By Richelle Shem-Tov
In 1948 Alan Paton wrote a book on South Africa, “Cry the Beloved Country”. There are perhaps those of the younger generation who may not know of it or of the tragedy of the country, beloved then, as now to, all of its people. For hundreds of years it has been a beloved country; perhaps ever since man has walked its paths. It was and is a country of great beauty and presents vistas as fine as any in the world; a land rich with life; peoples as colourful as the rainbow, but side-by-side with joy and song, it has for centuries been crying. Bloody and fierce battles between tribes, ethnicities and races punctuated its turbulent history. Ultimately the blacks were brought to their knees by both the British and the Boers, losing their land, their livelihood, their culture and worst of all their dignity. The British and the Boers too fought bitter wars for control of this country, leaving behind ugly scars of suffering, hatred and destruction.
Despite the conflict, South Africa developed, becoming rich and powerful; a small minority living in comfort and wealth as only few in the world could boast. Millions remained exploited, poverty- stricken and humiliated – reduced to a lesser race, even in their own eyes. Racism, hatred, fear, conflict and crime reigned. In 1948, apartheid, a cruel and comprehensive system of racial segregation, became the law of the land. The country wept. This is the country I grew up in. I grew up enjoying the privileges of the white race but knew and heard the cry of the beloved country.
I left in 1962. I left an apartheid state. In 1994, after a long-protracted struggle of the black and coloured people, apartheid was abandoned, and the new South African democratic state came into being with a huge black majority voting in their own government.
Having family in Cape Town, I visit often. With each visit I rejoice anew. I rejoice at being with my loved ones; I rejoice at the unbeatable beauty of the surroundings; I rejoice at the familiar sounds and sights of my childhood; I rejoice at the incredible, no, miraculous change; I rejoice as I see black and white children splashing in the same sea resort; I see a white policeman helping an elderly black lady off the bus; I hear that at a graduation ceremony of engineers at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, more than fifty percent were black women; I listen to performers of all races at the Johannesburg symphony orchestra – when the black conductor stepped onto the podium I cried with joy. The people of the passport control, security people, travelers and businesspeople, not just the cleaners and porters, are black. I rejoice when the maid, a black maid, may use the same toilet as the mistress.
I visit a game reserve in Natal. The owners tell me that this land was owned by a few farmers, white farmers of course. They had turned their property into this magnificent resort and game reserve. The black people who lived on the farms all became share holders, they built their villages, homes, schools outside the areas fenced in for the animals. Those who wished were employed on the reserve. Surely a win-win situation.
Though the suburbs of Johannesburg are empty after dark, on the evening we visited Soweto it was full of people dancing and singing, black and white people. Could this have been then??
For all this and more I rejoice, but my memories of the apartheid period disturb and distress me to this day. How deep and destructive are the effects of a racist and conflict-ridden environment – to all who live within it.
Yet I hear other rumblings. I will tell here of some encounters I had on my visits: On a flight from Gauteng to Cape Town, I sit next to a well- dressed and fine- looking young black man. He tells me he is a statistician on his way to a meeting with the SA air force where he will be acting as an advisor. He has visited many countries in this capacity. He tells me he received his degree at Tuckies, the University of Pretoria which in my student days was a hot bed of extreme white Afrikaner nationalism. Only another South African of those times could understand my complete amazement.
This fellow passenger speaks with pained anger of today’s corruption, of the inadequate education system, of mismanagement. I ask him if there is nothing good that he can tell me. He agrees that all is not bad, that it is true that millions, literally millions of houses have been built; electricity has been extended to millions; water and sewerage reach many more; there is a rising black middle and upper class: HIV is being addressed. But this cannot be and is not enough.
Here I ask him if he remembers the apartheid period: the shootings, the torture, the beatings, the humiliation; when a white man’s ambulance was not permitted to drive an injured black man to a hospital; where the stations, the buses, the benches, the parks were forbidden to the black man; a premature black infant was not permitted the use of a vacant incubator from the white man’s hospital; the long lines of black people outside the small window of the spacious almost empty post office; when a man could not walk in the streets without a “pass’ from his white master; when families were torn apart to be sent home to the Bantustans. I remind him of the corruption, economic mismanagement and the ‘Bantu education’ of those times.
Could he and I have be sitting thus on the Johannesburg – Cape Town flight?
He says that the young people will not always remember the apartheid days. He says and I know that millions of poverty- stricken and unemployed have gained little from the new South Africa. The poor can only watch this apparently bustling prosperous country from the outside. Their hopes, their expectations of a better life, have not been realized. They will not accept such a situation forever.
This enlightening conversation comes to an end on our descent into Cape Town.
Thus, I hear and feel the good winds as I do the bad, but there is another, and for me, a more ominous wind. Sadly, one with which I am very familiar. I sense in some people a deep- rooted racism, an ailment which not all have been able to shake off. It is more subtle than it was, often expressed only in body language and suggestion or code. It goes beyond objective criticism. I am told it exists amongst the blacks too; I myself have come across it amongst whites. Every inadequacy, every criticism, every defect or imagined defect is directed to the “new” South Africa; There are some, less subtle who speak with bitterness and a longing for the pre 1994 era; who unashamedly regret the change. From time to time the derogatory and humiliating language of the past may be heard. I find this deeply hurtful. For too long has the land and its people been in the shadow of conflict. Too long for it to be able to let go completely of this burden of prejudice and intolerance.
To conclude I write these words to this country of my birth
I celebrate “The Beloved Country”;
I celebrate the mountains, the kopjes, the forest, the sea and the sky
I celebrate the Protea, the Acacia, the Baobab, the Aloe and the grassland
I celebrate the birds, the doe, the zebra and the giraffe
I celebrate the city, my cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Polokwane
I celebrate the people of the rainbow nation, their dance, their song, their multitude of tongues.
I celebrate their achievements, their freedom, their victory of tolerance and reconciliation. I envy this.
I hurt at their failings and faulting
I hurt deeply at the horrific poverty, frustration and despair in city and in village.
I hurt most at that lingering dark presence of racism.
The Beloved Country has much cause both to celebrate and to weep
And yes, the Beloved Country does still cry.
Richelle Shem-Tov an essayist and an author was born and grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), South Africa. A retired physiotherapist, a mother of four and a grandmother of ten. She lives with her husband near Tel Aviv in Israel.