By Hadebe Hadebe
Emakhaya, Qunu 2013. PIC. Mdu Ndzingi
Many people expressed shock at what former South African international cricketer Makhaya Ntini revealed last week, July 17, in his interview on SABC about the harrowing racism that he experienced as a sole black member of the Proteas. This is a man who achieved his 101 test matches while standing on fire of racism; and nobody has ever thanked him for his services. Being an honorary white in South Africa is extremely exhausting, and unfortunately, there are way too many Makhaya’s in our midst – broken souls that were created in the early days after the demise of apartheid.
Many of us are Nelson Mandela’s sacrificial lambs who were braaied in the name of reconciliation in South Africa. These scars are still visible and very difficult to hide, but sadly, very few people are interested to know what we went through. In fact, it remains a great pity that even youngsters like Lungisani Ngidi, at this day and age, don’t have a different story to tell.
Makhaya and I are exactly one year apart. Between 1994 and 1998 when I was a student at the University of Pretoria, Makhaya was already a sportsman. I cannot for certain say we’ve ever met in person, except in one encounter at a hotel lobby in Harare, towards the end of 2017. We shared pleasantries as homeboys but we don’t know one another. However, even though he grew up in the Cape and I in Natal, the journey of racism which we both traversed is exactly the same.
Ntini is not an exception, people like him are all over and l am one of them. Many populate the much-acclaimed black middle classes today, and others are either dead or dead poor after they couldn’t hold on. We are distinguished members of a big social experiment in modern times. Today many of us are approaching our fifties. We keep on wondering what freedom really means after so much sacrifice. We were little kids who were used as guinea-pigs in the making of the globally acclaimed “peaceful transition” from apartheid to the “new” South Africa. But, in truth, the “new” South Africa rejected us from Day Zero. Perhaps it’s good that Makhaya has spoken out because, seemingly, everyone is now prepared to listen since he appeared on television.
However, the aim of this write up is to highlight one point; that Makhaya Ntini represents millions of black South Africans who have been targets of sustained and painful racism, which at the best of times has amounted to violence in the hands of white South Africans. Indeed, it is obvious that when democracy arrived it was in name only because racism remains a constant; and although many people deny its existence, everything else, including economic exclusion and poverty, point to the persistence of apartheid. Yes, we believed Mandela wholeheartedly when he said it was time for reconciliation, when he gave our (young) naive all to the project without any kind of support, to navigate the thick forest of Afrikanerdom which was uncompromising, brutal and exclusionary.
The winds of change… My journey into the real racist world started in early 1994…
Do not ask why Makhaya “didn’t speak out earlier” about racism in cricket. To me, that is not the point.
Ek is niks, Mopanie is alles!
My Afrikaans teacher in matric recommended that l should apply to former Afrikaans only universities in Bloemfontein (UOVS), Johannesburg (RAU) and Pretoria (UP, also affectionately known as Tukkies), since they were cheaper compared to the former English only universities such as Wits, Natal and UCT. As advised, l applied to all of them. And Tukkies accepted me for engineering studies, which l had to leave for commerce after less than two months in class. A bumpy helipad… The first place of landing was the koshuis (student residence). I got a place at Mopanie together with a Zimbabwean fellow who today is like a brother to me.
First-year students (eerstejaars) were the first ones to get to the koshuis, long before the university opened. Classes started much later. When l left home, l was told that the reason we’d to get to koshuis was that all new eertejaars were needed for “orientation” in order to acclimatize them in their new settings. Deur Eeenhuid Steeds Höer! This was the motto of Mopanie residence (today it is called Mopane). It was required for all new boys to wear name plates (tit-plats) and a new uniform in koshuis colours most of the time. We would spend the entire day and night running up and down the streets like little donkeys. We were matched with girls from Madelief koshuis near Hatfield; all its first-years, and in the mornings we had to pick them up from their place, on the way to class.
We’d arrive early to perform the ritual at about 6:30 after walking about 3 – 4 kilometers from our residence. Every evening, we’d dance and sing for the nooitjies Alison Moyey’s song ‘Only You!’ “Looking from a window above, it’s like a story of love / Can you hear me / Came back only yesterday / I’m moving further away / Want you near me”. The beginning of the year was fun for the white kids who would build floats (vlotbou) and compete among one other. But before competition day, we’d be sent all over Pretoria, Krugersdorp, Roodepoort, Springs, Benoni, etc., to collect donations at intersections.
When l approached a white man with his family in the car, I would open the sentence like this: “Dag Oom my naam is…” Many people were excited to see dark faces and gave generously. But the racist ones would frown, “Voetsek klein kommunis, hierie is Pukkeland!” We’d go to orphanages and old-age homes where we met even more members of the Afrikaner community. Even the very psychologically confused knew and the senile could see a kaffir from afar. Some kids wouldn’t want to play with us. And the old conservative men would state in no uncertain terms that they’d no time for blacks.
Generally street adventures where we would have contact with Afrikaner community were extremely unpleasant – and that is where you could not corroborate Mandela’s story and what you were going through. Walking as part of the group to their special places to eat or to have fun like restaurants or stadiums was unbearable. We were openly abused as young black students by old men and women who told us in our faces that we were smelly, ugly and unwelcome.
Daag Oom Johan!
In the evenings after dinner it will be time for all sorts of treatment as if we were in an army camp. Mind you, conscription ended in the early 1990’s, so the seniors had been soldiers. The drills were arduous and painful but a trip to the girls’ residences or a visit by the girls always brought a bit of happiness to all the boys. All this happened before seniors arrived from holidays to meet us. When they finally came after two weeks or so, we were ready to welcome them with a greet “Daag Oom Johan!” (hitting our chests). They would respond, keep quiet or say “Fok-of!” As first-years we were called ‘peppies’ (still today l don’t know what this meant). The uncles were kind and caring; some took us under their wing as student mentors. But in the main, life was difficult and racist.
Afrikaner boys looked similar and their names sounded the same: Piet, Pieter-Jan, PJ, Jacobus, Jakob, Hendrik, etc. So, we would confuse them. I’d go, “Dag Oom Johan!” (while greeting Niek). Nicer ones would respond, “Nee Peppie, my naam is nie Johan nie maar Niek. Sê dit weer.” Me, “Dag Oom Niek!” This will happen all the time. This experience was like greeting 180 Chinese people in Beijing – embarrassing, confusing and humiliating. Obviously, one would make this ‘mistake’ of mixing names every day. Other ooms and fellow first-years would refuse to have anything with black first-years. Some would ask: “Hoekom is julle so swart?” We were the laughing stock and true under-classes. We felt like this at residences and in class.
During drills or in dining hall, they’d refuse to stand next to us. When we go to shower, in front of us, they would be embarrassed by their nakedness, not wanting us to see their little ‘Parys’. Of course we on the other hand would be the most confident, intimidating them with our long ‘Bophuthatswana’. It’s safe to say that only legends will understand this coding. On campus, they’d pretend to not know us, let alone sitting next to us in class. In the evenings, we’d sing for the uncles: “Alle Mopanie seniors is homosexual, Alle Mopanie seniors is homosexual!” The second years in lower floors would scream back, “Wie is ‘n mofie, julle?” Others would run to the top of the four-storey building with plastic bags full of water. They would throw them at us. “Watersakke!,” they called out loud. Then we would disperse back to our rooms to study. In the mornings we’d be up very early to shower and to eat breakfast.
Seniors would not queue for food or laundry. But every time we met I’d go “Dag Oom Lukas!” And bang my chest. The oom would nod in recognition and pass, especially if you said his name right and had your name plate. The nasty ones were either fed up because we would never get their names right or they were plain racist. They would shout back, “Jy’s ‘n dom, kaffertjie!” And they’d leave you bruised and licking your wounds. The house fathers who were meant to look after us had little or nothing to say. Government was just too far away and former freedom fighters were still sorting out BEE deals. We were neglected in a space that left very deep psychological scars, too deep for anyone to understand.
Afrikanerdom, Jesus, rugby and alles!
Being in Tukkies, one came face to face with Jesus himself who was paraded at the NGK on Duxbury Street. The deeply religious Afrikaans community cared less about the new strangers in their midst. They sang and prayed to the only God who was then forsaking them to the barbaric blacks. Perhaps, they too were not ready to see blacks entering their little world, which they so much cherished. This world is about maintaining Afrikanerdom. Many people see Afriforum, however, Solidarityunïe, as well, is soon to build a university in Centurion, because the Afrikaner community is inward looking and is never going to accept the new South Africa. Sadly, blacks reconciled with themselves. The creation of the enclave of Orania is symbolic of a state of mind, a political statement and economic rebellion against the end of apartheid. When Mandela and FW de Klerk were honoured for a peaceful settlement, the black majority at the bottom was bruising.
The story of the transition is yet to be told by men who went through the devastating political violence that ravaged black communities in the 1980’s and 1990’s. What happened in South Africa is akin to the US-USSR which is always wrongly termed as a Cold War while millions died in proxy wars in Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua and other parts of the world. And life in Tukkies for me summed up the pain of young people who were left to be mauled while the rest of the world watched on their screens to witness the first democratic elections. Though many of us were still young, but we knew deep down that this was not the beginning of anything spectacular. We, instead, focused on learning these books that, in all honesty, we barely knew what they contained. We’d aimed to pass and get out of the place that showed us the true meaning of hatred.
In front of cameras we were portrayed as the new picture of a new South Africa, but inside we were bleeding. Exactly like how Makhaya’s teammates gave him high fives at Lords, when he demolished England, but when the cameras disappeared, they were the first to ostracize him. The hypocrisy is beyond comprehension and it continues to this day. Unfortunately, in most places of education in South Africa, nothing or very little has changed; from crèche all the way to university. We are also guilty of leaving our children, just like how our parents left us, to fight Afrikanerdom which has never had any interest of changing. Even in our places of work we are still overpowered by this strong monied community. Perhaps it is fair to say that blacks have grown accustomed to racism and racial discrimination.
Living as young black students during political euphoria in South Africa was excruciatingly painful and sickening. Living in abject poverty among the wealthy isn’t something that one can wish even upon his worst enemy. Many black students, as they still do today, slept hungry and hopeless due to monetary problems. I witnessed a girl resorting to prostitution in order to survive, and others became hardcore criminals, drug addicts and lost their minds. Life was getting complicated with each day that passed. Like Makhaya who tries to protect and stand up for his son Thando, we all do but in vain.
Seeing our kids going through the same pain is like a replay of a very sad movie, or a horror. The emotional and psychological burden is just way too much. We try to shield our kids from centuries of oppression and indignity, but the load is just too heavy and often too much to carry. We fear for our children – no one knows how Thando will be treated after his father finally opened the door for all us to speak. Racism and abuse are a normal game for our white compatriots; one they have played for over 400 years.
That’s why memory skips Tukkies
All of this commotion was full of loneliness, anger, frustration and tears. As a 17-year-old, I don’t remember how many times l cried and felt like committing suicide. Or shooting a boer, only if l had a gun! I sometimes wished l could climb on top of the Union Buildings to tell my story, but no one would let me in. No one would believe me. Much like there are still people who ask Makhaya Ntini, “But why did you not speak earlier, while still playing cricket?” I also couldn’t speak out; and I couldn’t leave because l had nowhere to go – I was just too poor to quit. Kukude Emakhaya. Life in the township and in the rural areas is too hard and too rough.
Essentially, this is the torture black South Africans must endure to make a living. Nonetheless, l got two degrees in a place that never embraced me. After leaving Tukkies, l did not maintain contact with any of my white residence mates. Through the act of nature, one of them was a neighbour who couldn’t even recognise me. While he and his wife were busy harassing my family, my friend and I recognized him. A few days later l decided to greet him … he was shocked. I don’t know when he left the neighborhood. These are men who now probably lead companies and organisations in the stubbornly un-transforming South Africa. Again, we act surprised. I have never set my foot at Mopanie (or Tukkies, just for fun) since the day l picked up my bags to join the millions at the workplace, another painful story of living in South Africa. As I always maintain, I have nothing to do with Tukkies, but it is the place where I got my degrees and picked up many friends.