“All you whites must just get back on your ships and go back to where you came from.”
We were in History class. It was 1998 and we were preparing for our Matric exams to graduate. The subject was colonialism.
As usual, Nandipha had a very strong opinion. It didn’t go down well. The class was small – only eight girls – and all were very outspoken. I also no longer sat quietly at the back of the room. I was the head of the debating society and her comment seemed unsubstantiated.
“And where the hell do you think we’re supposed to go?” I asked.
“You go to Portugal,” Nandipha retorted. “Rachel can go back to England and Celeste, where are you from, Holland? Well, go back to where you belong.”
Rachel was having none of it. “I was born in South Africa. So were my parents and grandparents. England is not our home. South Africa is.”
“Only black people are from Africa,” Nandipha spat out viciously. “The rest of you came to steal our cattle and our land. You brought us brandewyn (fire wine, an expression for alcohol) to make us stupid. You bought us with coloured beads and made our people slaves. In the Battle of Blood River, the blood of the Zulus that you English killed, gave the river its name.”
The teacher observed this latest argument anxiously. Mrs McCrae had long since left the school. Our current teacher, Miss Rebelo, was a young, new teacher. She had no idea how to navigate the almost daily disagreements that broke out in her class.
“Come girls, this is going nowhere. Let’s focus on the lesson. The textbook explains how colonialism wasn’t all bad. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the English brought good things too.”
“Get real, Miss,” Nandipha interrupted. “Colonialism was only good for the white man. For us blacks it was the beginning of 400 years of oppression.”
Celeste decided to join the conversation. “Maybe it’s a bit of both. The colonialists brought some bad things but maybe also some good things. Think of the missionaries. Many of them came here to start churches and be teachers.”
“More bad than good,” Nandipha muttered under her breath. She picked up her history textbook and threw it across the room, declaring: “And this, this is apartheid history. The whole book tells us that colonialism was good, that African countries cannot rule themselves, that communism is bad and capitalism is good.”
Finally, something Nandipha said made sense to me. I remembered the question from last week’s test: Explain why the rise of capitalism is a better economic model than Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. I had read the two models in my textbook. Nandipha was right, the textbook made capitalism sound good and communism bad. But to me, sharing possessions equally seemed a lot better than some people having a lot and others having nothing.
“Well, maybe Nandipha is right,” I said. “Maybe the textbooks do need rewriting.” I turned to the front of the book. “See, this book was published in 1987. This is before Mandela was released. This is before democracy. I read somewhere that education during apartheid was indoctrination. Maybe they wanted us to believe this stuff. But maybe it doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Nandipha and I had never been friends. Yet, we shared a mutual respect. She had first arrived at the school in Standard Four (sixth grade) and she’d been paired with me as her “buddy” to help her catch up with her schoolwork. We had shared a double desk. For the first few weeks, she refused to speak to me. Then one day, in knitting class, she dropped her needle. I picked it up and gave it to her. That was the day she began speaking to me.
Years later, Nandipha explained that the moment I did that was the first time a white person had done anything nice for her. While I was under no illusions that she liked me, I felt that she perhaps hated me less than some of our other classmates.
Maybe this is why her next comment in that tension-fraught History class was worth more to me than gold.
Nandipha knew that I wanted to be a teacher after I left school. “Ok,” she said. “When I become South Africa’s first female black president, I’ll make Toni my Education Minister.” She looked at me. “Your job will be to write new textbooks. You can stay. But the rest of you,” she said, waving her hand at the others in the class, “the rest of you can voetsek (bugger off) to where you came from.”
Looking back, I realize that those History lesson disagreements were unique in the South Africa of the late 90s. In our “mixed school,” many of us had been classmates for between 5 and 12 years. We were comfortable enough with each other to talk about race and politics so openly. I often felt sorry for our teachers, who looked on helplessly during these conversations. And not all conversations ended as tamely as this one!
Over the last 26 years, the issue of race has made the headlines frequently. Often it involves allegations against a white person who has made racial slurs against a black person or a politician who sees criticism of policy or corruption as racist if it comes from someone who is not black.
These incidents, more often than not, generate hateful racist conversations on social media. Looking at how people of my generation engage in these conversations, I realize that they are having them for the first time, whereas my classmates and I were debating these weighty issues in the classroom 20 years ago.
We need to talk about race. We need to talk about the wounds of the past. We have realized that the “rainbow nation” is deeply flawed. Mandela tried very hard to unite all the people of South Africa around a common narrative that encouraged us to work together to build a country that belongs to everyone.
But the “rainbow nation” is a myth. There are deep-seated resentments, fears, and trauma. Until we can speak about these openly and find the necessary healing, our rainbow will remain a faint hue against a stormy sky.
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: Capetown, South Africa – Musicians – Angela Perryman (Shutterstock)
Source: The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed