Friday, May 28, 2010


Part Two in a I don't know how many part series. As I mentioned in my May 3rd post, I'm writing a series about the life of my friend Arlene. She was born and raised in South Africa during one of the most significant periods in history of her country and possibly the global community. She also lived in the US for extended periods of time during that era which adds an even further interesting view point. Here is Arlene discussing her childhood.

I was born in 1966 in a town called Welkom which, as you might guess, means Welcome in Afrikaans. Welkom is a town in the province known as the Free State. The town basically grew up around the mines that were established after the discovery of gold on a farm in 1947.

My first memory is of playing in the driveway in the town I was born in. I must have been around four or five. I was playing with a little girl named Belinda at the end of the driveway, riding out bikes, and someone told me about the 'Pretty Belinda' song.

My dad worked in the coal mines underground and my mother was a microscopist on the mine and that's where they met.

My sister, Desiree, was born 18 months after me. Celeste, my other sister, was born two and a half years after Des. I remember when Celeste was born. My sister and I went to stay with the lady next door when my mom went into labor, and I remember when she and Celeste came home. Celeste had a bush of dark black hair and a white fluffy blanket around her. What I remember most distinctly is all the white fuzz in Celeste's dark hair. While not being named after anyone in particular, my mother, despite her Afrikaner heritage, had wanted English names for us girls.

I don't remember too much about the mining town but I do remember the houses. The houses we lived in were all identical along the street cause they were built by the mining company. Since we didn't have television and it was warm, we played outside all the time, until the sun went down. We were always together, me, Des and Celeste, we were very close. I used to feel like it was just our little family, like we were this little insulated bubble. We didn't go out much. Eating out wasn't a thing that we did, and we didn't go to the movies as a family. So the three of us entertained each other. We'd play school or some other pretend game.

We moved to a farm in the same province when I was five. The farm had chickens, roosters and a bull. I think my dad had his sights on farming livestock, but I'm pretty sure my mom wasn't happy with the situation. I remember standing on a box and washing the dishes. There was no electricity and we heated everything with coal from our big cast iron stove. I also remember doing the ironing. Our irons were made of cast iron that you put on the stove, and you would have three or four of them rotating.

In 1972, we moved to Benoni, a city in the Gauteng province, east of Johannesburg. My dad went into real estate and my mom stayed home with us girls. We moved around the different suburbs of Benoni but it was pretty much the city where I spent the rest of my youth. I went to three different primary schools in the town, Rynfield Primary, Arbor Primary and Farrarmere Primary. Public primary schools in South Africa went from age 6 to 13, and though public, were for whites only. The school you attended was based on which zone of the city you lived in and each school had its own uniform. After primary school, I spent five years in Benoni High School until I graduated at 18.

While I remember us being a tight knit family, I do remember us girls playing unsupervised a lot. My mom stayed at home for a while, but when I was eleven, she started working again. First as a secretary for our church and then for the Justine cosmetics company doing home parties like Avon does. So us kids would be outside a lot. We had a swimming pool, and we played in the pool all day, jumping off the roof into the swimming pool. Or we'd convert the living room into a night club and dance our hearts out. Crocodile Rock was a dance club favorite. We rocked out to Crocodile Rock a lot.

What I didn't realize until later was the songs we listened to were South African artists performing cover versions of other artist's songs. So we grew up listening to current music for the time, but not by the original artists. These cover songs were put on albums called Springbok 76 or Springbok 75; Springbok because that was the national animal and the number was for the year the album came out.

When we moved to Benoni, we befriended two boys across the street, Mark and Reilly. They were close in age to my sister Des. And we made friends with another set of neighbors, the Rogers, and those were the kids we played with, all day until the sun went down.


I don't remember being very happy at school despite that fact that I always did well. I just remember it being tedious, like it was too long a day and the rules bothered me a lot. I was a timid student, actually. I was terrified of getting in trouble and the few times I did were traumatic.

In primary school they had student monitors; fellow students who monitor the other kids. One day, I ran through someone's jump rope, just to be silly I suppose, and then this monitor wanted to bring me to the principal's office. Terrified, I barricaded myself on the railing, "Please don't take me! Please don't take me!" I cried, "I don't want to go!" The monitor let me off because she could see I was panic-stricken.

Maybe one reason I was so terrified was that corporal punishment was allowed in South African schools. We had big sand fields behind the school and after recess, we always had to make sure our hands were clean before we returned to class. The teachers would stand at the doors to inspect our hands, and if they weren't clean, we could be hit on the hand with a ruler.

Our nails had to be a certain length and no makeup was permitted. If you had hair, it had to be tied back with a certain kind of tie. That was what bothered me about school really, the rules. Your dress had to be a certain length, your socks had to be a certain height. We basically weren't allowed to express ourselves in any way and that's what bothered me. I didn't want to be a clone.

The education I received was known as Christian National Education. It was a very strict fundamentalist education where we prayed in school, we sang the national anthem and every Friday was Assembly, which was like a church service. And we were required to be bilingual by the time we graduated high school. Even though schooling was required to be in both languages, we had English schools and Afrikaan schools. At an English school most of the instruction was done in English and vice versa at an Afrikaans school. Though it was a requirement to learn Afrikaans, that's not to say everyone achieved such. I remember some kids really struggling, especially if they were more "recently" British. Other differences between the types of schools included the cultural activities like sports. Typically, rugby was taught at the Afrikaans school, and soccer at the English school. The music we learned was different to the Afrikaans kids. I remember most of my Afrikaans teachers were not very good at speaking English. I was one of the lucky ones who spoke both English and Afrikaans around my family and therefore it made it easier for me in school. And the Afrikaan schools were known to be worse. Very strict and very regimented. Especially for the boys. If they acted up, they got caned six times. 'Six of the best' the boys called it. It was a crazy way to grow up.


I didn't have a perception of my country being good or bad. My world was my family and my church. I mean, I was aware of the racism thing, but from a young age I was taught that black people were dangerous or communists and not to be trusted. So I kind of lived in fear. Especially of a black man. Yet we had black women living and working in our homes, as nannies or domestic servants. The maid was what we called our servants. We only ever had one maid at a time but we had a few over the years. It was weird because the maids were like surrogate mothers, they lived in our house and seldom went home. When one would leave, it was always traumatic. Our maid used to stay up with us late at night if my parents went out. She made my bed, she cooked the food, she did everything. But she definitely had a servant's status in my little mind.

I remember two maids in particular: Annie and Flora. Even though she worked for us for four years or so, I don't remember much about Annie except I knew she had children. But I couldn't tell you how many. One time I saw her being thrown into the back of a police truck. In South Africa at that time, black people were not allowed to be within the city limits without a pass. One day as Annie was walking on the street, the police drove up and stopped. They asked for her pass, and when she couldn't show it, they literally threw her into the van and drove off. She came back to us but I don't know how or why she was released. We kids knew not to ask about those kinds of things. It's one of my memories that I don't like to recall.

Flora was a maid we had when I was older. She stayed with us for quite a number of years. She had a son who was born while she was in our employ and my family helped raise him. Johnny is like a little brother now and he and Flora are still very much part of our lives today, but as family and not as servants. Flora still works as a maid today. Although now they're called domestic help and they are unionized with proper pay, pensions, and vacation time.

I never questioned if having maids was ok, but when I got older, like thirteen or fourteen, I hated it. Maybe when I was younger I couldn't think past myself but as I got older, I began to think that it was wrong that somebody in the house was working as a slave, up early making my bed, and with children that she never got to see. As weird as it sounds, I think they just became more human to me. I don't remember talking about it with any of my friends. I would go to their homes and see them just issuing orders to their maids. So I sort of kept my thoughts to myself because I didn't think that my thoughts were normal.

Ironically, I always kind of prided myself on the fact that my mom was kind to the servants because a lot of my extended family weren't. My grandmother's maids were not treated nicely. My grandparents always lived in some kind of like semi-rural or rural area, and I remember the maid coming to my grandmother's home. She would look a bit tattered and smell of burnt wood. Mostly I remember her not having any shoes. I used to look at her feet and wonder how far she had to walk on the pebble strewn dirt roads.

My grandmother would often get mad at the servants if they didn't do their job properly. She would say in Afrikaans, "Kaffirmeid!" Meid is Afrikaans for maid, but the phrase "kaffirmeid" would be like using the "N" word in America. My grandmother would frequently say for small transgressions, "Kaffirmeid! She doesn't even know what she's doing!"

The maid would have her own plate and a mug. When it was lunch time, she would have to sit outside and have a peanut butter sandwich. I remember the maid would make a big mug of coffee and put two thick pieces of bread on top of the mug and that was her lunch. Sometime she'd prepare her own porridge or something like that. The maids were paid and sometimes my grandmother would pay them with meat or eggs. But it was no where near the amount proper for the work the servants did.

I don't know why my parent's attitude towards our maids was different. Maybe because we were English and that meant we were just a little more liberal or a little more tolerant. My mom seemed to be caught between two worlds. She was raised by her Afrikaner parents so I wouldn't say she was a liberal. But I do remember her becoming more and more lenient, and kinder to our maids as we grew up. My mom would talk to our maid kindly and ask her to sit on the furniture, to sit on the couch, but she wouldn't. The maid never sat on our furniture. When she ate, she sat on the floor and ate from her own plate and cup.

Both my parents were born and raised in South Africa. My ancestors on my dad's side go back to the 1820 settlers. So I'm seriously African which I'm very glad to say. South Africa was initially settled by the Dutch in 1652, who were soon joined by Germans and French Huguenots. This group of Europeans came to be known as Afrikaners with their own language - Afrikaans, a language originating in Dutch. In 1820, English settlers arrived in South Africa to protect British interests. Unlike the Germans and French before them, the English never assimilated into the Afrikaner culture. And the Afrikaners did not want them to. This tension eventually blew up into the Boer War of the late 1800's. So even though my father's family has been in South Africa for more than 150 years, they still considered themselves to be "English" And despite being of common European descent, it was still very unusual in my parent's day for an Englishman to marry an Afrikaner girl like my mom.

My mom was from a typical Afrikaner family. They went to the Dutch Reform Church, and were extremely conservative. And extremely racist. They believed that racism was supported by God. But my mother always said that she didn't like being raised in such a strict household. She was eighteen when she met my dad, and he was a thirty year old handsome Englishman. I guess he kind of pulled her out of her old life and put her in a new one.

My sisters and I were the only English cousins in my mother's family. We could speak Afrikaans but amongst ourselves and our parents, we would speak English. We understood Afrikaans more than our cousins understood English. I think that's pretty much the case with all of South Africa. Most English people speak good Afrikaans, but a lot of Afrikaners speak little English. I think it's an accent thing. It's difficult to go the other way, from Afrikaans to English. It is interesting to consider how there could be animosity between two people groups who, honestly, if you put them in a room and they didn't speak, you could not tell the difference.

Despite having an Afrikaner mother, we considered ourselves to be an English family. At first, my mother's family was upset by her marriage but they eventually embraced my dad and I think it was because of rugby. He might have been an Englishman, but he played and loved rugby. And my mother's brothers were staunch rugby fanatics. Every Sunday we would have lunch with my mother's family. Lunch was always followed by rugby and I think that was my English father's saving grace.

Growing up, I didn't realize that the world was watching South Africa and what was going on here. I didn't realize that. The only thing I knew of the world beyond South Africa was what I learned in geography class on a map. It was only when I hit high school in the early 80's that I started to learn what was going on beyond our borders.

1 comment:

Ananda said...

Wow! I have read many books and articles about life in SA. Both my sons were born in Welkom and that is where I met my husband and where we worked together for almost 8 years. I were born smack in the middle of probably the worst times in our country as well 1975. We were raised racist and it was the way to go. To make it worse our parents' generation believed that is what God expects of us! I turned away from God for a great many years because of this conviction that I had. I thought that the God that I read about and the god that my parents taught me to serve, were definately not the same God. I am greatful though that God Himself helped me right. I hated school, I hated church, I hated SA for a huge amount of years as well. Now that I know the truth, I love my country. I love God dearly. And I love my people. I love our country in its divercity and uniqueness. It breaks my heart though that the atrocities and inhumane treatment of those years and decades really, has put horrific motions in action and that our country are ruled now by both racist and non-racist. God has promised to unite our nation and he has done so numerous times. We stand on His promises and know that the light of God is shining from our raw and sore nation. Thank you for this quote. I would love to read more about this. Blessings to you and your friend.