Black and American During Apartheid
From 1984 to 1988, I tutored and taught high school science and math in Swaziland. Over two decades I made six trips to Swaziland that included vacations and doctoral field research. Traveling throughout the region, I visited South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.
Apartheid was like an ominous, ever-present stranger that seemed to lurk behind me but seldom could be seen when I spun around to look for it. But it was all too visible and intimidating whenever I had to deal with South African government officials or police. I’ll never forget my first impression, standing in the passport control lines at Jan Smuts Airport. The room was ringed with a balcony along which two cops or soldiers paced with their fingers on the triggers of their semiautomatic rifles. Crossing the borders was similarly tense in the 1980s. I spent weekends with a South African family when I took the GRE and GMAT. My host was Dr. Mbere a very successful Xhosa gynecologist who treated Black and White patients: even during apartheid. He lived in Soweto but later moved on up to the tony suburbs of Westcliff. A minibus taxi I was riding to Soweto was pulled over at a police roadblock. As a de facto “Honorary White” or at least a Coloured, I wasn’t supposed to be in Soweto. So all I could do as the police boarded the bus was look down. I could only pass for a Black South African if I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to speak and made it to Soweto.
Apartheid was like an ominous, ever-present stranger that seemed to lurk behind me but seldom could be seen when I spun around to look for it.
As a bookend, I can share another experience catching a private taxi from Dr. Mbere’s Westcliff home. A Rolls Royce pulled up! The driver was a retiree, just driving this luxury car to make a little extra money. He was very polite, and we were having a very pleasant conversation–he’d even invited me home to meet his family– until he asked me how I envisioned South Africa’s future. When I described a multiparty democracy with universal suffrage, things changed. He disappointedly but cordially shared the usual narrative about how Africans were different from Western Blacks and would drive the country into the ground with ethnic conflicts between the tribes. Other “liberal” White South Africans were equally hospitable, and my Ghanaian wife and I took a couple up on their invitation. We were surprised at the level of security in the home. There were motion sensors on at night that restricted our movement in some parts of their home. And their bedroom door not only locked but had a locked iron gate outside the door: a gate like I’d never seen inside of a home. I was prepared for neither the exceptional welcome I received because I was an American Black nor the fear that pervaded even liberal, wealthy White South African communities.
The newscasters could not conceal their glee and sneering sarcasm when reporting on racial incidents back home.
The other way that apartheid caught my attention was in the government’s propagandistic news broadcasts. They emphasized international news, sometimes to the complete exclusion of local news apart from government announcements, sports, and weather. This was particularly true as protests and pressure from the international community escalated. The newscasters could not conceal their glee and sneering sarcasm when reporting on racial incidents back home. The Howard Beach and Yusef Hawkins incidents got lots of coverage. As I listened, I was equally angry at the South African Broadcast Corporation and at American society. Swaziland was a great oasis between a superpower democracy in denial about its own racism and a quasi-democratic White Supremacist regime in Africa engaged in a ritualistic dance called “Constructive Engagement.”
I also experienced the incredibly generous African hospitality from members of all four of the apartheid era’s races. Africans were too generous too often to document here: serving sumptuous meals – more generous than they could afford; collecting water for me when I lived in a village; forming a search party to help me find a friend, lightening my overweight luggage by transferring items to theirs… An Indian befriended me during the GMAT and took me home to meet his family and have lunch. We had a good time discussing politics and social issues in South Africa and America. When I used their bathroom, I learned that apartments for Indians were built like accommodations in South Asia. The toilet was only about a foot off of the floor and equipped with what we know as handicapped railings to lower and raise yourself. I left with the sad impression that apartheid went to this extent to establish permanently customized housing in each race’s respective parts of Johannesburg.
Coloureds embraced me as kin: a fellow mixed race individual with a culture more Western than “African.”
Coloureds embraced me as kin: a fellow mixed race individual with a culture more Western than “African.” Many shared their alienation with Africans and Whites, and why they asserted their distinct identity. Others considered themselves Black, and sought democratic change, if with some guarantees that their group rights would be protected. Some clearly aspired to Whiteness and seemed to reject and blame their Black forbears for causing them to fall short. Initially, I found all of this strange and considered them confused Black folk. But I gradually came to respect their identity and realized that I could not apply the one-drop rule to all people of African ascent abroad or even in America. This led me to no longer question “African Americans” who reject this label and consider themselves biracial.