It was December of 1988 and I was on my way to South Africa. Getting there was a bit more complicated back then requiring a six hour flight to Switzerland, then an 18 hour flight outside of every African nation’s airspace. Why was my flight so convoluted? The answer lay in a system of laws based on race.
South Africa’s government was based on a system called Apartheid. Created by the Nationalist Party in 1948, this system institutionalized all of the worst elements of racial injustice found in the Jim Crow laws of many U.S. southern states from the 1890’s to the 1960’s. Apartheid laws included such restrictions as: the banning of interracial marriages, a pass book system which restricted the movements of non-whites, “homelands” were allocated to all blacks depending on their tribal origins, when living outside of these homelands, Blacks were required to live in “Townships.” Since there weren’t many jobs in these homelands, most Black-Africans lived in townships for most of the year. I visited one township, Alexandria, during my three-week visit to South Africa. It was my first time (at 25) seeing what abject poverty looked like. Over one million people lived in Alexandria. I only saw two multi-story buildings in the entire city of tin shacks and dirt roads. One was a large building which housed workers brought in to mine gold from the Great Reef strike near Johannesburg. Another was a hospital. There may have been more smaller hospitals, I don’ know. But this was the only one I could see. While I had studied South Africa in college and on my own for years, that visit to Alexandria was essentially an entire book on Apartheid which took me several years to understand.
While South Africa, and its Apartheid system, had been in the news for years by the time of my visit in 1988, I remember wanting to see for myself what it looked like. If one studies history at all, you find that there are at least two standard vantage points from which to learn about a particular time and place. The first is a view from the top floor so to speak. This involves gathering data, statistics about residential movements for example, or birth rates, death rates, income earned, etc. The other view is from the first floor. This is when the historian walks around at the street level with his/her subject matter. Personal interviews, photographs, diaries, these are the evidence which bring you face to face with history up close and personal. I had read plenty of articles and books about South Africa and it’s system of racial oppression. When family friends provided a chance for me to stay with their relatives in Johannesburg and Cape Town, I jumped at the opportunity. This was a chance to digest history in a different way. Up to that point, my only experience brushing up to historical events was in history books or newspaper articles. This trip to South Africa was an entirely different matter entirely.
During my three weeks living with locals and traveling around the country(sometimes hitchhiking), there were several encounters which stayed with me even though what happened there is now three decades in my rear view mirror.
The most astonishing interaction on this trip occurred in the most unlikely of places. During my second week in country, I stayed for several nights at a game preserve north of Johannesburg in the Magaliesburg Mountains. On that long flight flight from Zurich to Jo’burg, I had struck up conversation with a college age South African who shared my love of adventure and rock climbing. By the end of our flight, he’d invited me to explore the climbing near his grandfather’s game preserve. I’d happily agreed to meet him the following week.
One week later I arrived at the game preserve ready to climb in the African outback! I climbed there for two days in remote canyons next to beautiful streams and waterfalls where we were even challenged by a pack of loud( and quite scary) baboons. However, the memory of those climbing days have largely faded for me. The dinner I had with my friend’s grandfather on the second night has not. After our first full day of climbing, we were invited to sit at the head table during a relatively formal “Braai” or barbecue. I sat next to the grandfather and my friend took the place on his other side. Sitting at that table, I remember feeling like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. Staying at a beautiful lodge in exotic settings where I had already swam across a river, stared down screaming baboons and scaled ancient cliffs I almost expected Harrison Ford to sit down next to me! And the food was amazing. But then something happened which forever changed the way I saw the world.
As we finished the meal, Grandpa said to me, ” You Americans all think Apartheid is bad but it really isn’t!” I had no idea where he was going with this but it turned out to be both cringeworthy and enlightening at the same time. Looking at a middle aged male waiter, who was Black (all of them were), Grandpa said, “Boy! Come over here!” Upon arrival, Grandpa began to prove his case to me.
” Boy, how long have you worked for me?” His response dripped with respect and subservience, ” Oh, twenty-five years sir!” “Are you happy?” “Oh, very happy sir!”
“See, There you are!” Grandpa looked at me, a smirk of vindication on his face.
“Boy! Come over here!” Grandpa yelled to another waiter who must have been in his sixties.
“Boy, how long have you worked for me?” “Oh, 35 years sir!” Again, “Are you happy here?” “Oh, very happy sir!” “See,” Grandpa said with a self-satisfied look on his face, ” You Americans don’t know that Blacks are very happy here!” My friend looked away. His embarrassment was evident even with his back turned.
It’s interesting to look back on this event as my 58th birthday approaches this month. That one exchange over dinner between an older man, trying vainly to justify the system of racial oppression under which he lived and prospered, and myself did more to educate me on racism, oppression and Apartheid than any book ever could. Even if I’d read this story in a book it wouldn’t have impacted my life the way those five minutes at a barbecue in the South
African brush did.
When this first happened, my heart went towards my friend and the embarrassment he evinced for his grandfather. I also felt for the two men who were the waiters. It was clear to me, even then, the incongruity of calling middle aged men “Boy.” I imagined how demeaned they felt knowing that, to their employer, they were similar to children. I can’t really understand the indignities (as well as the constant threat of violence and unjust imprisonment) those two men had to endure over the course of their life. However, I got the smallest glimpse of what it was like on that evening.
Although decades have passed, that evening never strays too far from my thoughts. As I hit milestones like my 40th high school reunion, the person who’s most compelling in this story is grandpa. Did he really believe his point had been made? Did he go to sleep satisfied knowing that I was so much the wiser as a result of his dog and pony show? In my heart, I believe there was some knowledge of the truth hidden way down deep in his mind, eating away at his sub-conscious. If it was apparent even to a twenty-five year old from Wisconsin that the economic and social dynamics at play that night precluded any chance of an honest response by the employees, then surely the old man must have known the charade he was orchestrating. I believe the truth revealed that night was that racism laid bare makes no sense. I didn’t hate that man for his racism, I felt pity for him. To me it was a tragedy he was spending the last part of his life desperately seeking approval from some foreign youth less than half his age. A tragedy that he was spending the final third of his life seeking ways to justify a system which no longer made sense. “What’s done in darkness always comes to light.” Seems like an appropriately relevant quote here. And sure enough, within five years of my trip, Apartheid did end. However, that evening barbecue in the South African wilderness will always remain in the top ten evenings of my life because it’s hard to forget the first time one sees the face of racism sitting next to you at dinner.