
The irony is that we’re very good at complaining about apartheid and its ills in general terms, but many of us are too scared to go deeper than that. Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. We will, however, have to face the consequences of our choices at different times in our lives.
After the event, Albie asked me why I cried.
When I told him it was partly because of his pain, he said he never felt any pain after the bombing—an explosion that led to him losing an arm and the sight of one eye—because he was in and out of consciousness. So he probed me further, asking if I had a personal story of physical harm. I told him I didn’t.
I pondered Albie’s question for a moment, and then I explained to him that part of my pain is that after almost twenty years of freedom I still need to constantly remind myself that I’m not inferior to a white person. It is a constant effort that makes it difficult for the pain to go away.
In many cases it has nothing to do with the person I’m interacting with, but sometimes it does, in turn raising anger and resentment. This is the genius of apartheid. It is the unseen wounds that run deepest.
I think Albie is one of the lucky ones: Not only is his wound visible, but he’s also able to talk about his pain.
Anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko once said: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed…so as a prelude whites must be made to realize that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realize that they are also human, not inferior.” I wish I could tell the great leader, and one of my heroes, that it was that easy.
When I think back to the Umhlobo Wenene caller, I am struck by the profound difficulty of explaining to someone who didn’t live through apartheid how it affected us—especially how it altered the very way we view ourselves.
A Nigerian man once told me that he would rather have grown up in apartheid South Africa than in a free Nigeria. His simple analysis was that in Nigeria things like telephones were reserved for government ministers and the rich, but many ordinary people in South African townships had telephones and running water in their homes.
His view was that South Africans are whiners who think apartheid made them special.
I was shocked by this sentiment, and I failed to get him to appreciate that there is no comparison to apartheid. As much as I will never fully understand what it was like to grow up in an area affected by the Biafra War in Nigeria—which he did—I felt it was arrogant of him to trivialize the impact of apartheid.
How do you make someone understand the impact of living under a system that drilled into you that you are good for nothing and that your only purpose on earth is to make the life of the white master easier? How do you explain that for decades you were always told where you could go, when, and what you would do when you got there? How do you tell them that your destiny was determined at birth by the color of your skin, not by your potential? How do you explain that as a child you prayed every day that your father would get home safely after a bullet narrowly missed him (but not the guy in front of him) because they dared join the 1985 bus boycott and instead walked to the train station—peacefully, I might add? How do you forget that as a child playing in the street you ran for your life if you saw the yellow police trucks approach because you weren’t sure you wouldn’t be shot just for the amusement of the white police?
Frankly, I can’t.
Many of these memories are etched in a part of my brain I don’t visit often, but when I do, it’s a dark place to be.
It’s easier to explain apartheid at a societal level because the evidence is still all around us. But the mind is a powerful thing, it can work for or against you. The apartheid architects knew this only too well.
I’ve always avoided reading books and watching movies that talk about apartheid or other forms of suffering by people of African origin.
It’s too close to home.
When Albie agreed to come to Flint, I felt obliged to read at least one of his books, but I dreaded it. I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain. Eventually I settled on “The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter”.
It was therefore with relief that I discovered the book is strangely not a sad read, but a story about the triumph of the human spirit. I felt as if I were getting a glimpse into Albie’s life and his role in the freedom struggle, instead of reliving my own pain.
When the movie “Mississippi Burning” came out in the 1980s, my friends thought it was strange that I refused to go watch it. Well, I still refuse to watch it. I also haven’t mustered the courage to watch “The Help”, in spite of the excellent reviews.
I don’t know if this is part of my escape or my own way of dealing with my pain. Whatever it is, it seems to work the majority of the time, and I will continue to take it one day or one event at a time.
I choose not to be a victim, however. I’m only human, after all.
Vuyiswa Sidzumo is Director: South Africa for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and is a regular contributor to this site