On the morning of the 6th of December, my mother came to my room to wake me up. “Nelson Mandela died,” she said, waiting for me to get out of bed and watch the news with her. Earlier, my Aunties in South Africa had phoned to tell us about the passing as soon as the current South African President, Jacob Zuma, announced Mandela’s death. The fact that he was gravely ill had been playing out for over a year so I guess I wasn’t too surprised. To a certain degree, I had hoped that he would pass away soon since he seemed to be caught in a cycle of hospital visits and emergency treatment. By the end of his life, he could barely talk.
Born in 1990, during the years of negotiation for democracy, I’m neither apart of the born-free generation, born after 1994, nor am I a part of the generations before me who faced the discrimination and segregation of Apartheid. In this sense, I guess I never really understood the big fuss around Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) until I was much older. I never really understood how the struggle against Apartheid has shaped my view of the world and that of the people around me until now.
Looking back, I understand why I always felt so caught between my parent’s take on the world and my grandparent’s inherent sense of race.
My parents grew up in South Africa of rebellion. My father joined the ANC during his time at university in the 70s and 80s, often protesting the apartheid regime and running errands for the party, including driving around senior leaders. For this reason, the apartheid government refused to allow my father and his peers to have a graduation ceremony. It was only in 1997 that they were finally allowed to adorn the black cape and cap. For my father, the prison lock-ups and police brutality were worth it in order to achieve the dream of one day living in a democratic and free country.
Contrastingly, my grandparents who grew up between the 1920s-1940s in racial segregation seemed to accept it that way. Their sense of race became inherent and their identity as Indian, written in the pass books they were made to carry, was the only heritage they were willing to accept.
I think that the generational divide is where the shift from Apartheid influence truly plays out. Whilst my grandparents were taught to fear the black man and respect the white man, my parents grew up with Nelson Mandela and the ANC slowly penetrating and changing previous notions held about race and one’s place in South Africa.
By the time I was born, racial segregation had started to break down in a big way. For one, whilst my grandparents had homes in traditionally Indian areas, my parents ventured away and bought their first home in a previously white-only neighbourhood. This became a contrast in my life that confused me. My parents wanted me to grow up surrounded by diversity whilst my grandparents, who I was close to, were still very grounded in their Indian identity. Most of my cousins, who grew up in heavily Indian influenced areas were quick to point out that black people were inferior whilst white people were evil for the bad things they did.
Starting school, I noticed from an early age that social groups were race based: Indians were friends with Indians, and occasionally with Coloureds. Blacks with Blacks. Most Whites still attended private (previously white-only) schools.
Looking back now, my introduction into the world of ethnic heritage and race still centred around the dynamics of Apartheid.
Nevertheless, my parents sent me to a Jai Hind Primary school (Victory to India) and brought me up in white dominated neighbourhood. On weekdays I played and learned with my brown skinned, dark haired, dark eyed peers and on the weekend, I swam and went to church with fair skinned, little blonde haired girls with blue eyes who didn’t seem so evil to me.
When the black middle-class started to emerge in the late 90s, my sense of race was again shaken. I had started to form friendships with the black kids in my neighbourhood. Younela, one of best friends during this time, would let me play with her hair and I would let her play with mine because we were fascinated by the different textures. We had sleepovers and slept in the same bed.
When my parents got a live in maid who was black, we would eat dinner and watch TV together.
Black people didn’t seem so inferior after all.
The reason I’ve chosen to reflect on my life as a memorial piece to Mandela is because I think my life has come to reflect his hopes and dreams for South Africa. As a member of generation-y, my sense of race and ethnicity is vastly different to that of my grandparents. Whilst my grandparents were taught to accept their difference and know their place based on their skin colour, my parent’s generation, heavily influenced by people like Mr.Mandela, took on the Apartheid government, refusing to accept race as a defining factor in their lives.
My generation continues to live out some of the bumps and face the consequences of the Apartheid regime. Racism still exists on a high scale. The journey towards realising Madiba’s dream of a rainbow nation is still a while away, but things are getting better.
Whenever I see my little fair-skinned English and Afrikaans speaking niece who doesn’t know the difference between the white side or brown side of her family, I am reminded of this. After all, just two generations ago, she would have been born a crime.