Friday, June 24, 2011


Part 7:  Here’s the short history. For the full history, go here. The first inhabitants of South Africa were the San people who were hunter/gathers. In 1653, on behalf of the Dutch trading company, the VOC, Jan van Riebeeck established a Dutch colony at Cape Town. The Dutch who settled in South Africa later became known as Afrikaners. In 1795, the British arrived and since then there has been tension between the two European groups which has periodically flared into open combat. The on going tensions between the two white groups however, did little to assuage their combined oppression of the native Africans. In 1948, the Afrikaner dominated National Party won the general election and instituted a series of restrictive laws that formalized the discrimination that was generally practiced since the Europeans first arrived. These laws became know to the world as ‘Apartheid’ (pronounced ‘apart- tide’). From the arrival of the first European, the native Africans have struggled to assert their basic rights. Of the many groups established to fight for equality, two became the clear leaders in the 70’s; the African National Congress (ANC) with it’s legendary leader Nelson Mandela and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) under the leadership of Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The final push for black South African freedom is generally thought to have started with the uprising at Soweto in 1976, when schoolchildren, staging a peaceful protest, were fired upon by police forces. The following decades brought increasing violence and protest. The relentless conflict coupled with a slowing economy and increasing international pressure led the National Party government to realize the “apart-ness” between the races they had hoped to achieve was futile if they ever hope to live in peace. Both sides knew they could not stay where they were, but a future with racial equality and without violence seemed almost impossible to achieve.

At the age of 18, I finished high school. Because of the way the school year is set up in South Africa (January to December versus September to June), I had six months at the University of the Witwatersrand before I went to Shelby, NC for my American Field Service exchange year. As I mentioned previously, those six months were pretty much useless. When I got back from the US in July 1986, I had very little time before I had to return to University and resume my studies.

It was a given in my family that I would be going to an English university and not an Afrikaans one; the difference being mostly what language the courses were taught in. The choices were University of Witswatersrand, University of Cape Town or Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Since I didn’t want to move out of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Rhodes were not options for me, and I went to the University of Witswatersrand (or 'Wits' as we called it) as a commuting student.

My boyfriend, Ian went to the University of Witswatersrand too. He became very involved in the Modern Student Association, MSA. He was studying international relations and economics. I studied psychology and sociology and together we studied politics and law. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to return to Wits the following year. Having spent a year in America without him, I didn't want to be without him again. So when he transferred to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, twelve hours away from Johannesburg, I wanted to go to Rhodes too.

My parents were flabbergasted. My dad didn't want me to leave home again. Both my parents said, "You've just come back. Why are you leaving again?" I remember crying and crying and telling my Mom, "You don't understand. I love him. I have to go with him." And just like with AFS, I pleaded my case to my mother and she advocated for me to my dad. Interestingly enough, my dad had actually attended Rhodes. He studied theology there for a couple of years and even played rugby for Rhodes. So there was kind of a connection all ready. But even when my parents finally consented, there was a lot that had to happen because it was quite expensive to go to Rhodes. I had to work on getting student loans and scholarships.

Up until I went to university, I felt like I lived in a cocoon. Like I said before, my world was my family, school and church. While I was increasingly aware of the poor treatment of black South Africans, I wasn’t affected much by the Apartheid policies of my country. My life seemed normal to me. Normal changed when I went to university. At university was the first time I had contact with a black person who was not some one's servant. The university was not segregated so there were all sorts of people there. Not only did I meet all sorts of diverse people, I learned for the first time about socialism, Marxism and capitalism. It was a mind blowing experience coming from how I'd grown up to this most liberal institution. Going to university opened my eyes a lot and it’s where my participation in the struggles began.

There were a few political student organizations on campus; some more radical than others. As a result of my dad's influence, I joined the Moderate Students Association, the MSA. A lot of the black South Africans didn't like us because they thought we were selling out. They figured we were just white people, watered down, who didn’t understand and were not really into the struggle; they thought we were elitists. But we had a lot of black, whites, and Indians join the moderate movement.

There were a lot of protests and marches on the university campuses. On some days you'd arrive on campus and there would be a police battalion, ten rows deep and ten rows wide in full riot gear. They would come to the university and line up on the rugby fields because they'd got wind that there was going to be a demonstration on campus that day. One was never quite sure where the confrontation was going to go down, but it would start out at a particular point on campus with everybody gathering. Mostly black people and some of the more militant ones in the front. Then the students started this toi toi thing.

The toi toi was like a military march. The protesters would jump from left foot to right foot, lifting their knees high in the air. Then as they marched forward, they would shout something that sounded like "Ahoy! Ahoy, Ahoy!" They would do this right through the university campus with the women ululating in a high shrill voice. It was scary, and so intimidating. The white students would join and walk along with them yelling "Freedom! We want freedom!" or "Down with Apartheid!" and stuff like that. We'd mostly walk in the middle of all the marchers because we were always afraid that there were people taking photographs and we could be arrested for treason. In South Africa, you could be detained for 90 days for ‘questioning’ without being charged for a crime and without access to due process. At the end of the 90 days, you could be re-arrested should the police feel the desire to do so.

Often things would get violent. Once at Wits I somehow ended up in the front row of a demonstration on campus one day. The band of protesters were maybe 15 people wide and about 200 hundred students all in all. We came face to face with the South African Police (SAP) riot squad and their dogs. It was chaotic; the students were doing the toi toi, some of the women were wailing in that high shrill voice used in protests, people were shouting, “Viva Mandela!”, dogs were barking and the SAP were shouting in English and Afrikaans, "Get back!! Get back!!" I remember making eye contact with one of the SAP officers, but it wasn't a moment of animosity for me. I actually felt sorry for him because I assumed he was doing something he didn't really want to do. It’s strange the things that go through one's mind in a split second! I don't remember much of what happened after that. I do remember being filled with adrenalin, feeling obstinate...acting fearless...angry...face to face with apartheid in a way. Ian was there too, and I think that made me feel safer. That day the protesters actually burned the South African flag. As the flames got bigger, the crowd went wild. Then they started to sing “Nkosi Sikelel'i” which means 'God Save Africa' in Xhosa, an native African language. It was a hymn written and composed in 1897 by a Xhosa teacher named Enoch Sontonga and adopted as the ANC anthem in 1925. Today, it is the South African national anthem, but at that time, to sing it was considered treasonous. I didn't know all the words back then, but I loved listening to the song, sung with such passion and beautiful harmonies. While they sang, I stood arm in arm with some sweaty black students I didn't know nor ever saw again, and felt uplifted, hopeful.

The university teachers were some of the stronger voices in the struggle for freedom and equality. Frequently during my university years, I'd arrive for a lecture in one of my classes, but it was canceled because the professor had been detained. Banning was also another popular tool used by the government to silence dissent. While you were technically not arrested nor detained, banning prohibited you from speaking to more than one person at a time, from gathering with more than one person at a time and from writing anything for publication. It was done by signature of a cabinet minister, without legal proceedings or court hearings of any kind, and the banned person had no legal redress.

While Rhodes had it’s share of protests, it was not like the chaos I felt at Wits in Johannesburg. We had many marches down the center of Grahamstown, but I don’t recall the flag being burned; which frequently happened in Johannesburg. At Rhodes, the protests were more peaceful; we would have midnight marches. We would go to one of the halls that had amazing acoustics, and sing "Nkosi Sikelel'i"

However, like I told the Ogburns in North Carolina, my life wasn't all about the protests.

While going to University of Witswatersrand, I commuted from my mother’s house. So I didn’t really have the opportunity to participate in campus life much. I was there for school and then I came home and did my essays and such. But at Rhodes it was a whole different experience living in the residence halls; that was a different vibe all together.

At Rhodes we had the student union where we could all go hang out. There was lots of drinking and partying. While universities in South Africa don’t have the Greek fraternity system that the American colleges have, they did have drinking clubs. The clubs would have different uniforms, crazy hats and other things that they wore. While I never joined one, there were cool little restaurants and places to go in Grahamstown; places you could hang out, play pool and eat something. It was like student town. I took part in that sort of thing on the weekends, but during the week I just stuck to my work. I was good at finding that balance because I was motivated to do my work and do well. I wanted the degree and I wanted to get good marks. I was competitive, and I wanted to be the top of my class.

After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to go on to obtaining my master’s degree. However, the master’s program was very competitive and I was young so my advisers at Rhodes told me to go get some life experience before I applied to the program. Thus in December of 1989, I graduated from the University of Rhodes with an Honor’s Degree in psychology. It would prove to be a tumultuous time for me and especially my country.

No comments: