The question of racism is a big one in South Africa at this time. It gets wide ulturaloverage in the news when a Durban estate agent says something disparaging about the people on the beach-front, or two Cape Town motorists fight it out over a parking place using abusive language; or the Premier of the Western Cape says something historically questionable and inappropriate. I have witnessed these outbreaks of nastiness with some disbelief and sadness because I have had the privilege of experiencing multiracialism from a different perspective, in fact a unique perspective which I enjoy telling people about.
I was born in the Knysna provincial hospital in 1975, about the time South Africa was at last allowed to watch television and it was in the year before that a generation of black children rose up in Soweto in violent protest about the government’s insistence that they should be taught in Afrikaans.
My great-great grandfather’s name was Daniel Petrus van den Heever otherwise known as “Oom Daantjie”. He was a Member of the Cape Parliament who led the charge for the introduction of Dutch (which of course later became Afrikaans) as an official language in that August house in 1882. To celebrate this achievement, a Taal (Language) Monument was erected in Burgersdorp (his constituency) in 1893. The monument is in the form of a statue of a woman, apparently modeled on Oom Daantjie’s daughter, and one wonders about the significance of its gender (perhaps simply aesthetic). British soldiers beheaded the statue during the Anglo Boer War, but it still stands today, headless.
In 1995 I started working at Londolozi game reserve in Mpumalanga as a guide taking tourists on safari. I was paired with a man called Renias Mhlongo, 13 years my senior. He was to be the tracker and the two of us were to conduct safaris together.
Renias was born in a mud hut under a Jackalberry tree situated in what is today the greater Kruger National Park. Although the responsibility of the safari lay with me as the guide, it was clear on the first afternoon game drive that Renias was in total control. As a clueless 20 year old, I was fortunate that Renias ‘adopted’ me, and kept our guests and me safe in the bush. I have come to know Renias as the most ecologically literate person I have ever met, and he will surely be remembered as one of the greatest wildlife trackers in our country. That afternoon in 1995, a two-decade long relationship began – a mentorship for which I am deeply grateful and which has shaped my life fundamentally.
In that time I have had the privilege of sharing many experiences with Renias, taking safaris, trailing dangerous animals, travelling to other countries teaching wildlife tracking skills and presenting our story to whomever was prepared to listen. The relationship has allowed us to enjoy a hugely fulfilling life doing exactly what we love to do.
In the early years of our relationship I would frequently experience waves of shame and guilt, horrible emotional surges whenever Renias spoke of his family issues, his financial woes or the education of his children. I kept telling myself that I had nothing to do with the past and the ills black people faced during the time I was a boy. I reconciled with myself that I had no responsibility for any of that. Yet this did nothing for my emotional state. To compensate for my culpability I found myself getting unnecessarily involved in Renias’ personal matters – always trying to fix what I perceived as being wrong. When I ask Renias about this today, he tells me that I was only trying to make myself feel better.
Renias and I were culturally very far apart, but on the journey of dissolving one’s prejudices one comes to learn that race and culture do not define the essence of the human being. As most of us know, in South Africa there exist gross generalisations of culture that creates widespread intolerance by both blacks and whites. To combat this in ourselves Renias believes the mere act in seeking to understand, sincerely, another person’s culture or belief system is a powerful first step to dismantling the bigotry currently at large in our country.
In 1998, I spent my first weekend at Renias’s village, Dixie, in rural Mpumalanga, which in hindsight was a momentous event in the overall development of our relationship. In three days I learnt more about Renias’ life than I had in the previous three years of knowing him. According to him this was a crucial moment in our relationship, and if I had not gone, the bond may not have grown as it has.
Over the years Renias taught me to speak Tsonga, his home language, which created an opportunity for me to access a degree of understanding of him and his family. Similarly, I taught Renias to speak English so that he may understand me better. Language separates us, even accents do, and having learnt an African language I am convinced South Africa would experience a fraction of its racial issues due to simple misunderstanding and misinterpretation. I am always astounded by the goodwill I receive when I speak to people in the street in their own language.
After years of mulling I came to the cold realisation that my guilt was less about my responsibility for Renias and more about how I had benefitted materially from apartheid.
The lopsidedness of the situation bothered me – I had enjoyed vastly more ‘Western oriented’ resources growing up. I went to a good Model C school, received the best nutrition and ultimately had access to a network of influential people who could guide me. People tended to give me opportunities simply because of my appearance, my education and my ability to communicate well. On the flip side, Renias was never given the opportunity to go to school, (instead he was responsible for his father’s cattle herd); he experienced extreme hunger regularly and knew no one who could help him. When compared to my African counterparts, being born white gave me an unassailable lead in life. Even though apartheid is officially over, its effects are still present today, particularly in rural parts of the country. I am a first-hand witness to the fact that South Africa is still producing Renias-type childhoods.
In my Land Rover one afternoon on our way to a conduct a motivational presentation I felt compelled to acknowledge and apologise to Renias for the roles we as whites had played directly and indirectly in the injustices that took place under apartheid. I told Renias I was sorry. I apologised for what white people have done and because I wanted to deepen my relationship with him.
Later, when I asked him about the apology he said: “I felt an ease come into my heart. And I felt much more comfortable with you.” He continued to say that the wounds of apartheid were still there in every black person. He said that little acts of prejudicial behaviour by whites is noticed and keeps the wounds festering. Renias believes if whites acknowledge and say sorry it will give that wound a chance to heal.
Since the day of my apology a sense of lightness and freedom has entered our relationship. To say it unshackled us from the past may not be correct, but it certainly had a significantly positive impact. A sincere apology is one of the most profound human interactions one can have.
Nation building rests with the actions of civil society. It is apparent that our current crop of politicians lacks the will to facilitate integration in order for us to experience the true power of diversity. If I consider in the microcosm of my relationship with Renias the effort the two of us have put in, South Africans have a lot to do if we are serious about building a thriving, transformed, free country.
Renias recommends that white people try the following to get the best out of their black counterparts:
- Demonstrate a willingness to work together.
- Share information and knowledge.
- Focus your energy on skills development, even with one person.
- Don’t hold back; speak if there are issues to be dealt with.
- Learn an African language and seek to understand black culture properly.
- Make use of public transport like taxis and buses.
- Make the effort to visit and stay with black people at their homes.
- Share meals and laugh together.
- Give workers a greater understanding of how the business works, the challenges it’s facing, the successes, the shortcomings, its financial situation, and the company’s vision.
- Do not generalise – remember that everyone is an individual with a unique upbringing and set of experiences.
- Show an interest in peoples’ jobs, their families and their particular situation.
- Learn what is considered to be disrespectful behaviour in black culture, and share the same for white culture.
Try to find in your heart where you hold prejudiced thoughts and feelings, as these come out in subtle ways, which are noticed by blacks.