Sara-Leah Pimentel

South Africa’s first democratic elections came and went. Nandipha was right. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. The four days of elections were a national celebration, and the television showed hours of footage of long, snaking lines across the country as people waited patiently to vote for the first time.

In rural areas, people travelled and queued for days to cast their vote. In the cities, black and white people stood together in the long queues. People chatted with one another, some for the very first time. My parents were not citizens and couldn’t vote, but my dad and I walked to the two polling stations near our house and watched how people had brought garden chairs and picnic baskets, preparing to share a few snacks with their neighbors during the long wait.

There had been so much violence leading up to the election that no one could have imagined that the four days of voting would be a peaceful celebration of our new-born democracy. It was so peaceful, that we would be eating the tinned food we had bought “just in case” for months afterwards!

The tone of the election was like a breath of new air that spread throughout the country. When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black president in early May, there was a sense of hope that we could become a “rainbow nation,” a home for people of all races and all backgrounds.

Of course, there were those who wanted revenge for years of oppression. Some seem hellbent on restoring the old status quo. Others believed that the rainbow dream wouldn’t last. Despite its traumatic history, South Africa began the slow, arduous task of rebuilding a society.

Part of that rebuilding was the education of a new generation of children like my classmates and me, who would become the business and political leaders of the future. A first step was the desegregation of schools.

The government announced that from January 1995, all schools should be open to children of all races. For me and my peers at our “mixed” Catholic school, nothing changed. We had shared school desks and played the school grounds together since we were six.

But for my friends who attended government schools, the long summer holiday of December 1994 carried a sense of foreboding and nervousness.

Roberta and I were lying in the grass on a hot summer afternoon. We were sharing earphones and listening to Roxette’s new “Crash! Boom! Bang” cassette on Roberta’s Walkman. We talked about boys. We paged through Seventeen magazine, looking at the latest fashion and the clothes we wanted for Christmas.

Suddenly Roberta said: “I’m really scared about school next year.”

“Why?” I asked. Roberta was a year younger than me and she was starting high school. I figured she was nervous about meeting the new kids, missing some of her old friends, especially since her best friend was going to a different school.

But her answer surprised me: “What’s it going to be like with black kids? My mom says the standard of education is going to go down, because the blacks haven’t learned the same things at their old school. They can’t speak English properly either.”

For me, that had never been an issue. There had always been black and white kids in my class. In fact, if ever anyone had complained about a student holding others back, that student would have been me. I arrived in Grade 1 with only a smattering of English. My native language was Portuguese. I learned to speak English at school.

I don’t remember all that much about my first few years at primary school, but I know that it was probably only in about Grade 4 when I realized that we were taught two languages at school. English was our language of instruction. Afrikaans was taught to us as a second language. I probably never excelled at Afrikaans in 12 years of school because I missed out on some foundational taal rules in Grade 1 when I didn’t know the difference.

I don’t remember any teacher making a special effort to ensure that I understood what was going on. What I did remember was constantly being in trouble for having got the wrong end of the stick!

It had never occurred to me that my inability to speak English properly could hold back the academic progress of the other children. So, it seemed strange that my friend was expressing fears that another child’s language skills would somehow deprive her of an education.

I had learned in History class that the apartheid government had created the Bantu Education Act of 1953 to educate the children of different races for the kind of life they were expected to lead. White children were educated in a very classical way, preparing them for university studies and other academic pursuits. Black children were educated to enter the laborer classes.

I agreed with my friend that maybe the level of Math among the black kids who would be coming into her class would different, but my youthful idealism didn’t see that as a problem.

At our “mixed school,” we had a buddy system. When a new came from another school and the teacher perceived them to be “behind” in their subjects, they would pair the new student with one of the top performing students and have them help their new classmate. I was sure Roberta’s new school would do the same.

I sought to reassure Roberta: “Eish, it won’t be so bad. Black kids are just like us. Some listen to the teacher, others don’t. If they want to be there, they’ll learn. If they can’t keep up, the teachers need to do something.”

Roberta wasn’t convinced: “But what about other stuff? Like hanging out at break? What if they don’t like us? What if we don’t like them? Are the teachers going to force us all to be friends?”

I wasn’t really sure how to answer her. Even at my school, friendships were for the most part divided according to color lines. The black kids hung out together and spoke their mother tongue at break time. The cool kids – mostly white – hung out together and made everyone else’s lives miserable. Then there were the “nerds” like me. We were a multicultural group of misfits – black, white, Indian. Among us there was no color. We were defined simply as being too “uncool” for anyone else to talk to.

It probably would take another two generations for South African schoolkids to learn to interact more freely with each other, something that I saw years later as a teacher. In 1995, official apartheid was over. But the clearly defined social groups were still divided along the lines of color. Mandela’s “rainbow nation” was still more dream than reality.

(…to be continued…)

2021: Conceived – Volume 2 of a Contemporary Transadaptation 

January: The Pack – Alejandra Baccino (Uruguay)

February: The Pink Shirt – Talia Stotts (America)

March: Dragging the Past out into the Light – Kate Korneeva (Russia)

April: Looking Forward to Spring – Marilin Guerrero Casas (Cuba)

May: Every Little Thing – Gennady Bondarenko (Ukraine)

June: The Girl Who Chased the Rainbow – Toni Wallis (Sarah-Leah Pimentel) (South Africa)

July: Another World – Jonay Quintero Hernandez (Spain)

August: Life after Nare – Nane Sevunts (Armine Asryan) (Armenia)

September: Meeting My Homeland – Rayan Harake (Lebanon)

October: Catching Water (Part Two) – Javier Gomez (Argentina)

November: Remember – Seyit Ali Dastan (Turkey)

December: Los Caminantes – Veronica Cordido (Venezuela)

Background – Context

In the Middle – Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2020)

Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists by Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

La Syncrétion of Polarization and Extremes Transposée, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2018)

L’anthologie of Global Instability Transpuesta, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2017)

From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin: German and Russian Stories Transposed to Modern-day America, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2013)

Emblems and stories on the international community

Perception by country – Transposing emblems, articles, short stories and reports from around the world


Cover photo: Cape Town, South Africa – Walking home from school – Chadolfski (Shutterstock)
Source: The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.