20 March 2016

Apartheid, South Africa

On the 21st of March 1960, the events of what has become known as the Sharpeville Massacre took place. A peaceful crowd of united youth took a stand against South Africa's "Bantu" education system. Bantu means people in IsiZulu which is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. Despite its meaning, this system of education was not for the people. The system dictated that all South Africans had to be taught in Afrikaans, a predominantly white-dominated language, in a country where more than 70% of the population is black. This upset the non-white learners who turned to protest. What was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned ugly when police opened fire on the unarmed protesters. The result was the loss of 69 innocent learners with another 180 wounded. This day was monumental in South Africa for the effects which it had on our Human Rights; each and every South African, no matter the colour of their skin or background, today, is equal to any other South African because of the events which took place on this day, as well as other events which proceeded and preceded this day, which 56 years later is known as Human Rights Day.

I am what one would call a 'Born-Free'. I was born post the segregation of Apartheid-particularly post 1994, when Nelson Mandela came into power. I was born into a new, hopeful South Africa that had begun to see all individuals as equal; a country which was still mending wounds from the horrors which this inhumane movement called for. I, as  a 'Born-Free' signified the hope for the South Africa that was to come.

I have grown up with an opportunity which my parents, and theirs before them, could never have fathomed living in this country. Today, I am able to sit in classrooms with white, black, Indians, Oientals and coloureds (which is a term referring to a child which has both a black and white parent) and every other type of person in between, because of the events which took place on the 21st of March 1960. I have had the opportunity to befriend and learn from different cultures, religions and races because of the events which occurred on this day.

South Africa has taken great strides since Apartheid to make up for the repression caused; although the effects of this segregation can still be seen today, 22 years after democracy. For instance, the South African workforce predominantly consist of black ladies and gentleman

My parents own a business which I have visited every school holiday since I could practically walk. I would scamper around making tents among the goods in their storage units and I'd make labels which said 'kick-me' and proceed to give a staff member a good ol' tap on the back for it to be plastered on and consequently set my ingenious plan of butt-kicking into action. Most importantly however, I would interact with their staff. From the age of three, I would walk into their workshops and would befriend these ladies and gentleman, who I still visit now, during my school holidays, more than a decade later.

One lady in particular, Thandi, was always laughing or smiling, a genuine fun-loving character if you will. My brother and I would always target her with labels, and she would always make as if she never knew they were there, although, looking back, I'm pretty sure she did. I mean, with the amount of back tapping that was going on, she must have known, right?

Thandi's mom, Miriam, has worked for our family for the last 40 years- even when the Dompass, which quite literally means "dumb pass" was a law. All black workers working in white areas were required to have this pass to show that they had permission to work in a non-black area. Miriam has been like a second mom to me. She would 'tete' me, which is a word in IsiZulu which refers to a child on one's back, with a quilt wrapped around to secure the baby. She would warm up my bottle with tea in it for me to suck on when I would come home from pre-school and do so much more in between.

Thandi died yesterday, at the approximate age of 40. Taken by one of the deadliest killers in my country- AIDS. Aids is a virus which leaves the human immune system exposed and vulnerable. I will never get to witness her loving smile which emulated warmth and compassion ever again.

Today, myself, my mom and my gran visited Miriam in Soweto which is one of the largest, if not the largest, township in South Africa. Soweto has famously been the home of The Father of the Nation, Nelson Mandela, Emeritus Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, the sight of the Sharpeville Massacre amongst many more notable characteristics.

Miriam lives in a beige painted, three bedroom house. The government-given house consists of a bedroom with an ornamented headboard as the backdrop to a mattress placed neatly on the floor with floral sheets, a kitchen with a large rectilinear window over-looking her son and daughter's living quarters, and the living room which boasts well-crafted wooden cupboards to the left with framed pictures of Miriam and her family, as well as a large birthday card, celebrating someone's 21st birthday-presumably Miriam's grandchild.

I sat with Miriam in the living room at an aluminium fold-out table placed neatly in the center of the small room, with beautifully ornamented blue and orange table clothes which draped over the table. Light entered the room through the open-plan house from the rectangular window in the kitchen, and the open metal door behind me which occasionally blew in fresh gusts of air from the outside autumn wind.  Relatives of Thandi began to arrive, as is customary when someone passes. The first to arrive after us was a 'gogo' (IsiZulu for granny), an Aunty and uMalume (uncle). Seated opposite them was Miriam, and to the right of Miriam was myself and my family.

It was at this moment, when I looked around at the faces of the people in the room that I realized something truly great- I was experiencing a moment which very few in South Africa have the privilege of experiencing in their lives. I was in Soweto, a politically and culturally rich location where so much had happened historically and which had an impact on the South Africa that I know of today. I was particularly in an area called Zola, deep in the Soweto township, where few whites dare to travel due to misconceptions with regards to safety. I found myself seated across uMalume and uGogo-who the Apartheid system aimed to oppress-and oppressed by those with the same colour skin as mine, seated opposite. My gran, to my left, who was born and raised in Greece was communicating with gogo and uMalume, despite the fact that English was neither of their first languages.

In one room, in the heart of Soweto were those tyrannized by Apartheid (Miriam, uGogo and uMalume), those who benefited unwillingly to Apartheid (my mom and my grandomother) and myself- a Born-Free who never experienced any of the hatred,segregation or burden that came with the inhuman movement.

Yet, through the unfortunate incident of death, we were uniting and consoling one another in what would have been seen as the oddest of coincidences to anyone who might have entered the room at that moment.

But nonetheless, a coincidence that I will never forget.

Till next time-


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