Are we freed from something when we understand it or do we become a slave of it even more? I am a white, Afrikaans South African and my culture haunts me everywhere I go. From the church where I worship to the restaurant I eat, everywhere I am followed and confronted with the new “neo”-apartheid movement. I’ve come to understand it more and more but that only serves to frustrate me, but let me start, as all good stories should, with a flashback to when I was a little child.
I was too young to know what apartheid was but old enough to know that black people were like strangers to me. I never saw them around. The only black person I used to talk to was Isaac, our gardener. I can’t remember him but my mother tells me we talked a lot and used to be friends. I can’t remember skin color being a huge issue for me but I knew that they were different just from how other people treated them. Strangely I remember how afraid white people were of black people. My friends, their parents and in my school. So I also learned to be afraid of them, although I didn’t truly understand why. So I was about nine years old and it was 1993, a very sensitive time in South Africa. I was standing on a train station platform in Cape Town and we were about to take the train for the first time as a family. Just to clarify, the train was not nice, clean, western standard train. It was dirty, rural and African. It was one of the primary ways black workers got to and from work. My father wanted us to experience the train and our family was never racist. As the train stopped in front of us and the doors open. Being a very excited young boy I jumped on the train first. My sister was not so eager, she was quite younger than me and she started to cry seeing all these strange people. She didn’t want to move. As the rest of my family tried to console her the doors of the train closed and I was trapped. Not only trapped alone on a train going who-knows-where but trapped in a foreign world. A world filled full of black faces. A fear I could not understand. I immediately fell to the floor of the train and started to cry, uncontrollably. Surrounded with nothing but foreign (to me) people all staring at the only white boy on the train. I remember a man standing up and coming to sit next to me, asking my name. I didn’t answer, I just sobbed. He took my hand, led me to an empty seat next to him and told me that he will not leave me alone. He kept asking questions. „Where are your parents? How old are you? Where were you going?“ I never answered him, I just cried.
When the train stopped at the first station he got off and took me with him, the whole way holding my hand and taking me to the station master. They contacted my parents and in no time they came to get me. By that time my savior was long gone and I never saw him again. So why am I telling you this story?
I can’t remember a lot of details about that day, it was over 20 years ago, but to this day I can exactly remember the way I felt. The absolute fear I experienced and then being saved, being saved by the very thing I feared. From that day racism never made sense to me. I could never adopt it even when so many people in my community were racist and sometimes even expected it from me. And now it’s the new South Africa and make no mistake, racism is alive and well but it has evolved. It has become a chameleon-ninja, hiding in the shadows and always looking like something else, always offering an excuse and a reason for racist remarks. We have moved into the 21st century in this country with “I’m not a racist but…” on our lips, that “but” being a dead giveaway to someone being racist. And make no mistake it’s coming from both sides.
I have a lot of thoughts, theories and ideas about this country and how to make it a bit better, as all my fellow South Africans might have. Maybe in the future I will share more of my ideas on this blog but this is merely my story, or rather a small part of my story. I think maybe a lot of people in South Africa are still holding on to racism or creating a new, post-modern form of it because we all have faced some form of overwhelming racial fear but we weren’t saved by that fear. We weren’t confronted by an absolute change of heart, mind and spirit. It is fair to say that that day was one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever experienced and, as all encounters with God should be, it ended in a strong, true and defining relationship. A relationship with a man who saved me on that train and to that day I do not know who he was. That relationship is still alive in my heart, but it is a relationship with equality and humane behavior. We all share this planet and all of us are saving each other’s children on trains. My message to all those closet racist is to pray that Jesus will strengthen your heart so that you may face your fear and find that in your fear is where your salvation lies.
Charel du Toit
– Theology Student at the University of Pretoria –