(This entry was written after I stayed a few nights in Pretoria, one of the capitals of South Africa, and what had been an all white city, now slowly being integrated, I was in Pretoria on Peace Corps business and a rugby tournament was taking place, so the hostel was pretty full, some blokes invited me to share the warmth of their kameeldorn, camelthorn fire)
We had been gathering around a fire for awhile. As usual, I was the interesting outsider, which gave me an opportunity to share Peace Corps goals as well as my personal goal, as many of these conversations go, the talk turned to the future of South Africa.
“Where do you think South Africa is going?”
My usual answer is that it depends largely on the average South African and that it is my job to make sure that the South Africans I come into contact with, no matter the race, are both educated and emboldened to take their future in their hands.
You see, Philip. I talked to some blokes from Zim (Zimbabwe) yesterday, and they say we’re headed down that same path.
He was referring to the land repossession in Zimbabwe, where under the Mugabe government, land is taken from whites and then given to the blacks, in an effort to empower the blacks and reconcile the ills of the past, when blacks were forced off their land.
“Now let me tell you, the minute they start taking my land from me, land that has been in my family for generations, I will fight for it. That land is my heritage, my great grandfather bought it on bond, cleared it, made it productive. I want to give that land to my children and if armed men show up at my farm with weapons to take me off my land, they will have a fight on their hands. I will be dead, but so will about a hundred of them.”
“We will give up to a point. If they buy our land from us, then it’s different, but I’m a farmer, I want to farm. That’s my life. I’m good at farming, my farm is productive. Why should I have to give up doing what I’m good at?”
“It’s not that we don’t want to help. We understand what was done in the past was wrong, and let me tell you, if I were of a different race, I would be so enraged by the inequalities that I’d probably commit crimes to right the balance, but I’m not.”
“As I’ve said, I’ve tried to help. I’ve had labourers on my land who I taught how to farm and now they are doing the same on the tribal land. They’re taking a risk because the land belongs to the chief, if he wants to take it back, he can and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ll be trapped because the rest of the society wants what they have, and they feel entitled to it, so they take it. That’s the end of that man’s time and effort. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could.”
“I’ll give you that there are some racists out there, people who don’t want to do anything with the blacks, but that’s not only on our side. There are plenty of blacks who hate the white man.”
I don’t remember when but at one point in time one of the security guards, a black South African came around the fire. The very same people who were just trying to teach me Afrikaans were now speaking a language with clicks which I recognized as Xhosa, but regretfully don’t understand. South Africa has at least 11 official languages… it’d be difficult to learn every one.
Then the conversation shifted to respect and how language, in particular, means a great deal here in South Africa. Nelson Mandela once said, “When you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head; when you speak to a man in his own language, you speak to his heart.” And it was true, once the white South Africans began to speak Xhosa, all apprehension melted away from the face of the guard, smiles abounded on both sides and I took a mental snapshot of what South Africa could become.
I’m no historian or anthropologist, but I do believe, that South Africa has a unique potential to overcome the racial prejudices of the past. I don’t believe it will be easy, nor that it is certain to happen, but there, in that moment, a glimmer of the new South Africa was seen. I hope and pray to see more.