Sunday, November 06, 2011

Systemic Change: Lessons from South Africa

Around 2005, a newspaper sent me on a trip to write about the revival of tourism in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Many people in the United States, at the time, still squirmed at the thought of doing any kind of business with South Africa. The very name connoted state-sponsored terrorism against citizens. How could South Africa be forgiven for what happened in Soweto, for black children slaughtered by police during riots (which caused further riots), for the imprisonment for black leaders for decades, as western countries grew rich on their investments in South Africa.

It took great effort to divest, we were cautious about renewing ties. The airline served wine from a coop that paid fair wages. That should have been my first clue that South Africa had changed. My trip took me to a series of spectacular hotels - places with views of the sea from cliffs, or settled in the back of lagoons where monkeys called from the trees at dusk.

Johannesburg looked like every major city in the world. Big, sprawling, with lots of concrete towers and posh night spots. The further we got away from Jo'berg, the better I understood the country. Afrikaners there were in love with Africa. Wherever they may have come from, England or the Netherlands, there seemed no kinship. They loved their adopted land. To Africans who told them to go back where they came from, they gave a different version of the history of immigration to Africa's southernmost tip. Their opponents there were the Xhosa, tall, powerful, organized fighters. The Xhosa, according to Afrikaner historians (and my tour guide), arrived at the same time their ancestors did. The Xhosa, they asserted, pushed their way down to the tip of Africa looking for fertile land. The original inhabitants were the bushmen - made famous in The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Indeed, the Bushmen, labeled colored in the infamous apartheid system, are tiny compared to the towering Xhosa. The one I conversed with at length wore a greeter's uniform, and in front of blacks and whites, proceeded to denounce both groups as racist against the coloreds. He was aggressive but adorable, and others smiled as he spoke. The power struggle in the country had left out his people. The struggle had been vicious and ugly at times. The white minority had fought to keep its elite status and adopted an anything goes mentality. What now?

The change in South Africa became apparent to me when I spent the night with other travel writers at a posh hotel on a lake. I was exhausted from day's activity but the others went on boat to explore the lake. The boat got stuck in the middle of the lake for hours. A rescue team was called in to pull the boat in. One of the curly-haired police men/rescue workers carried a couple of black journalists to shore. They giggled at being rescued by manly men in merely waist deep water. The hotel rewarded the rescue team with free drinks with the writers. Some called their wives to join us for the evening. We finally had a chance to mingle with people who were not part of the tourism industry. I felt talking to them would give me a clearer idea as to what had happened in South Africa since the end of apartheid. (It had been a long process. All races were able to vote only since 1994.) And then one of them, the curly-haired police officer with a mustache and a bright smile, saw me - a mixed race American and beamed. He was more than a chatterbox. When he shared he was a police officer and soldier during aparthied I said that must have been hard. Perhaps my voice betrayed the anger and judgment I strove to contain, or perhaps he was ready to tell his story.

Although he was a police officer, he had to serve in the army for several weeks at a time on a regular basis. The war against Angola was terrifying, but when he returned home, he took out his rage on black South Africans. In his mind, they became the same. Rioters looked like enemy soldiers. Youth running away looked threatening. "I shot black children," he said, his face stricken. He said that he responded to small crimes, like shoplifting, with his gun. I was going crazy, he said, the soldiers on the front and the black youth at home - they all seemed the same. He always felt like they were trying to kill him. Even when they were running away, I asked. He shrugged helplessly.

You must have felt horrible, I said. He said he coped by drinking heavily and beating his wife, as did the others. Isn't it true, he said, turning to his blonde wife. She nodded uncomfortably. This was a party atmosphere at a posh hotel, and he was sharing their family secrets with strangers. Only we weren't strangers.
We all drank and beat our families, we were angry all the time, he said. Apartheid had us, it was like a demon, there was a demon that took over our minds, he said. We don't want to be racists now, we want to be free. We want our children to marry black children. We want to be one people. We want all to be mixed, he said. Now his wife smiled. The sincerity and passion in his voice was unmistakable. In me he saw a peaceful future for South Africa. In him, I saw a peaceful future for America. Change is possible, even the people committing atrocities are capable of deepest change rooted in the soul.

I don't know what ever happened to that man - never kept in touch - can't remember his name. My notes from back then must be around somewhere. I wrote a glowing review of tourism in South Africa, but the glow came from meeting a police officer who was filled with hope. I was skeptical of Mandela's policy of forgiveness toward the people who committed atrocities during apartheid, and his emphasis on simply confessing and telling the truth. To me, that seemed weak, pointless. Why would hardened racists change? Meeting that police officer changed my view - he felt freed by the fall of apartheid, he felt human again, he felt hope. He could talk about his problems, his grief, his self loathing. There were so many different elements in his story. Race. Substance Abuse. Violence. Power. Individual Responsiblity. Confusion. Rage. Forgiveness. Hope. And the incredible power of simply telling the truth, about yourself, about your society.

Change is possible. Today, when I see videos of American police officers beating peaceful protesters, I feel such deep resentment. How can they betray the First Amendments's guaranty of Americans' right to peaceable assembly. If we handle police brutality in the right way, perhaps someday, they too will feel liberated from the institutional system that drives them to such cruelty.

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