Hands for a Bridge has recently returned from their THIRD program in South Africa. The 3rd Cape Town trip took place from February 10th to February 25th, 2005. Below are several creative pieces from our students.
Under Yellow Suns by Corina Nolet
Swing-sets under yellow suns
And streets cracked from old tales.
Blue wool sweaters covering hallways,
Fried chicken feet and
sweet biscuits leave a lingering aura.
Beyond the orange building
And through the metal bars
An authenticity rests among the flat lands
One which is exotic to my affluent ears.
Wooden crates intermingle to appear as a single immense roof
Sprawling through earthy terrain.
Swing-sets under yellow suns
Underneath the repaved roads,
lies streets cracked from old tales
Various brand names can be spotted
On painted front steps
Where cherry blossoms fall
Creating a pink blanket.
BMW’s and Suburban’s waxed to the toe
Line thorough and fro
Where the bass of a 5 cd changer, sub woofer, amplifier
Can rattle windows.
And beyond the brick building
And trough the picket fences
Tall white houses and fertilized grass
Rest among gone astray prejudices
But we all can swing underneath the yellow sun.
No Cakewalk by Tony Maack
This is no cakewalk
No rich kids path through life where daddy hands him keys and a paycheck
This is not Pleasantville where the smile and wave are common gestures
This is not preschool, where everybody wins and gets candy
Instead of pillows I see bullets
Instead of laughter, silence
There is no shaking of hands before this conflict
I see no balloons, but bombs and fire
Instead of a happy baby blue, I see blood red
It is difficult to change by Eric Sorensen
Looking out the open window of our van, tailored green lawns and clean, paved streets laid out before my eyes. I was besieged with an eerie feeling that we were driving through Hollywood Hills as we passed whole compounds hidden behind high walls and an excess of foliage. The houses were opaque and off-white, and sat on lots that could fit fifty shacks. Tongues fell silent and eyes widened as if half-expecting to see Peter Fonda or Tara Reid walking down the street. This surely was not the South Africa we knew.
Halfway up a steep hill that climbed out of the city smog, we took a sharp right turn and drove down a narrow driveway, stopping just short of the two-car garage at the far end, and were greeted with an awkward, toothy smile. It belonged to a rather tall man in pleated khaki slacks and a collared shirt, who had an arm resting nicely in a new sling. This is Willem.
“Welcome, how are you all?” he asked as he used his one mobile arm to close and latch the twelve-foot high gate that hid our three ragged vans. “Come, follow me.”
We were led up a curved flight of concrete stairs that emptied into what I believe he referred to as his “backyard”. The area in question was bigger than a basketball court and was adorned with a thatch-roofed gazebo, billiards table, swimming pool, and sauna; with candle-lit tables erected on top of its cool granite tiles and soft grass. A stout little woman with dark hair and bronzed features stood preparing miniature bottles of exotic juice and nametags for us, stacking them on top of the mini-bar. This is Bertha. “You look hot. Here, have a juice,” she said, looking at me, her head cocked to the side in concern. As I walked around, handing out juices to tired Bridgers, I noticed a common expression of astonishment plastered across the faces of our group. This was our first glimpse into the Afrikaner lifestyle—the white lifestyle—something that, after coming from a township, seemed very strange.
Soon we gathered around Willem, each of us taking a seat in a woven patio chair or soft couch, and prepared ourselves to hear what we had already decided was ‘the other side of the story’. Willem cut to the chase, starting us off with a question. “So, what have you learned about South Africa?” The patio fell silent. “Oh come on…you have been in South Africa two weeks, and you are going to tell me that you have learned nothing?”
This sort of disparaging comment always seems to weed out a brave soul. “I can say that, coming from the States to Cape Town, has helped me realize how much we actually have and how petty some of our problems are,” answered one student. “It has helped me appreciate what I have.” More comments about community and interaction and charity began to pour out, each remark coming easier than the last.
“Well,” said Willem finally. “It sounds like you all have had quite a time. Now let me tell you about my past and my history as a white South African.” This is what we had been waiting for, a justification from the enemy. I sat back in my recliner, and prepared myself for some sort of plea. I thought I had enough ammo to once and for all open this man’s eyes to the horrors of apartheid, we all thought we did.
Willem began from his childhood. “I grew up on a farm, you see. My father owned the farm where six of us whites lived, at the same time he employed 100 blacks, and he looked after every one. You must understand that I grew up in a rural area. My childhood was very different from the childhood of someone from a big city like Cape Town. There was, up until a certain point, a very high standard of living.” I started to think about that, about growing up in rural South Africa. How would a detachment from all the urban revolt affect your average white farm boy? I thought. It also occurred to me that in America, Willem’s ‘farm’ would be called a plantation. Willem continued, “It is very difficult, at that age, to realize something is wrong when you are a part of it. But then Nelson Mandela came along,” his lungs let out a sigh at the name, “and he changed everything. People started to look at the very idea of apartheid and recognize that something wasn’t right.” Willem lumped himself into that group, proceeding to tell us of his teenage years and what came to be a sort of a liberal enlightenment. He began to object to the system, and wrote articles in secondary school wrangling with it. But his narrative started to give me the sense that while he theoretically disagreed with apartheid, Willem still lived in a white world complete with his white privileges. What did he actually, physically do to stop apartheid? Ah hah, I thought. He doesn’t see how well he lived! I have found my first round to fire at him. I was ready, geared up to put his disillusions to rest and then Willem reasoned…
“We lived the good life. The system worked so well that we had not much reason to change.” I didn’t understand. How can you be against something so controversial and still do nothing? I wanted to ask him why he didn’t try to change the horrible apartheid formula. Willem once again beat me to it, throwing an arm into the air with his palms facing up as if to catch the black tears of the sky, “How do you change it? Through the political system? It was 1970 and blacks couldn’t participate in government. There was really only one political party for whites, and it was interested in maintaining apartheid, so they couldn’t vote against it.” The picture was beginning to become clearer to me. I started to see how impossible a new South Africa, a South Africa without separation of races, could seem to your average Afrikaner. Apartheid was all Willem had ever known.
Willem continued on about the conservative white reasoning that perpetuated the system for almost 50 years. He told us how the church was used to support the system’s policies, but also how it eventually assisted in changing them. “Most Afrikaners were devoutly religious, and believed what the church preached,” he said. Religion can be so shameful sometimes, I thought to myself. I couldn’t imagine swallowing everything from a pew. “It took decades for white South Africans to see through the government’s influence in the church and to decide to learn to love your neighbor, no matter what color they are. This idea gave us direction,” he alleged. Then it occurred to me that in this new, open-minded South Africa, Willem’s neighbors were all still white. How much has actually changed? I asked myself.
“Unity,” declared Willem, raising his chin and clenching his fist. “All of South Africa must be united to make this new nation work.” Now this sounds a little too trite, I decided. When we walk down the street in the townships, we are noticed.
It is like ‘white!’ is being screamed through a loudspeaker and everyone turns to see what is making all the noise. How can a nation make such drastic changes so quickly? I wanted to know if this union was a reality. My hand shot up, and when Willem turned to me, squinted his eyes to read my nametag, and said, “Yes…Eric, you have a question?” I did.
“What, if any, reverse racism have you experience in the black population since apartheid ended?” I asked. This was not the sort of pin-him-to-the-wall question I had planned on asking, but I was genuinely interested in the state of racism from his perspective.
“None…not at all. The goodwill of the people has not let that happen,” he replied while the loose rand in his pocket jingled as he ran it through his fingers. I was very surprised to hear him say that. No reverse racism? Such forgiveness, I thought. Willem carried on, “You must understand that the African National Congress never want the whites to leave. Nelson Mandela himself has said that without whites in South Africa today, the country would be in big trouble. His vision is of a future where everyone works together, not one where one race leaves. We can’t change the past, but we can have an effect on the future.” Profound, I thought.
At the mention of Nelson Mandela, a hand towards the back went up. It was our teacher, Tom Nolet. “What do you think would happen if Nelson Mandela was assassinated?” Good question. I wanted to see how an Afrikaner saw Mandela. Nolet elaborated, “He has such a great influence over the people of power, could his assassination result is something we don’t want to see?”
“I don’t think it would result in much to be perfectly honest with you,” Willem responded. “In South Africa, assassinations are just another part of life.”
“You don’t think any sort of retaliation would occur?” questioned Nolet. “Don’t you think there could be something in the black community that might arise that Mandela has been keeping down?” Willem stared up at the cloudless, blue sky and scratching his lame arm, chewed on his lower lip. Nolet speculated, “Even though the majority of Afrikaners, it seems, share your views, I don’t doubt that there are still some radicals out there who would like to see South Africa’s most influential black leader dead.”
Willem looked disturbed, “Perhaps Tom. But I don’t want there to be any confusion. I am a South African. I am white, and race still does matter in this country, but I do not consider myself to be an Afrikaner.” This comment caught many of us off guard. Not an Afrikaner? What does he consider himself to be then? “I think of myself and my family as ‘white South Africans’. I suppose my definition of an Afrikaner is someone who is still stuck in the 1980s. An Afrikaner is conservative, still holds some sort of fear of blacks, and is prepared to fight in the name of religion. I am not necessarily saying that all Afrikaners are racists, but in my mind there is a close relation between the two.”
While I was busy absorbing what Willem had said, a student’s hand went up high in the back; it was Tam Johnson’s. “Within the black population there are many different tribes and cultures.” I lowered my head because I could tell that this question was about to lead us to a place that would make us all uncomfortable. “How can you stand there and make the distinction that you are not an Afrikaner despite your race, your wealth, and the fact that Afrikaans is your first language; and then turn around and just lump the entire black race into one ‘black’ category?”
At this, Willem began to rock back and forth from one foot to the other. The atmosphere had suddenly grown thick, and I felt strange drilling this man with questions that suggested he was a hypocrite as we sat on his patio, in his chairs, drinking his juice, waiting for his wife to inform us when our dinner was ready. “Well, to be perfectly honest with you Tam, I cannot. All of us South Africans have been raised in a racist country, whether we agreed with it or not. We are just now beginning to turn things around, and we are trying to learn to be more sensitive towards one another.” It is difficult to change. This made me think back to our day at Robben Island where prisoners were split up into four separate non-white groups. One prisoner referred to all imprisoned there as black. Not to suggest race or background, but using the term to describe the fundamental depravity that society breeds into any non-white South African. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for twenty-seven years by the Apartheid regime. It is difficult to change.
Today Willem works with prospective black businessmen in the townships. Up until a year ago, Willem was a managing consultant, making a more than adequate income to sustain his lifestyle and live comfortably. “God called,” he affirmed. God told Willem that he needed to do something to help the struggling majority of South Africa. So Willem quit his job, asked the government for some money, and established a couple of centers that serve to teach ‘previously disadvantaged individuals’ how to start and maintain successful businesses in the poorer communities. “There is 90 percent unemployment in the rural areas. There simply are more people than we have jobs for. That is where our program comes in…it is a ripple effect. If I can help one person open a small business, that creates ten new jobs. And that in turn affects the lives of ten new families. It is our weak economy—not apartheid—that is causing all the disparity that we have in this country today…We have made a commitment to making the world a better community,” he avows. I smiled to myself, Religion can be such a good thing too.
“Well, should we eat?” Willem asked, clapping his hands together and letting out a sigh of reprieve. “These are traditional South African sausages,” he said directing a finger at the pile of sizzling links stacked on the table. “And here we have potato salad, some fruit, and a green salad over there. Be sure to leave room for desert!” We all lined up and heaved loads of food on to our fine china and dined by candlelight on the lawn next to the pool, feeling sophisticated and worthy. As the night grew long and we enjoyed his comfort, I continued to chew on the complexities Willem’s story. However callous his opinions, or large his wealth, or flawed his reasoning, I had a good feeling about Willem. I came to realize that two weeks in the gut of post-Apartheid South Africa is not enough time to pass judgment on anything. Have we opened his eyes? Did we pin his white ass to the wall? I didn’t think so. More than anything, I realized how much I still didn’t understand of his convoluted and fragile circumstance. South Africa is a crazy place, I thought. Nowadays, two men, one white and one black, can sit together in the same bar and share a drink; and fifteen years ago, in each man’s youth, they could have been firing rocks and rubber bullets at each other. In South Africa, no stranger is guilty of nothing. We have barely scratched the surface. I recognized that my eyes hadn’t even adjusted to the light of the situation. We can’t change the past, but we can have an effect on the future.
Inevitably, our night had to end. We all posed for the dreaded group pictures and said our goodbyes with firm handshakes and gentle hugs, exchanged email addresses and promised to keep in touch. It felt strange to accept such a gesture from a man none of us had ever met, and then leave without returning a comparable deed. But I think that Willem and Bertha found some importance in our visit too. I am not sure what it was, but I know that both of them had sweeping grins on their faces when we piled back in to our vans and headed back down the steep hill. We were tired and contented, and happy to be heading home to the townships.