Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Educated in apartheid

During the apartheid years, I was privileged to attend a rather smart private school as a ‘bursary girl’. The best thing about private schools was that they had both black and white pupils. Its difficult to hate and fear the same people who you play skipping and share your sweets with.

My black classmates were even more privileged than I, because if they hadn’t been at that school, they’d have been drawn into the infamous ‘Bantu Education System’ which was designed to turn out maids and gardeners – the sort of black people who white people would approve of. The Soweto uprising of 1976 happened as a result of black pupils protesting against the education (or lack thereof) that they were getting. They got shot. Terrible times.

I lost my bursary because I was a lazy child who didn’t like school and refused to work at it and so ended up in a cheap, all-white government school. In one class (I think it was history), the teacher seemed determined to informally indoctrinate us in the ways of apartheid and fed us all the lies: ‘Black people are stupid. Black people are primative. Black people are not fit to be part of our white society.’

Given my background, I protested. I’d been at school with black children, and they were just like other children. After many classes and debates the teacher leveled what he thought was an unanswerable argument at me: ‘So would you marry one?’

I must have been about ten or eleven years old, but it seemed like that one had an obvious answer: ‘Yes. If I thought the man was right for me, I’d marry him regardless of race.’ I would probably have been in less trouble if I’d let off a hand grenade in class.

In those years, intermarriage was illegal, and the law in which this was stipulated was known as the ‘Immorality Act’. I had therefore postulated something that was both illegal and ‘immoral’. I was dragged off to the principle’s office. My mother was phoned. If I’d been any older, they’d probably have phoned the security police too.

Getting back to class was even worse. The other children, secure in the knowledge that the ‘Powers that be’ supported them, gave me hell. From that day on, I was something of a pariah. My mother shrugged and said that I should stand up for what I thought was right. I think she was secretly proud of me, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.

Its funny though, that an immoral law should be called the ‘Immorality Act’ – a few more years and I’ll be able to see the funny side more fully. For those couples who found their soul mates ‘across the colour bar’ in those years, it must be more difficult. I doubt they’ll ever see the joke.

Coming soon: bomb blasts and uniforms (I haven’t forgotten)

There's trouble with the internet, caused by the sea-line (lion?) internet is very patchy in SA and will be for some time. Bah!

Today's pic: a thorny one!


  1. It was a character defining choice when you stood up to your ignorant teacher. And even though you felt alone in that choice, it's possible you ignited a spark in others who then made their own character defining choices at some other point in their lives. It is often the intolerant among us who have the loudest voices- but those who are more fair minded are still listening and seeking out voices of reason. Yours was most certainly resounding that day. Your Mother had every reason to be extremely proud- I'm glad you felt it.

  2. I'll tell you one thing, PAMO. I'm almost ashamed that I had it so easy in the apartheid years. At least no-one shot at me when I protested!

  3. some times I wonder if it helped me to never be around other Sri Lankans till I was older. I never really fit in with anyone & usually found friends based on common interests (skateboarding, punk rock...etc) so my friends were every color under the rainbow...who knows, I just feel fortunate to grow up with no hang ups about race.

  4. I'm glad you weren't shot at.
    I grew up mostly here in the Southern United States with an extremely racist Father. His Father was racist and I'm assuming his Father. In generations back- the racism extended to the American Indian population as well- which was very strange because our family clearly has Indian blood.
    When we lived in California for a short time, my peers "accused" me of being Mexican. In the South, my peers speculated I was part African American. When my family pointed out my Indian look- my Father's Mother would go ballistic.
    Even as a child, I knew I did not believe what my Father believed. It just never made any sense. For a long time, I did not like my dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. It seemed to influence how people thought about me. I remember one kid at school asking me what country I came from. I just looked at her and said, "The United States of America." She said she thought I was Asian.
    It's funny now looking back- but at the time- I felt sorely isolated. (My brothers and sisters were all fair skinned with green or blue eyes.) Fortunately, I always had a really good friend or two that such things like ethnicity didn't seem to matter.
    As an adult, a fair skinned friend and I went to Utah. At one point we were inside an Indian Reservation. The Indian people there would talk to me- but not her. She had never experienced that kind of discrimination before. I felt an odd sense of belonging. OK- I enjoyed it for the moment. But- I was glad I didn't have to participate in a community that experienced such dissatisfaction with others outside their own ethnicity.
    I guess this is my blog on your blog. Strong stuff. I don't think these kinds of things happen as much today. At least they don't to me.

  5. Thanks for sharing folks. Apartheid kept people apart, and its easy to fear what you don't know and to hate what has no face.

    My black friends and I could only play together at school. Our parents' neighbors (both the black and the white ones) would have given our parents a hard time for 'brothering up' with other races. Sick, really. You were lucky to live in a country where everyone could be themselves - even if their were prejudices, they weren't legally entrenched!

    PAMO: thanks so much for sharing. School days can be painful. I'm sure you were a lovely child and a good friend, but kids often notice 'difference' and then one feels awkward. I was tiny, my brother had a long nose, you were dark and so it goes.

    Is discrimination something so instinctive?

    Incidentally, my Afrikaans grandmother who was 'classified' white (arbitary stuff done in the 1950's) used to have to produce her ID to get on the bus. People were often horrible to her because she 'looked coloured', but did this make her more tolerant? No. She was the most virulent right winger imaginable. Crazy stuff.

  6. Fear is the word. And then people who are power hungry use fear to promote their cause.
    It all seems so silly.

  7. It's funny, really: apartheid kept people apart, but now the sharing of apartheid and racist experiences is bringing people together. You're all winners in this.