Mandela and Me

In 2004 Nelson Mandela visited Trinidad and Tobago, where I was living, in support of South Africa’s bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I went to see him address crowds of children at The Queens Park Oval and I will never forget the excitement he generated among those who were there on that special occasion. The following day I wrote this article for that weekend’s Trinidad Sunday Express, whose readers are mostly non-white, as my tribute to a man the like of which we may never see again.

MANDELA AND ME (2004) Sunday Express

What was it like living under apartheid – as a white person?
MARK MEREDITH recalls his experiences growing up in the system his idol Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to ending.

Cameron meets Nelson Mandela

It was a slate-grey day when I first saw the barren lump of rock far out in the choppy waters of Table Bay. Rain-laden clouds were rolling in low over the ocean, closing occasionally like a wet curtain across the lonely face of Robben Island.

I had no idea anyone lived there – I was thirteen and had been in Cape Town a week. I figured perhaps penguins and colonies of seals and gannets, and I didn’t give it any more thought, until later. Besides, the bleak rock was an insignificant speck compared to the arresting splendour of Table Mountain.

The year was 1970 and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been in his tiny cell for six of what would become 27 years. I was to spend the next five years of my young life incarcerated, too: in an exclusive white, English-speaking boarding school known as Bishops in the Cape Town suburb of Rondebosche. My father had been sent from England to manage the Cape Town operation of a UK printing inks manufacturing company.

We lived in an upper-middle class white suburb called Tokai situated below a ring of forested mountains. Over the fence at the end of our road towered Pollsmoor Prison where Mandela would spend six years after Robben Island. It was an ugly, forbidding place with barbed wire and floodlights and it looked utterly escape proof. We would throw stones over the fence at the Afrikaaner prison wardens’ kids and they would hurl them back.

Our five years in South Africa encompassed the period to December 1975, a time when the Afrikaaner National Party’s apartheid structure was at its most entrenched, obdurate and powerful, with ANC leaders either locked up or exiled.

For white society the good life seemed assured, untroubled and blissfully normal. The only cloud on this horizon of well-being was the threat of sporting sanctions.

When people ask me, what was it like there? I always tell them: well, for a white teenager like me life was great. We swam in swimming pools and at glorious beaches, enjoyed the breathtaking Cape scenery of mountains, seaside and sun-drenched vineyards, and walked city streets and leafy suburbs safely.

Like all the white people I knew – and I only knew white people – I lived in a bubble of contented, self-inflicted ignorance which was ruthlessly reinforced and manipulated by the state-controlled media; which in turn was driven by the Calvanistic agenda of the Afrikaaner Dutch Reformed Church which espoused the official policy of separation of the races.

The only opposition to the media onslaught from the incredibly conservative and truly awful SABC (the state broadcasting network) and their allies in the pro-government Afrikaans newspapers was the liberal English press. Stalwarts included the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg and The Cape Times.

In those days South Africa was a cultural desert, which suited the Boers just fine. No one of note risked playing there, unless you count Barry Manilow. I was so desperate to see live anything I gate-crashed Big Nose’s concert at the “Three Arts” but was thrown out after three bars of Mandy.

Breasts were a total no-no, in any form, except semi-naked black women posing in costume for tourist brochures – nipples in imported scandal mags had large black stars stuck on that left absolutely everything to the imagination. Any illustration, whatsoever, of sex in movies was ruthlessly cut in favour of graphic violence. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were banned.

I may have lived in Africa but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I never heard African music on the radio, never danced to joyous African rhythms in any teenage bedroom, never saw African musicians performing in Africa until I returned to Cape Town in 1980. Dollar Brand? Hugh Masekela? Miriam Makeba? Who they?

I never saw African or Cape Coloured people (mixed race descendants of white settlers, indigenous Hottentots and imported slaves from the East) relaxing in a park at dusk, or walking suburban streets at night. And when I was about 15 or 16, I witnessed why.

Strolling along Rondebosche high street one evening with two school friends, I saw a black man walking slowly ahead of us. A police van appeared from nowhere, and to my astonishment, two officers jumped out and dragged the man by his collar into the van.

“What are you doing?” I cried. “Leave him alone! What’s he done to you?” The officers whirled around, and one of them, a squat, square-headed man with mean little eyes and a pencil-thin moustache, put his puggy nose right up to mine and bellowed in a heavy Afrikaans accent:

“What! What did yew say? Yew bleddy little rooinek (Afrikaans for “redneck”, a derogatory name given to the British during the Boer War because of their sunburn). I’ll bleddy well put yew in there with the bleddy kaffir!”

As I stood watching the van roar away up the street, I understood with sudden and horrible clarity the single-minded force at work around me; the rotten interior lying beneath the beautiful veneer of the make-believe world we inhabited.

The man was breaking the Pass Laws by being in a whites only area after sundown. Black people were supposed to live in squalid, crime-ridden townships like Langa and Guguletu, well away from our suburban sensibilities.

But in the daytime it was different. I saw plenty of black and coloured people then. They came to mow our lawn, weed the flowerbeds and take leaves out of our swimming pool. At school they served our food, swept our dormitories, did our laundry.

I saw them out on the roadside digging trenches, dozens singing heartily in unison, pick axes raised and felled in perfect symmetry under the African sun.

I saw them every time I caught the train into town: hundreds of them crammed into the ‘non-white’ carriages like sardines while I sat comfortably in one of at least three empty ‘whites only’ carriages. To buy my ticket I stood on the same step as the black man, right next to him, separated by a sign in Afrikaans dividing us into ‘whites only’ and ‘non-whites only’. Dozens in one line, me in the other.

I saw them but I never knew them.  Any of them. They came and they went.

But we did have one thing in common: we were all classified by race, and it dictated absolutely where we lived. You were either white or “an honorary white” (like the Japanese), coloured, Indian, or Bantu. Separating black from white was simple. But the Coloureds of the Cape, whose own language was Afrikaans like that of the Boer, created problems for the racial purists.
Some pale-skinned people who had lived in white areas all their lives would sometimes be reclassified as coloured. In some cases it meant a marriage became illegal because one party was now of another race. That broke apartheid’s mixed marriage legislation preventing union across the colour bar and families were torn apart; safe, secure lives were traded for the harsh realities of the townships.

There were stories of the “pencil test” which determined the fate of entire lives. A sharpened pencil was inserted into the person’s hair. If it fell through to the floor you had Caucasian hair, and therefore Caucasian blood. If it got stuck in your curly hair, well . . .

I soon began to take an interest in politics and allied myself with the anti-apartheid camp in school, arguing vociferously with friends as to the injustices of the system we were benefiting so hugely from. I always ran into the same defence: that black majority rule would be be a disaster; that the Zulus would kill the Xhosas who would kill the coloureds and Indians and they would all kill us whites. Just look at the mess in the rest of Africa, they said.

Although Bishops was regarded as a “liberal” English school, race jokes, epithets and stereotyping were constant companions. Some English-speaking boys were even more bigoted than the Boers for whom they reserved special derision. Years later one boasted to me of running over a black man and killing him. “One less bleddy kaffir,” he gloated.

I don’t recall discussing politics in class or in the debating society. It wasn’t encouraged. In history we learned about South Africa’s past from a sympathetic Afrikaaner standpoint. Our 700-page textbook devoted just one short paragraph to Nelson Mandela who was described as a captured terrorist sentenced to life imprisonment in Robben Island Prison.

In the summer of 1976, six months after we left — “Why are yew leavin’ a great country laak Sath Ifrica?” demanded the beligerent policeman at passport control — the Soweto riots erupted when black students rebelled against being taught in Afrikaans and hundreds died. Demonstrations swept the country starting the rot that would slowly unravel the knot of apartheid.

I returned to South Africa in 1980 when I was 22, much wiser, to discover something of the country I grew up in but never knew. When I told old friends and their parents about the truckloads of student corpses in Soweto I’d seen on the BBC in England they didn’t want to believe me. They retreated to the laager mentality of the Boer, demonising the prospect of black majority rule.

I travelled about, hitch-hiking 2,000 km to Johannesburg where I saw the immensity of Soweto, an endless sea of tiny box-like homes without electricity whose inhabitants powered the city of gold. I went to parties in Cape Coloured areas and made friends with guys like “Jo’burg” who showed me shabeens – lively, illicit drinking dens. He wanted to play cricket for South Africa and lamented that of course he never could.

After six months I left never to return, sad and bitterly disillusioned at any possibility of peaceful reconciliation in the country I loved and which had given me so much.

The last time I saw Robben Island was on my way to the airport via a stop at Signal Hill to experience final views of the city and Table Bay.  Apart from the “tablecloth” billowing over Table Mountain’s flat top, the sky was a cloudless blue and the sun fiercely merciless. The shark-infested sea swirled around the lonely rock, fringing it with a ribbon of white, like a jewel on a cloth of deepest indigo. As though it were holding something terribly precious.

Which of course it was. Thank you, Madiba.