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South Africa – Then and Now

Today I sat next to Sibosisu. He is forty years old, just like me, he is South African by birth, just like me but he is black and I am white. He was my guide around Johannesburg, the city I once called home. We sat, side by side in the Apartheid Museum, watching a short movie which chronicled the struggle of the anti apartheid movement between the 1980′s and the early 1990′s. His and my childhood/teenage years.

Sibosisu grew up with a passbook, in a homeland, in a hut without running water or electricity. I grew up in a white only town, strapped to the back of my nanny as a baby whilst she cleaned our home. I vividly remember my mother taking her each day to the train station before curfew so she could travel the hour journey back to her township home. It was all so normal. There were just white children in my school, I didn’t know any black children at all. The news on TV was always scary, a mass of black people Toi-Toing in revolt, coming to get us, but it was far away, a place I never went to. I always had genuine fear of strangers who were black people and of the police. I remember once, whilst driving in my mother’s car getting stuck on a remote road. The spark plugs had got wet after driving through a puddle, a white policeman came to assist and I was inconsolable with fear.

Nowadays it’s a difficult concept to grasp, there I was, riding ponies, watching television, going to school, enjoying holidays and playing whilst the world around me burned. It was all very well for the megastars of the day to sing emphatically about the plight of the black people in South Africa but I never heard it, we lived in a bubble of sanctions, music, news, history lessons were duly filtered. In a way I think sanctions fed the bubble. I was not old enough to understand and too young for university where I may have got a better idea. It reminds me of those simulated suburban towns built in nuclear blast zones containing everything you can think of, an unreal existence.

In the late 1980′s I did join a rally in Cape Town, it rained that day. I worked for the Red Cross, they staffed township hospitals during the riots and work stoppages. I slowly started to get an idea of a world that was wrong. I watched Mandela walk free and met some black people on a personal level, I learned to speak some Zulu, I stood in line in 1994 and voted, side by side for a democratic South Africa. In my mind the equilibrium started to be restored. However I didn’t struggle in any way, Sibosisu rioted in Johannesburg and lost eight friends. We were exactly the same age but at the end of two extremes, each on the side of a fence which we didn’t build. He confided today that if he were to be reborn, he would like to be a white person. How can I not feel guilty? I don’t like guilt, I feel it is a wasted emotion.

The white population in South Africa made up just 9 percent of the population, why did it take so long for me to see? How did 9 percent manage to keep the 80 percent from me? If you had said to me 20 years ago that I would walk through Soweto, I would have told you to get real, no one did that, it was just unthinkable. Well, today Sibosisu and I sat on a bench, both 40 years old, both South African.