This is a photo of a mural in Khayelitsha which is a township outside Cape Town, South Africa. Along the bottom are the handprints of children. It was provided by Lynne, author of Wheatlands News. I met Lynne through the first *gift of jewels* project and we have kept in touch even though we live across the globe. I recently had an opportunity to interview her about life in South Africa. I wondered how much things have changed and how much they have stayed the same, especially as the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison for his stance against apartheid. I'm honoured to share with you today Lynne's unabridged, unedited perspective on life in South Africa (in her own words)*...
Greetings, my dear friend. Can you please introduce yourself and give a brief description of your blog?
How long have you lived in South Africa? and in what township(s)? I've lived in South Africa most of my life, except between 1988 and 1994 when I was in the UK. Townships are traditionally black areas, so I grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban (we moved around a lot!). After I married my first husband we lived mainly in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town as well as outside London in the UK.
What is the seasonal weather like there? In Moorreesburg (near Cape Town) where I live now we have a Mediterranean climate... rainy winters (which I love) and very hot summers (which I don't like at all!). We almost never get snow except on the highest mountains.
What is the basis of commerce in that region? I live in an area which grows the bulk of South Africa's wheat, and there are many wine farms as well. For the country as a whole, the commerce is varied... we have a big mining sector, (gold, diamonds, uranium, platinum, coal, iron ore etc) with many other industries as well, including a burgeoning film industry. South Africa is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa.
How is the socio-economic stratification composed? In theory, since our first democratic elections in 1994, we have an equal society, with no discrimination on grounds of race. In practice, the situation is very different. Most of the people who were the poorest of the poor during apartheid are still pitifully poor. The difference now is that there are both black and white among the upper echelons of society, whereas it used to be just whites. Discrimination does still exist in fact but it is reversed, with many white people not being able to get work because jobs are reserved for blacks. It is a complex issue: the wrongs of the past must be addressed, but I don't feel that the system as it is at the moment is doing that. It is still benefiting mainly a few people and not making a difference to most people who are still living in tin shacks in overcrowded conditions.
What were race relations like when you were growing up in South Africa? When I was growing up there was virtually no contact between the races. Certain areas were reserved for whites, others for blacks, coloureds or Indians. The only people of different race groups I saw were people who were working as domestic servants or gardeners. Schools, buses, trains and even post office queues were strictly segregated. The Immorality Act jailed people of different races who fell in love. If you were not white, certain professions were barred to you and you could not become fully qualified in a trade: effectively remaining as an apprentice all your life.
When did you first learn of "apartheid", and in what manner were you taught? I was taught at school, but it was for whites only (and girls only!). I first became aware of apartheid in 1976, when children in Soweto began to demonstrate against the second rate education they were being offered. It was an education system which effectively dumbed down the majority of the population. At this time many people, including children, were being shot for taking part in protests.
When I started working at the Cape Times newspaper in 1978, I really began to understand what apartheid was all about. There were so many laws in place that were preventing the newspapers from reporting on what was happening, so many whites were genuinely ignorant of the situation being faced by so many of their countrymen. At the Cape Times I worked with people of all races, and one man in particular, Yasied Fakier, decided to educate me about what was really happening. I will forever be grateful to him for opening my eyes and changing my life. I became involved in the UDF (United Democratic Front) that was fighting apartheid from within the country and also spent time in the townships for the first time, often at funerals of anti-apartheid activists.
I worked on newspapers around the country for the next 10 years, and had plenty of occasions to see the effects of apartheid, as well as the riots and protests. Violence was common: white on black and black on black. My most horrifying experience was being present when someone was necklaced in a township because they were believed by their community to be a police informer (necklacing is when a tyre is forced over someone's shoulders, pinning their arms to their sides, and then set alight.) The only time I was hurt personally was when an out-of-uniform policeman threw me off a (slowly) moving bus because I refused to sit next to him because I had seen him in action in the townships and knew who he was.
We all knew who Nelson Mandela was, but he was more of a mythical figurehead to many of us. There had been no photographs taken of him or statements by him allowed for virtually my whole life. I remember going to Pollsmoor Prison a couple of times after he was moved there from Robben Island because of rumours that he was being released!
In 1988 I went to the UK with my husband who was studying for a PhD and my two young sons. It was a particularly dark time for South Africa, and days after I left, many of the people who I worked with on UpFront, the journal of the UDF, were imprisoned without trial.
I was visiting friends in Bristol when Mandela was released, and we spent the day in a state of dazed euphoria... crying and laughing and feeling very, very far away from home!
What improvements have you seen in South Africa over time?
I have seen huge improvements. We have one of the world's most liberal constitutions and the laws that we have in place are some of the best in the world.Institutionalised discrimination is a thing of the past in many ways. The problem is that not all the laws are being put into effect in the best way. This is often because of a lack of capacity, especially in our local municipalities. I also believe that the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) laws have damaged the country because they have removed skilled people from the workforce. It would have been better to use those skills,and allowed a natural transition to take place. We have problems with service delivery and education and poverty, and the highest HIV/Aids infection level in the world. Violent crime is a huge problem, and it is directed mainly towards the people who are living in the poorest areas (although it only really makes headlines when it touches the more privileged members of society)
But there are good things happening and progress is being made. My hope for South Africa is that we learn to live in peace and that the ideal of a rainbow nation - the non-racial society promised in the Freedom Charter - would become a reality.
*(I have added hyperlinks for informational purposes.)