I want to say that the 90’s was a weird period in time, but to use the word “weird” to describe South Africa during the 90’s seems insipid and trivial. Of course, to describe myself and my experiences during the that decade, insipid and trivial hits the nail on the head. So, let’s go with weird for now. As a child of five, I entered the decade with predictable ignorance. At the beginning of the decade that would see Mandela released from prison, the abolition of the apartheid, the development of one of the most progressive constitutions in the world as well as South Africa’s first taste of democracy, I busied myself over grave concerns as to whether I could wear my Ninja Turtles watch to school and if my sister would be my “friend” during lunch breaks. To the concerned reader, on both of those latter matters, it would turn out that I would receive a disappointing and irrefutable “No”.
I found an old class photograph from 1992 the other day and apart from laughing at my hairstyle, I realised that in my class full of other Indian children, there sat a solitary Black boy. Another thing that the 90’s would mark is that Black children were allowed to go to White schools and in my case, an Indian school. From then on out, the number of Black students in my classes would grow, but they would be nowhere close to the majority. In 1992, change was happening in my classroom and all around me and I remember with startling clarity that it scared me.
About a year after the first Black students joined my school, the teachers thought it best to try and teach us some cultural sensitivity. My class was summoned to the library, the only place in the school that had a TV and we found ourselves sitting cross legged on brown scratchy carpets in front of it. Before we could watch the video that was planned for us, my mother, a teacher at my primary school (the horrors of that would easily fill 100 blog posts), asked us one simple question. She asked “If four people stood in front of you, one Black, one Coloured, one Indian and one White, who would be the cleverest?” My reaction was intuitive and when I shouted out “The White person”, it was with complete conviction. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment and sadness in my mother’s eyes; she had the look of a mother who failed her a child. Somewhere along the way, even before I had spent a decade on this planet, I had developed a hierarchy. Whites, Indians, Blacks. I don’t think I knew enough Coloured people to fit them into the picture. But what did I know? I knew that Whites were better than us in every way, why else would they get access to things no one else could? I knew that Black people were the domestic workers, the gardeners of the world and I knew that Indian people fitted somewhere in the middle. Indian people were to respect and revere White people, and to employee, and pity at best, Black people. I learnt this bias from the world around me and not from my mother’s words, for she taught us that every person should be treated equally. So strong was the contradictory evidence around me that, I had, in an Orwell-ian sense, started to think that some were “more equal than others”. Everything in my parents and grandparent’s lives had set them up well to propagate this myth. From the cold, calculating malevolence that was Bantu Education, to the forced separation of the races, these ideas were deeply entrenched in the minds of the generations before me. So deeply entrenched that their action spoke words their voices could not.
The 90’s seem like such a short time ago, a long time in my lifetime, but otherwise short for our young democracy. Otherwise short to start to undo the damage that was done to our country. What passage of time is enough for people to unlearn the “truths” of our past? What passage of time is enough to start rewriting the scripts that govern our thoughts and behaviour? The talks of freedom are long gone yet the shackles remain, in our hearts and in our minds.