I was just four years old, too young to remember Nelson Mandela when he was first imprisoned in 1963. I remember though the concerns reported in the news when he was released in February 1990: was he still a terrorist behind the words of peace and reconciliation, what would happen, would there be violence and if so who would cause it; and I remember too his wife Winnie Mandela making the British news reports, as the one who seemed to be leading the aggression.
But the fears were unfounded, after 27 years of imprisonment Nelson Mandela was a changed man, and he, Winnie Mandela and South Africa soon faded from front page news elsewhere in the world, and life went on as ‘normal’. New news became old news and so on.
The first few years after his release were undoubtedly a steep learning curve in adapting to life in modern society. Much had changed, not least technology. But after four years of freedom Nelson Mandela became President. His words of wisdom have since been repeated over and over.
It was strange then to find myself in South Africa when he died on 5th December 2013, just three days after I arrived here. But it was a white South African pharmacist who commented that it was a privilege for me to be in South Africa when Nelson Mandela died that prompted me to write this blog.
Maybe it is a privilege to have been here on such an occasion. I’m not sure. Perhaps because of my nationality and politics it felt a greater privilege to be in Argentina when Margaret Thatcher died.
But I digress. I am acutely aware of my race, my whiteness, in this country of South Africa. Apartheid may officially be over but there’s still a disconcerting undercurrent, a legacy.
First, I have to understand that, unlike in England, ‘coloured’ is not a racist term. In fact, to call a ‘coloured’ person ‘black’ is highly offensive. I think I understand the difference but I’m certainly not going to try to explain it here.
I’m not used to the deferential mannerisms of, or being called ma’am by black people especially, but also coloured people. Although deference is not reserved solely for whites it makes me uncomfortable.
Most (but not all) of the service jobs, shop assistants, cleaners, waiters, etc, are carried out by black/coloured people.
The whites don’t live in the townships. Many more whites than black/coloured people drive cars.
White people strenuously avoid eye contact with strangers in the supermarket and if they mistakenly do catch your eye they quickly break eye contact and never ever smile back at you or acknowledge you with a nod even. There are exceptions of course, but as far as I can tell they are people like me: the visitors, the holiday makes, the travellers, not the ‘locals’. Black/coloured people seem at least a little more open.
As a traveller in this country I have been warned to be careful of being robbed, especially by blacks/coloureds, on the grounds that as a white person I will be seen as wealthy even though this is not my own perception of my situation (travelling long term on a very limited budget).
Of course I am wealthy by comparison, just as I was wealthy by comparison throughout much of Central and South America and Central Asia. What I do know is that in my experience the vast majority of people are kind, generous, curious, interested and not out to cause harm to strangers in their midst. And I would prefer to see people that way.
I’m White European. My life has mostly been lived in the Northern Hemisphere. Regardless of class or education I was born into a kind of privilege no-one can change. I was born into a society from which it is next to impossible to truly understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice, no matter how much I consider it. But so far my experience of South Africa makes me uncomfortable in my skin.
“Even though we are sad we have to make our own lives follow his work.” Lebong Ntswane, quoted in a South African newspaper following the death of Nelson Mandela.