Monday, June 7, 2010

My Homeland?

Being in Port St. Johns allowed me to stop and think. We had been travelling  with frequent stops for the previous month. We hugged the coastline stopping at little surf towns, so that our Aussie surfer dude, Brett, could jump out and catch a wave whenever he spied one. The game parks of Tsitsikamma and Addo sported sighting of elephants, black-backed jackals, kudus, vervet monkeys, tortoises, ostriches,  bush bucks and even a rare white rhino at Addo! We met locals who were generally hospitable. I had a chance to visit with cousins in Port Elizabeth that I had met briefly for the first time at Christmas. All of these things were accomplished in a matter of hours or a scant few days. It was exciting and exhilarating, but also exhausting. We pulled into Port St Johns and stopped. We were there  for two weeks. It was a time to relax and process the journey thus far.
Before leaving Canada, I had done a little research on South Africa. I had exchanged letters with my uncle and connected with my aunt. I was aware that apartheid had been a significant part of South Africa’s history. I had heard the song “Sun City”  and watched the video by  Artists United Against Apartheid. I knew that Nelson Mandela had been released from jail and that he was even elected to the position of  President the year before I arrived.  I felt marginally prepared to embrace this new country to me; my homeland. These were all small snippets of the true reality of the country though. As a visitor to the country, I was able to hear some people’s stories, but could not truly understand the reality that had been lived in the climate of fear that had officially reigned for 46 years (it had been part of the micro-climate for many years before that though). My Father had been born and raised in South Africa. His was a reality of segregation of the races. The fact of his white skin gave him privileges not afforded to others of black, mixed or Indian backgrounds. I did not know him and was not able to hear his stories about his childhood in a fractured and violent environment. I had to make do with the tales I heard on the road.
My South African relatives cautioned me by saying “Don’t go off the main roads onto any dirt roads and DON’T pick up any hitchhikers! Be really careful. Call us every once in a while to let us know that you are okay. We would hate to have to tell your Mom that we let anything happen to you.”
I heard “You haven’t lived here, so you don’t know how it is.” A fact that I cannot deny.
An overheard conversation between one of my travelling companions and a German man expressed anger, “The violence is exaggerated!” “You can see the fear in the white population.” “I feel safer walking around here, than I do in some American cities.” All statements made whilst in the middle of the Transkei.
From  yet others, “They are lazy.”
“The maids steal from you,” was a truism put forth from a white woman that had fear written all over her face.
From a white man living in the Transkei for eleven years, I heard that the reputation of violence that the area had was not fully deserved. The incidents of violence existed, but not to the extent that was advertised. The Transkei tried to set up a system of self-government to a certain degree, but the government was just a puppet to the federal government. There was unrest and negative reactions to the white populace in the area. This is where the horror stories started. It was a backlash against the injustices meted out by the white government. The Transkei was a black homeland. The blacks took it back. He happily lived and worked there though.
My experiences in the Transkei did not reflect this violence. I found people friendly, with smiles and hellos prevalent as you passed them in the street.  As I bathed one morning on our hike, I looked up to see cows wander  past. The (black) shepherd that was tending them smiled and waved shyly as he followed his cattle.  I felt it was a beautiful moment that struck through all the horror stories that had been rained upon me. I felt cleansed in body and mind. I know that atrocities happened in ugly numbers and that fostered a state of fear and anger in the population. In my transient way, I tried to understand and move through this world the best that I could.


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