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A Society Built on a Foundation of Contempt for People Who are Different Cannot Last

February 15, 2013

In January 1976, I moved to South Africa.  I was 13 years old.  It was my first time out of the United States.  It was my first time on an airplane.  But it wasn’t my first time moving away from home: for as long as I could remember, we had been moving, from one southern California suburb to the next.  Changing schools and having to make new friends was always unpleasant.  But this was different.  I was moving halfway around the planet, to a strange, foreign land.

My apprehension was tempered by excitement.  After all, this wasn’t just another cookie-cutter southern California suburb we were moving to; it was Africa.  I yearned for it to be an amazing adventure.

And it was.

I saw large, wild animals in their native habitat.  I spent countless hours wandering through the brush and grasslands by myself.  I entered high school, made new friends, and attempted to learn a new language.  I experienced riots, unthinkable repression, and even war.  I hiked across the stunning high plains and tasted some of the best that Africa had to offer.  I built cool things, explored interesting places, and reached for the stars.

My move to South Africa took place more than 35 years ago.  I think about my time there frequently, reliving the unforgettable experiences of my adolescence.  But only recently was I able to put all of those experiences into context.  Although I only lived there for a short time, it happened during an important stage: my transition from child to adult.  And this is the story of the most disturbing thing I saw while I was down in Africa.

—–

Once we moved out of our temporary quarters at the Johannesburg Holiday Inn and settled into South African suburbia, I began attending Florida Park High School in Roodepoort, just a couple of miles down the hill from our townhouse in Quellerina.  In a country ruled by the iron fist of apartheid, I wasn’t surprised to be attending a whites-only school.  But I hadn’t realized that in a society so heavily steeped in divisiveness, there was even a division between whites: the great English / Afrikaans divide.

Afrikaans is a language which evolved in southern Africa from the Dutch speaking peoples who settled there in the 1600s.  A good friend of mine from Belgium, who spoke fluent Dutch, once described her experience on an extended trip she took through Botswana and South Africa with horror as such:

“It was so weird, it was like everyone was speaking some sort of strange 17th century Dutch dialect…”

Even though I was attending an English high school, all English speaking whites were required by law to take classes and become fluent in Afrikaans.  (The opposite was also true—native Afrikaans speakers were required to learn English in the Afrikaans school as well.)  English speakers like me who were dropped in to this alien territory without being exposed to Afrikaans since our first day of kindergarten were obligated to take “Immigrant Afrikaans” classes—accelerated language training that, at least in theory, would in very short time let the slow kids like me “catch up” with the rest of the class.

On my first day in Afrikaans class, the teacher put me in a corner and had me listen to a recording of 20 basic Afrikaans words.  I then took home a piece of paper with those words on it, to study that night.  The next morning in class, she said “So, you’ve memorized those 20 words”—it was more of a declarative statement than a question—”now let’s move on to the next 20.”  I immediately knew I was in trouble.  Deep trouble.

In the United States, we use the “A/B/C/D/F” grading system, where “F” stands for “fail” and is the lowest grade you can get.  But in many places outside the U.S., you can actually be more stupid than getting an “F”.  My first term grade in Afrikaans class ended up being a miserable 23%.  Yes, I got an “H” in Afrikaans.

Ironically, the Soweto riots in 1976 were originally started by high school students just like me—black high school students no more than 10 miles away from my school—who were protesting the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which required all black schools in South Africa to teach classes half in English and half in Afrikaans.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with learning Afrikaans.

—–

Apartheid was an elaborate architecture for racial segregation, practiced in South Africa for more than 45 years.  Many people oversimplify apartheid as a “black / white” thing, but it was more complicated than that, taking into account races other than black and white, and mixed race people as well.

Protests and uprisings against apartheid and related policies took place across South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, led by Nelson Mandela and others.  In June of 1976, there was yet another uprising, this time in the town of Soweto.  But this uprising was different.  It caught the attention of the nation and the world, shining a new light on the dark condition of apartheid.

From the standpoint of ending the injustices of apartheid in South Africa, the Soweto riots of 1976 were a failure.  But their real success was in bringing the apartheid situation to the forefront on the international stage.  “Soweto”, a non-descript shanty town west of Johannesburg, quickly became a household name; a symbol for a South African government out of step with modern ideas about equality and freedom, a term synonymous with injustice.

Mandela himself was imprisoned about a week before I was born; while I lived in South Africa, he was incarcerated at the notorious Robben Island Prison. He wasn’t released from prison until 1990.  Three years later he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and then in 1994 was awarded the ultimate redemption when he became president of South Africa.

The Soweto riots did not the end apartheid.  But they certainly marked the beginning of the end.

—–

I vividly remember that afternoon in shop class at Florida Park High School.  It was Wednesday, June 16th, 1976.  Word was passed down to each classroom from the school administration.  Our teacher shared the news with us rather bluntly:

“The blacks are rioting.”

We all huddled around an old AM radio trying to hear what was going on.  There was tension in the air, not unlike that thick, heavy feeling as the skies darken right before the clouds burst open with a violent thunderstorm. It was unclear how far the riots had spread out from Soweto, and whether or not our bus route home that afternoon would be affected.  In fact, we were at least 5, probably closer to 10 miles north of any reported violence, and the ruling white government cracked down hard on the rioters to make sure that the violence stayed relatively in a relatively confined area.  But that did little to ease the tension.

Fearing the worst, several students began to arm themselves with large bolts and scraps of metal from shop class, which they placed in the front pockets of their school blazers.  On the ride home, everyone was on high alert, positioned at the windows, scanning for signs of attack.  For a few minutes, I was caught up in the frenzy, before I realized that we were all just a bunch of rich white kids living in a safe community.  We were in no apparent danger from anyone, and even if we were, there was nothing we could really do about it.

I sat back in detached indifference and watched the events unfold as if watching a show on television.  As the bus drove along the road, a core group of agitators got themselves more and more worked up.  But there was nothing going on out there on the streets.  No attacks.  No threats.  Not even a peaceful demonstration.

At some point, my schoolmates could no longer contain their nervous energy.  Boredom is an evil motivator.

Why wait for the inevitable attack?  They quickly changed from defensive mode to offensive mode, and made the decision to strike first.

And that’s when things got real ugly.

The unlucky victim was a young black man, probably in his mid-twenties, walking home from the store.  He wore a dark hat and dirty suit which were probably 20 years out of style, and in each hand he held a bag of groceries.  A random student on the bus pointed at this random victim, yelled something to his partners in crime, and then a flurry of assorted bits and pieces of shrapnel started flying out of the windows of the moving bus.

One large chunk of scrap metal met its mark, striking the unsuspecting victim squarely in the abdomen.  He let out a squeal of pain as he dropped to his knees, then he doubled over on the pavement, both hands releasing the bags of groceries to clutch the point of impact in his midsection.  My fellow students on the bus let out a collective roar, cheering loudly as if they had won not just the latest battle in the uprising, but the entire race war.

As the bus chugged along, the driver seemingly oblivious or possibly just indifferent to the injustice which had just taken place, I looked back and saw the poor man on the ground, writhing in pain, as the canned goods from his now empty bags scattered, rolling down the pavement.

It was one of the most disturbing things I have ever witnessed in my life.

—–

Up to that point, apartheid had been sort of an abstract concept to me.  Sure, I was living in the thick of it, and it obviously affected everyone and everything around me.  But I felt somehow removed from the whole struggle these people were experiencing, an emotional distance which was there probably because I was just a temporary visitor in this strange land, and probably also because I was white and was not myself a victim of the institutionalized discrimination blacks suffered under apartheid.  But I had now seen firsthand the ugly face of it.  The day I saw that man—the man who just happened to have dark-colored skin—drop down in the street, a chunk of scrap metal smashing his gut as well as his dignity to bits, it all became very, very real.

A society built on a foundation of contempt for people who are different cannot last.

 

This story is excerpted from Matt Artz’s book Down to Africa [ Paperback | Kindle | iPad ].

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