I never thought I’d get to see South Africa. As a child and young adult I somehow accepted the tacit message from my parents that it was not my right to visit. My brother and I were never encouraged to have a curiosity about our heritage or distant family. My mother and father had a self-imposed exile. I could say a ‘political exile’, but it wasn’t as virtuous as that. They left in 1953 to avoid segregation, having to enter through different doors, eat in different restaurants, walk in different parks, sit on different benches and live lives which forced them to be ashamed of their Cape ancestry. Their ancestry went back several hundred years, and thus made them the descendants of the European settlers, Dutch, British, French, Norwegians and their slaves, Malay, Chinese and African. Scratch the surface of any such colony’s inhabitants and you will find mixed blood. This is how colonies were formed.
For generations their families had lived peacefully on the tip of Southern Africa, seemingly untouched by the petty prejudices which had always existed. They were called, and called themselves, “Europeans”, the term used prior to apartheid for those deemed to be white. They fitted in. Some of their family members were fair, some olive, some dark. In the town they were born people lived side by side and were judged by their status in the community rather than by their complexions. That was soon to change.
My parents were born to people who had a long history in South Africa, who were proud and saw themselves as something other than a classification devised by a racist government. When you are mixed you have a foot in many camps and yet fit into none. Then came full blown Apartheid. In those arbitrary Group Areas Act days my grandmother, who was of European and Malay descent, was reclassified “mixed” and her white husband was reclassified the same by association. Their children, many of whom were fair enough to pass as “white”, chose the path of least resistance and thereby disassociated themselves from their own family. Half the family following the party line of segregation and half living a lie. To this day I have relatives who live in familial isolation because their parents never told them of the existence of their large, exotic, extended family living in the same country. It is amazing how, even now, the taboo still holds my family to ransom. I was brought up in the same isolation, not knowing aunts, uncles, cousins or grandparents. I know the truth, but my parents never told me. Over time I worked it out myself and finally, in her old age, my mother talked. I believe my parents felt it was something which brought them shame because they were told that who they were was not acceptable. They left to avoid being officially labelled “Mixed” and thus being forced to live as second class citizens. They also wanted to give us, their children, a better life.
Ironically, I believe I have a “better life” now, but the cost was a lonely and unhappy childhood.
My mother lived with a deep sadness which never allowed her to escape her past and enjoy her new family in the UK. She loved us, I am sure, in her own damaged way, but she loved her SA family more. That was the life she related to and the life she should have continued to live but the politics of her country made it impossible for her to stay. Those who stayed were not braver or better and my mother was not cowardly or worse for leaving. She was just different and for her own reasons would not allow the government to label her in such a way that her freedom was curtailed. Maybe having a young child to protect was her motivation? She chose to leave. When I visited South Africa for the first time in April I could understand why. Those who were forced to live as second class citizens have remained on the outskirts of society..they accepted their lot and maybe are happier than my mother ever was as a result, but I can’t help but feel that everything of their family’s identity was lost. My mother’s exile meant that she kept the essence of her family alive in the stories she told me and and in the memories she passed down. She belonged to a time, which has been lost to SA, when people of many ethnicities and professions lived side by side in harmony. She did not want to be White or Coloured, she wanted to be valued for who she was, a person who happened to have a rich ancestry, rooted in the early settlements of her country. My grandfather had an uncle who was a lawyer and used to write pamphlets to the Smuts’ government saying, “if you want to separate people then first look amongst yourselves”. Smuts had a coloured grandparent apparently and this is how hypocritical the apartheid era was.. South Africa is full of “whites” who have at least “one drop” but who either don’t know or who choose to deny. It is a country of secrets and lies. If only it could face up to its past and truly shake off the vestiges of its racist history..
P.S Whilst going through my mother’s papers I found this poignant poem, with this introduction:- “I wrote this poem on one of my low days”
I Sailed away those many years
And left my soul behind.
I cried the day I said goodbye
Great sadness filled my mind.
I left the ones that I loved best
And now I fear they’ve gone to rest.
Mum never saw her parents again. She died at 84, in 2007, but her life really ended in 1953 on the day she left her beloved country and parents behind. Why she felt unable to return I shall never know. We were not wealthy but she was capable and resourceful with money and I know that she would have been able to make it financially possible. My second brother and I were born after our parents had been in the country nearly a decade and so she was an older mum and maybe this made her feel trapped?