When I immigrated to America I had a goal, although I didn’t realize I had it until I began to achieve it.  I wanted to be able to look at a person of color and see the person not the color.  This may sound like a very simple thing.  But when every action and interaction of your early life has been compelled, often legally, by separateness—“apartheid”—it seems impossible.

I have no idea when I began to perceive ethnicity as separateness.  The policy of apartheid was adopted in 1948 when the National Party took power in South Africa, so it was in place long before I was born and was already a well-established way of life.  In our home when I was growing up, we always had a black, live-in maid.  We also had a laundry woman and a gardener.  In general, although not by our family, these women and men were referred to as “girls” and “boys” no matter their age.  The men were often called “John” even if that was not really their name.  We didn’t have an army of servants, as Vladimir Nabokov’s family had in Imperial Russia, but I never had to make my bed or clean the house, and the meals were prepared for us.  The maid had a half-day off on Thursdays and Sundays, so we had to fend for ourselves on those evenings.

I remember the names of three of our maids.  I didn’t know their last names.  Perhaps my parents did; I’m not sure.  First there was Lillian, who left our service for reasons I was not old enough to take an interest in.  Then there was Millie.  Millie was tiny—not much taller than me—but she was a fierce worker.  I had no idea that the pulls on my chest of drawers were brass until she polished them up.  Millie was my friend.  I would sit on the kitchen counter when she was cleaning up after supper and read to her the funny stories from my school reader.  There would be peals of laughter from both of us issuing from the kitchen, and my parents were pleased, in a liberal sort of way, that their daughter was unaffectedly attached to a black woman.

One day my father sent me with a message to Millie.  I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that it was not a very welcome one.  He said that, because I was Millie’s friend, I should be the one to deliver it.  Millie also had a message through me for my parents: Could they install a shower or bath for her in addition to the sink and the long-drop lavatory?  It was not forthcoming.

Now, by most standards, our family was politically enlightened.  Neither of my parents, nor any of us three children when we were old enough, ever voted for the National Party.  But there was a kind of blindness, a sense that this was just how it was.

One of the built-in conveniences of having a live-in maid was that my parents could lead an active social life, with no need to find a babysitter.  On one of these occasions Millie had a friend visiting – a man friend, as it happened.  With some nervousness and many injunctions not to tell my parents, she asked me if I would sit in her room, so that she wouldn’t have to abandon her friend to take care of me in the house.  I noticed that her small, simple room had a slightly musty, earthy smell to it.  Her friend was tall and extremely courteous (he excused himself at one point to “make water” before heading for the long-drop), and they both made me very welcome.  I sat sideways on Millie’s high bed, with my back against the wall and my legs stretched out in front of me, and the three of us chatted convivially.  I had a wonderful time.

It was only by special dispensation—by means of having a Pass—that black people were allowed to live and work in white neighborhoods.  They were usually confined to townships, called “locations”, outside the towns.  Their true homes were even further away, in places like Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, Ciskei or Kwa-Zulu.  In the 1970s three million people were forcibly resettled in these black homelands or “Bantustans”.

I don’t know where Millie’s true home was, but one day she went home for a vacation, and she never came back.  We didn’t ever hear from her again, and we were mystified and heartbroken.  My parents worried that something untoward might have happened to her.  Perhaps it did.  We will never know.  It is also possible that, even in a household where she had been treated comparatively well, she just couldn’t bear to be a servant any longer.

Millie’s place was taken by Doris, a large woman with a cast in one eye.  I didn’t warm to Doris the way I had to Millie.  My mother has a sweet tooth and there was a tradition in our house of being allowed two candies from a special candy tin after meals.  One day Doris asked me for candy from the tin.  I gave her one.  She asked if she could have another, explaining that when you have one it gives you a yen for another.  I withheld for a moment, saying that one was better than nothing.  She concurred, and I eventually yielded and gave her a second candy.  It is a small incident, but it makes me feel hot with shame to recall it.  I was being the little madam withholding from a servant.  It was horrible.  A short while after this my mother was taking Doris somewhere in the car and I was in the back seat.  They began to speak of apartheid, and Doris, stolid and unemotional as I had always thought her, became impassioned about the inequity of the society.  My mother agreed.  It was an eye-opener for me.  It was the first inkling I had that there was something out of kilter about the way we lived our lives.

These women had to work as servants because they had very little education, and what education they did have was given in a way that would ensure that they would continue to be kept “in their place” by the government.  I, on the other hand, had the opportunity to matriculate from high school and go on to the University of Cape Town, a right and a privilege that I didn’t analyze overly much.  It was a given that young people in our circle would get a tertiary education of some kind.  My sister had trained as a nurse, my brother had studied graphic design, and I was off to drama school.

Before the first semester started, I was working as an assistant stage manager on a production of An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen.  One of the actors was a second-year student called Vincent Ibrahim, a gentle, softly spoken and physically exquisite young man.  He was quite small of stature, perhaps about five foot six, with enormous, liquid brown eyes, fringed by the longest, thickest lashes imaginable, and a very vivid smile, offset by the olive, slightly sheeny complexion of his skin.  He was of Malay descent.  After a rehearsal one evening we were milling about outside the theatre trying to decide where to go for something to eat.  I became aware of a slight disturbance as a couple in our group seemed to have broken away to speak with Vincent a little way off.  It transpired that he had been quietly slipping away, realizing something that none of us had registered until that point: there was nowhere in Cape Town at that time where a man of Malay descent could walk into a restaurant with a group of white students.  It was quickly resolved, and we ended up going to someone’s house.  But something had changed gear inside me.  This was a person I knew and loved.  There was no distinction between him and us.  Or there should not have been.

Later that year I had to go down to the post office one day to mail a package.  In the line in front of me was an elderly black woman. The brown parcel she was holding had been meticulously wrapped and tied up with string, but the addresses of the sender and recipient had not been written on the package.  Instead, these were written on a separate scrap of paper. When it was her turn, she handed the paper to the Indian man behind the counter and asked him to write the addresses on the parcel for her.  It dawned on me that the woman had not learned to read or write.  The man (who, incidentally, had been rude to me before) berated her, and told her loudly and in no uncertain terms that he didn’t have the time to write the addresses out for her.  Quickly, perhaps even peremptorily, I took the parcel from her and wrote out the addresses.  It was easily done.  She tried to thank me in her fractured English, and then, when her words ran out, she took my hand and kissed it.  I wish I could say that I was gracious, but I was so uncomfortable about the whole situation that I’m afraid I was brusque.  I was acutely aware of the inequity of an 18-year-old girl doing this kind of service for an older woman who had been discourteously treated by a post office worker.

These everyday episodes were symptomatic of the larger, institutionalized injustice.  Yet the men who put and kept apartheid in place were not, in themselves, evil.  I had the opportunity to meet F.W. de Klerk when he was on the lecture circuit in America recently.  Not many people realize that he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela because it was he, as the last white President of South Africa, who set about systematically dismantling apartheid, securing the release of Nelson Mandela and paving the way for the first democratic elections in the country.  de Klerk is a softly spoken, highly educated man who, over time and without any great epiphany, came to the realization that apartheid was, to use his words, “morally indefensible and wrong”, and that the only remaining question for him was how to go about changing it.

The greater question is how these men of culture and breeding could ever have thought of apartheid in any other terms than morally indefensible and wrong.  It is often true, as I have found living in America, that certain ethnic groups will gravitate towards certain areas—Little Italy, Chinatown, Polish enclaves, residential areas of predominantly orthodox Jews, and black and Hispanic neighborhoods—even though there is no law that says they should.  To give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was some sense of this that drove the Nationalists in the early days of apartheid.  But to entrench it in law, to criminalize the intermingling of races, created an unnatural society that will take generations to unravel.  And it was a system that disaffected not only those who were most obviously disadvantaged by it.  Any white person of conscience had to question themselves, as I did, about their own sense of culpability and guilt at having the system so skewed in their favor.  Even though I personally had nothing to do with the establishment or the execution of apartheid, and tried to work against it in my life and actions, a part of me wondered if my simply being there carried with it the same stigma as “just following orders” during the Nazi regime. There exists a whole Diaspora of white South Africans scattered all over the world.  We feel we don’t belong in our country of birth, and we carry the social distortion in a way that seems part of our DNA.

And yet.  When I went back to visit South Africa after living in America for about seven years, I was picking up a few items in a small, rural grocery store, and I got to the checkout about the same time as a teenage girl.  She indicated that I should go ahead of her, but, because she had been fractionally before me, I gestured for her to go first.  I paid for my items and thought nothing more of it until I was driving away afterwards and the scene played out again in my mind.  The key here was that the young woman had been black.  She had indicated that I should go ahead of her, I must suppose, because of an ingrained assumption that whites should take precedence.  I had unthinkingly indicated that she should go ahead for no other reason than that she had arrived at the checkout before me.  That incident, minute as it was, gave me hope.

Subscribe to My Newsletter

I send a seasonal email about the publishing process and motivations for the writing life. If you'd like to join and receive updates, please simply enter your best email address here.

You have Successfully Subscribed!