my life in South Africa

August 3, 2009 at 6:18 pm Leave a comment

South Africa

South Africa circa 1885

I wonder what it must feel like for someone born to Nazi parents. Would such a child turn his back on his heritage? Would the child ever even know? And what of the children born to those who passively sat by while the Nazis exterminated Jews, gypsies and homosexuals? Not often do you hear them tell their story. In history, we hear from the victors and from those who survived. But the oppressors and their children have a story too. That story needs to be told.

My father tells me that in his young days he wanted to join the army. He was interested in nuclear physics. His brother would build boats that they would let float on a nearby pond and my father would build the bombs that blew them up. I find his revelation shocking. Don’t understand the drive to violence. He sends me to the garage, where I find old notebooks of newspaper clippings. He followed politics closely, fell in love with the ideology of one man in particular: H. F. Verwoerd. The founder of Apartheid. At least I can say my father was honest. Even when it was clear that Nelson Mandela would take power and that South Africa was changing, he clung to his beliefs like we cling to an old beloved teddy bear. He voted for a throwback party, advocating a separate state for white Afrikaner South Africans. It’s not that he hated blacks; he just didn’t want to live with them. Thought they should create their own identity. Separately.

My father was a dinosaur. I first used the nickname when he struggled to use our computer. He embraced the name affectionately. Politically too, he was an endangered species in the New South Africa. In his study I found books written by English journalists, describing the horrors perpetrated by Apartheid. Reading them made me nauseous. I asked my father how he could justify his support of such an oppressive regime. He would look at me, tell me that they didn’t know. That the government lied to them. They didn’t know what was happening in the prisons, where black men were beaten and killed, in the townships where police shot at protestors. How could you not know, I asked him, pointing at the articles that had appeared even at the time in English newspapers. Describing it all. We didn’t trust the English, my father said. We thought they were just trying to make us look bad. Afrikaner nationalism ran deep.

I was ashamed of my father’s beliefs. His obstinate refusal to support a new South Africa. I wished I could have been the child of a white revolutionary, like Antjie Krog or Breyten Breytenbach. Both Afrikaner writers who had freed themselves from the nationalist bonds of an evil ideology. They believed in a new South Africa; they were helping shape it. I was ashamed of my Afrikaner roots, of my identity. So I ran away to Canada, blended in, became Canadian. But just because you assume a new identity doesn’t mean your old one disappears. Identities don’t die. They haunt you. They kill you from the inside.

But my shame runs deeper. Because I know that I’m no better than my father. So easy to feel superior; so easy to think that had you been born in the same place, at the same point in time, you would have seen through the lies, you would have known better. We like to believe that we are heroes when we are nothing more than villains in denial.


Entry filed under: South Africa.

the grudge On transitioning

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