When I was in high school (Ten years ago! Jeez, I'm getting old!), South Africa was on the evening news daily, showing riots and oppression, strikes and marches. Nelson Mandela--who is just leaving the presidency on Wednesday, June 16--was still in prison for his role in the African National Congress. I wore a big "Free Nelson Mandela" button on my blue jean jacket and my Amnesty International chapter wrote letters of protest to the South African President demanding his release. To me, South Africa was this far-off place, ruled by evil racist policies. Most of the world refused to trade with them, and the radio played hit songs condemning them like "Sun City" and "Biko".
So, even though apartheid has ended and free elections have twice given the presidency to the African National Congress, I came here to South Africa with a lot of apprehension and prejudice against a white population who benefited from the apartheid system. Since I arrived, I've struggled to feel comfortable here, where the division between races is still so clearly defined. But I've also gotten to know many white South Africans as human beings and as friends, and I can no longer see them as the "bad" people they seemed to be from the evening news.
"Did you know what was going on, with the oppression and violence?" I asked.
"Not really," Wayne admitted. "We knew that there was violence in the townships, but we weren't aware of the extent of military involvement in the violence. All we saw was the violence, we weren't aware that there was more behind the scenes."
The white population is divided between the Afrikaans, who are descendents of the Dutch and speak the Afrikaner language, and the English Speakers who are mostly descendents of the British colonists. The Afrikaans tend to be the more conservative group. Henrik Verwoerd--an Afrikaan of the Conservative National Party--was the designer of the apartheid system, and they were the most resistant to its end. "The change has been easier for the English speaking people than the Afrikaans people. They have more of a sense of their heritage being challenged," explained Wayne.
Obviously, equality and integration can't come overnight. The United States provides an example of the problems in overcoming generations of inequality, where African-Americans still struggle with economic and educational disadvantages. The differences here seem to me to be even greater than they were in the US in the 1950's (see Shawn's Article on schools). Still, I've been really impressed by the attitudes I've found here. Everyone I've met seems dedicated to creating a peaceful, "rainbow nation," and willing to acknowledge the problems of the past. I know my impression of South Africa has changed radically from what it was ten years ago. With the second round of fair, democratic elections, there seems to be great hope for a peaceful future here in the "rainbow nation."
Shawn - A Tale of Two Schools
Monica - Window into a South African Home
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