Like so many others I was sad to hear of Nelson Mandela’s passing. I know only a little about his life and fight against apartheid, having spent 27 years of his life in prison because of his pro-guerilla warfare approach to peace.
Most of what I know about South Africa was learned when I lived in London, England 10 years ago. At that time I shared a house with five white South African adults.
Growing up in Toronto where white people are the minority, I was not ignorant to racism, but I had never known anything quite like what I experienced when I lived with these five individuals.
They took racism to new heights. The first thing I discovered was that London, at the time, was densely populated with white Afrikaaners who had fled South Africa when apartheid ended.
Black people, who were native to the country, were finally free to demand not only equal treatment, but a piece of the economic posterity enjoyed by their enslavers. The whites were losing the special status that they had created for themselelves and began to flee elsewhere, ideally to a country with less “coloured people.”
For those unfamiliar, Afrikaans is a west Germanic language, spoken by most European settlers in South Africa. Afrikaaners were instrumental in the development and enforcement of apartheid from 1948 to 1994.
This was the language that was spoken daily by my roommates in London. They spoke English too, and were fervent defenders of apartheid.
My displeasure in their racist remarks did not go unnoticed. I challenged them often, and there were many arguments that were not resolved. I began to resent them almost immediately after I moved in.
They routinely, almost daily, referred to black people as “kaffirs” which is a racist term in South Africa. Like the N word. Once Carine (one of my roommates) entertained a dinner party with a story that involved her father beating a pauper “kaffir” into submission after he knocked on their front door begging for food. She laughed when she told this story, like telling a faiytale.
During apartheid many whites were murdered in their own homes by angry black people, who were not welcome in white-only properties. This is what was explained to me after I reacted with horror to her story, and at how easily the other South Africans at the table cheered her father’s ‘bravery’.
Eventually, after a few months I moved out and rented a studio flat. I never spoke to my former roommates again. To this day I can’t believe how casual their racism was, and how challenging it was for me to get others to care about an issue that they felt didn’t affect them.
I spent many nights complaining about this experience, because for a long time I truly hated white South Africans. Nowadays, as the years have gone by, I have met some truly wonderful Afrikaaners who are not anything like the ones I had lived with.
One can only imagine what Nelson Mandela must have faced in such a hostile, hateful society. It’s unbelievable to me that he chose forgiveness over resentment. He demonstrated tremendous grace and dignity to those who threatened to end his life. The idea that they believed being white made them more worthy of living and kindness, is beyond comprehension to me.