YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel
Apartheid Memoir Comes Full Circle
Into these lovely, sun-drenched landscapes of my childhood intrude haunting memories of the war that raged far away. To this day my remembrance of that time long past is stained by the Holocaust, which entered my blood like a cloud of poison gas, forever sensitizing me to the evils of race hatred. I can still recall the fear that a mock air raid drill aroused in me one moonless night decades ago, as I crouched in the creepy silence of our darkened house, the curtains drawn tightly across the windows. I can just make out the shapes of Dad, Ma, and my sister, Barbara. Outside, the city lies black and still as if the very houses had turned into tombs and were holding their breath at the approach of an evil marauder. Something in the darkness moves. I try to quiet the thumping of my heart, but I can’t . . .
For years after the war ended, my parents scanned the Jewish newspapers for names of missing family members. Without being told directly, I came to know that my maternal grandmother, and my aunts were missing and might have been murdered. I believe this tragedy inspired me to explore, in my historical novel, The Nine Inheritors: The Extraordinary Odyssey of Family and Their Ancient Torah Scroll, the ways in which we are linked to our ancestors, trustees of their history and witnesses to the tragic fate of our people.
What seems equally sinister, in hindsight, is the society torn asunder by cruel racial barriers, in which I grew up. I clearly recall the election that brought the Apartheid government into power in South Africa:
May 26, 1948
What happened on that fateful day sticks in my memory like the thorns of a burr weed: the Afrikaner Nationalist Party was voted into office, implementing a system of racial segregation and white supremacy that would shape every aspect of life in South Africa from that day forth. The night before, I overheard my parents discussing that pivotal election and what it might mean to our family's future. I wondered: Why is Ma so upset, when Dad is so pleased by the Nationalist Party’s victory? Dad sided with the Afrikaners and had voted for the Nationalist Party, because he said that, “The 'Nats' will keep the shvartze, in their place. You know the blacks are wilde, they would murder us in our beds if they got half a chance."
Ma, on the other hand, reflected the fears of a smaller number of white South Africans who had voted against the Nationalist Party because of their open affiliation with the Nazis. Whom should I believe, Ma or Dad? Young as I was, the political situation confused and worried me.
This brutal, all-pervasive bigotry was not something abstract, something I learned from textbooks at school, I saw the horrible consequences of bigotry from what befell those I actually knew.
Andy Buhlungu, a member of the Xhosa tribe, worked for Premier Fisheries, my parents’ store, until the day he died, of lung cancer, twenty-three years later. I never saw Andy smile. Each work day, Andy deliberately and slowly carried out his chores, a stoompie, or homemade cigarette, cupped in the palm of his hand to catch ashes. Andy lived in a men’s hostel for within an hour's walking distance from the shop. The hostels housed migrant workers who were barred from bringing their wives or children with them. Most hostels were breeding grounds for prostitution, decease, and crime. Andy never missed a day's work. Dad willingly paid the fine for Andy when the police arrested him for not having his “passbook” with him, as by law non whites had to carry passbooks at all times, authorized by their white employer to be in white only areas after curfew.
Then there was Annie, my nanny and all-purpose housemaid. In one corner of the backyard of our home stood Annie’s tiny, one-eyed, whitewashed room. It had no running water or electricity and no cooking or bathing facilities. Once I dared to peek inside. Under the window stood a narrow iron bed; an upside-down wooden crate with a thick candle stuck in a discarded tin lid, and a few items of clothing hanging from a string nailed to the wall. My sensitive child’s nose recoiled at the astringent odor of whitewash, the sour reek of stale sweat, and the chemical-paraffin smell of candle wax, which pervaded the dingy space. Annie had raised her bed by placing each of its iron legs on two bricks and a tin can filled with ashes. This odd arrangement tweaked my curiosity. When I asked Annie why she did this, she refused to answer, covering her mouth and giggling to hide her embarrassment. Years later, I learned the reason for this custom. According to Bantu folklore, women protected themselves from being raped by a tokoloshi, or a little, hairy man with a huge penis known as the tokoloshi. The bricks and cans filled with ashes prevented the tokoloshi from climbing up the bed's legs.
I was fond of Annie, and was sad when my parents fired her for getting drunk. Since blacks were prohibited form purchasing alcohol, Annie got her brew from the illicit still operated by the neighbor’s “house boy.” He brewed moonshine, called skokiyan, in a tin barrel that had once contained pickled cucumbers, which he buried in a far corner of the backyard. As the brew fermented, alas, the pungent smell betrayed the hiding place. From time to time, the police would raid the property, and blacks were hauled off in the Black Maria, or paddy wagon, but in no time the operation would resume.
Perhaps the most serious consequence of apartheid was the destruction of Bantu family life. Black workers were allowed to live on white premises but they were not permitted to bring their families to live with them. This disrupted family life; mothers who worked as live-in maids had to leave their children and husbands behind. Male migrant workers, who worked in the mines, factories and stores, were not permitted to allow their families to accompany them. This enforced separation of husbands, wives, and their children, promoted prostitution and a high illegitimate birth rate.
Then there was George Kakoris, the Greek immigrant who owned the, tearoom, or café. I liked George because he gave me my favorite kind of candy—a chocolate shaped like a beehive filled with honey-flavored cream. George never failed to greet me with a happy smile and to laugh at whatever I said. One day, when I was in my teens, the police, tipped-off by someone, hid outside George's tearoom after closing hours. When he emerged with a black woman, they charged him under the Immorality Act, which prohibited any intimate physical contact between whites and people of other races. Even a kiss could lead to criminal charges, with a punishment of up to seven years in prison.
Dad said, “They (the blacks) hated him because he was rough with them: they set him up."
Ma felt deeply saddened by the humiliation his wife and two daughters suffered. She said, “They are pillars of the Greek Orthodox Church. They are respectable people. How can they face this?" Cases like these made headline news. Before the case came to trial, George took a bus to the Zoo Lake and drowned himself. Ironically, many years later, (divine justice?) George's daughter married an advocate, George Bizos, who helped to defend Nelson on trial for treason, Bozos served as judge on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to restore justice after the fall of the Apartheid government in 1996.
Please don’t get me wrong, all along my unbiased child’s view was being molded by the values and prejudices of the society into which I was born. I learned to perceive the world through the distorted lens of South African apartheid. Although much of what I was taught as a child has served me well in adulthood, there has also been a slow and difficult process of unlearning, of shedding the narrow, bigoted view of the world I absorbed in the lovely garden, reserved for whites only. I absorbed the xenophobic view of the world perpetuated by the majority of white South Africans, and exacerbated by the draconian South African political system of apartheid. Growing up in the garden of apartheid, I learned to distrust and to disdain those different from myself. As an adult I would consciously, painfully need to unlearn this narrow-minded attitude towards others.
Keeping all this in mind, you may begin to understand why my husband and I made the choice to leave South Africa, and to immigrate to the United States, leaving friends and family far behind us.
When we left South Africa in July 1965, apartheid continued to roll on like a gigantic machine flattening everything in its path. When I stood ready to take a more active part in my country's affairs as a young adult, the officers of apartheid had exiled, gagged, censored, and banned leaders and organizations that I might have responded to. So when Boris received a fellowship from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to work at their space center in Moffet Field, California we jumped at the chance. Being young, adventurous, enthusiastic, and full of optimism, we believed that we would succeed at whatever we put our minds to. In my memoir I write:
When we left South Africa, Boris and I believed that the country teetered on the brink of a bloody revolution. There had indeed been much preceding violence, unrest, and death, but government action, often brutal and repressive, prevented it from escalating into an out of control conflagration—an all-out civil war between blacks and whites. True, we miscalculated in predicting an imminent bloody coup. We did not believe—nor felt it just—that the Nationalist government would hold onto power for a half century. We rightly assessed, however, that eventually the black majority would come to power, and that when the walls erected to protect their garden of apartheid came tumbling down, whites would become a tiny, often threatened minority on a black continent.
We left because we felt guilty, afraid, alienated, and powerless to bring about change. So we grabbed the opportunity to grow in experience, to go to a country where we might begin to shed the skin of prejudice, and perhaps even to make a new life for ourselves.
Make no mistake; the bitter legacy of apartheid has indeed sundered thousands of families apart by thousands of miles and by continents. I live in the United States, my sister and her family live in Australia, and other relatives live in Israel.
Now let’s fast forward to present-day Birmingham, Alabama. After sojourns in California, Minnesota and Canada we settled in this city—exactly forty years ago! And last year, the answer to my question: why has my journey in life brought me from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Birmingham, Alabama, became clear. Soon after I had published my memoir of growing up under Apartheid, in January 2011, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute asked Boris and myself to help prepare Birmingham students for an exchange visit to Johannesburg, South Africa. It was truly gratifying to meet with our city’s students, and then later to celebrate the arrival of the students from Johannesburg, South Africa. Both groups observed that they were surprised by historical similarities between the Civil Rights struggle in the United States, and Freedom struggle to end Apartheid.
Mpho Mpotoane from Johannesburg told us, "Our history and your history they aren't that different. The events took place with aggression and the youth was involved. In the United States the great leader was Martin Luther King Jr. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela.” And can you believe that I met three young exchange students who had just graduated from Athlone Girls High, the same school as I had? When I attend that school, it would have been absolutely impossible, completely illegal, for those young ladies to enroll at my segregated all-white school—instead they would have been relegated to the lowest rung of the educational ladder.
In addition, The BCRI and the Birmingham Museum of Art were showing, Have you Heard From Johannesburg Lately?— the seven-part documentary chronicling the history of the global anti-apartheid movement, modeled after the American Civil Rights movement, which took on South Africa’s entrenched apartheid regime. And there was a photographic exhibit on the Apartheid area at the Art Museum. In addition the BCRI, with funding from the Birmingham Jewish Federation, hosted the Helen Suzman traveling exhibit, chronicling the life of the sole anti-apartheid activist and politician, who dared speak out against apartheid for thirty-six years.
Looking back, I can see how the two halves of my life have meshed together. Hopefully, the brutal events that sensitized me to the iniquities of racism have shaped me into a better mother, grandmother, teacher, writer and citizen. I would like to end with a quote from The Nine Inheritors: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Family and Their Ancient Torah Scroll:
All [the inheritors] understood the Torah to be a solemn trust. Being heirs to the Torah had changed them. The Torah served as a touchstone, reminding them who they were and where they had come from, and charging them to do mitzvot, good deeds, so that evil would never triumph over virtue. As inheritors they were irrevocably linked to their ancestors, trustees of their history and witnesses to the tragic fate of their people and to their survival against all odds. Lest others forget the past, they became witnesses to it, bearers of the standard for future generations.