Friday, December 02, 2011

Life After University

Part 8: The new decade was to bring significant changes in South Africa. The powder keg that was South African race relations seemed on the verge of exploding at any minute. Despite the regular violence and protests, life for many South Africans continued as 'normal' That is, if normal was regular bomb threats. While it might seem as if the release of Mandela would have diffused the powder keg, if anything, politics got more tumultuous as various groups jockeyed for positions of power in the new South Africa. But again, for most white South Africans, amidst what would seem like chaos to others, life went on as if everything was 'normal'

Ian and I graduated from Rhodes University at the end of 1989. I had wanted to pursue a master’s degree in psychology and my grades were good enough, but my advisors at Rhodes told me to get some life experience first. Like most students, I had gone to university straight out of high school. It made sense that before I got my master's and started counseling people, I had some practical life experience. So I moved back to Benoni near Johannesburg and lived with my mom and sisters.

Since I had received a government scholarship to go to Rhodes, I re-paid it by working for the Department of Home Affairs in their human resources department. My job was in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, an hour north of Benoni. Everyday I car pooled with Ian and two other friends from Benoni to Pretoria and back. Back then, with the Nationalist Party still in the majority, government personnel were predominantly white; Afrikaans speaking whites to be more specific. There was an Indian girl and myself who were the only English speaking people in our entire human resources department.

It was a tumultuous time not only for the country but for me personally. Ian and I had been dating since high school and all throughout university. I even switched universities to be with him. Yet in 1989 we started to question whether we should stay together. In my own family, after twenty three years of marriage, my parents decided to divorce after struggling in their own relationship.

In February of 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I was still working for the government and while I don’t remember the actual day itself, during the weeks before and after, I remember the reactions around me at work. A lot of people were in fear of losing their jobs because of what they thought was an impending affirmative action plan. The more racist Afrikaners were saying, "I will never work for a kaffir!" (extreme racist term) or “If a black man comes in here and has to work, I’m leaving!” or “There’s no way I'm working next to a black man.”

I want to point out that I also met some Afrikaners who were liberal minded. I remember one lady in particular, she was excited. She told me, “I can’t wait for the changes, you know? I almost ashamed to be Afrikaans...” But then, given the environment we were in, she also said to me don’t say this out loud, don’t let everybody know, and I knew what she was talking about.

I do remember seeing in the news on TV the jubilation around the country by the Xhosa people. There was dancing in the streets and massive gatherings of people wherever Mandela went. I remember how he always wore those floral shirts, always waving at people and always smiling.

In my circle of friends and family at that time, including my Methodist church, there was great excitement and a readiness to get voting. It was almost surreal in a way. Looking back I do not think I realized just how significant these events were. We were all sick of the violence, the unrest, the sanctions and the negative view of the world. We wanted peace and we knew that the National party was coming to an end.

While most South Africans, white and black, were jubilant at Mandela’s release, there was an underlying fear of what it meant for the country. There had been so much violence and bloodshed, everyone was pretty convinced that civil war was imminent, and, contrary to what the world thought, Mandela’s release did not bring immediate peace. There would be four long hard years of negotiations amidst more violence and protest before South Africans elected a new, truly democratic government.

Towards the end of 1990, I announced to my father that I wanted to work for South African Airways. Take aback, he said, "You have a degree. Why are you going to do that?" I told him, "Because I want to fly, I want to travel some more." I still wanted to become a psychologist, but since my advisors said I needed life experience, I thought travel would be a great way to do it. I applied to South African Airways in October of that year and started working for them as a flight attendant in December.

In April 1991, the plane I was on had just started backing out of the gate when the captain announced that we had to go back and evacuate the plane. Apparently there was a bomb threat, which, in South Africa at that time, was a weekly event. Having been with South Africa Airways for a few months by then, I was used to the announcement. We went back to the gate so the authorities could search our luggage. As we helped the passengers disembark to a secluded area, in the midst of a large group of Chinese tourists, I saw Nelson Mandela! Oddly enough, my first thought was, 'How do these Chinese tourists know who he is?' I stood off to the side watching the Chinese take all these pictures of him. Then my boss said to me, "Can you make Mr. Mandela a cup of tea?" I couldn’t believe it. While I was so nervous, I was determined to shake his hand and tell him that I admired him. And that’s what I did. I gave him his tea and shook his hand. To this day, I remember what his hand felt like. I said to him, "I think you're amazing." Then I asked him to sign my appointment book, on the date of our flight, and he signed it simply, “Mandela.” I doubt I will ever part with that book.

After graduation, Ian worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs. Since his area of study at university was international affairs, he applied for a position in the diplomatic corp. Given my love of travel, even with our rocky relationship, I told him in no uncertain terms that he was not going to abroad without me. As circumstances would have it, Ian got a position at the United Nations in New York City. I was so excited to realize my dream of returning to the US. However, in order for me to join Ian in New York, we needed to be married.

On hearing the news of our engagement and impending departure, my parents were flabbergasted. My mom said to me afterwards, "You left at 18 and you never came back." As I said before, we were a close family. It was kind of like a sad, heaviness for her, to lose her girl to America.

Ian and I were married in June 1991 at the Benoni Country Club. Ours was a very elaborate wedding with many people because Ian’s dad the mayor of Benoni. Flora, a former maid of my family, and her son, John, were invited. As a result, some of my conservative Afrikaner uncles did not attend the wedding. This incident was a mirror of what was going on in South Africa; huge changes that many had a hard time coming to terms with. Interestingly enough, despite their prejudice against black South Africans, my Afrikaner relatives never considered leaving the country despite the inevitable power shift from white Afrikaner to black South Africans.

We honeymooned at Gold Reef City, a resort built around an old gold mine near Johannesburg. Then we lived with Ian's dad and his dad’s wife for three weeks while we got ready for our three year overseas assignment.

The South African government did little to prepare us for this diplomatic corp life. While Ian had some political and technical orientation, mine was simply conversations with other wives in the corp who had already completed a few overseas postings. The only formal training I remember was around dinner protocol; who sits where, how you set the table, and not leaving the party before your own ambassador leaves. Otherwise my orientation into this new life was just what I could glean from my conversations with the other wives, and those conversations pretty much revolved around finding apartments and furniture once we arrived at our posting.

Even though I had been to the US before, I was still excited about going abroad again. And just like when I left for my AFS year in North Carolina, all of our family and friends were at the airport to see us off, excited for us, our new life and the adventure that lay ahead of us. I mean, the whole thing was like a fairy tale. Ian and I were married in big wedding and now we were traveling to the United States. And it wasn’t just to New York; we were going into the diplomatic corp. Who knew what other international postings lay ahead for us? So we had this big glamorous career ahead of us and I was very excited.

1 comment:

JT said...

This is fascinating! BTW, In reading the book with Mandela's signature, it sure looks to me like NMandela...there's too much flourish in that M...unless there are other examples of his signature out there that showed he routinely did that.

More, More, get up to 2011!!