What to do when your country is hurting?

(The Blog’s dedication story)

In 1994 South Africans were going through the first general election and hope was soaring…

… and I learned how deep and wide our wounds really are and how difficult the road to recovery. It is also the year I found the source of one of the most powerful healing agents: stories.

In January of that year, I was a third year at Stellenbosch University. I was the only woman in a class with 23 guys, I was the only person with low vision (6/60) in a world of people with 20/20 vision and I was the only white student in the black and coloured residence, Goldfields.

You see, since 1992 white residences had been opening their doors to ‘deserving’ and ‘academically promising’ black and coloured students, and the slow integration began. But the traffic was going only one way and I did not think this would work as way for us to heal our rifts. Sure, it was important for the privileges of the white community to be shared with everyone, but what of the value and riches of the black and coloured communities that would be left behind? Should these be disregarded? How could we build a nation, if everyone wanted the same things instead of sharing what everyone had, not just what the white minority had – and I don’t mean material wealth only. We need to understand each other and learn to appreciate each other and until this point, the appreciation was only going one way. That did not seem fair, nor workable as a means to democracy.

So, I applied for Goldfields.

Goldfields was unique in more ways than just being the res designated to black and coloured students. It was also built differently, situated differently and organised differently. It was built not as a multi storied hostel-like structure in the centre of town, but as self-contained, double story units with sic students on each floor sharing a small kitchen and seating area. Twelve or so units were built around a grassy yard where the boys would come to play sports and the girls could watch from their windows or cheer from the fringes of the field. It was set slightly out of the centre of town, but close enough to my faculty building so that I could walk it in 15 minutes. As an ‘older’ student, I thought it idyllic.

My first year roommate, hated it.

She wanted to be with her friends in the middle of student life in the middle of town in the white residences.

She also hated it because instead of us being served 3 meals a day like at the white res’s we were only served supper and had to provide breakfast and lunch for ourselves. This meant we had to share the fridge between six of us and food was never safe in it. The little money she had for food was often wasted when her food went off in our room, or got stolen from the fridge.

She hated it because varsity was tough for her. She came from a very rural setting in the Northern Cape and the adjustment to the ‘cityness’ of Stellenbosch and the whiteness of its entire system was hard for her to adjust to.

She also hated it because she got stuck with the only white student in the res, well-meaning, but clueless and a third year. It was the most unequal match ever. I was a local girl from Stellenbosch, having grown up there. My mom was 5 kilometres away, not 500. I knew the town, I knew the University, I was confident and, truth be told, arrogant in my great adventure as the white student in black res. She just wanted to survive varsity and now she had to deal with me.

I did everything wrong.

I thought that living with people different from me would change me and help me understand. On some level it did (I don’t flinch and become paranoid if I find myself surrounded by black and coloured people at e.g. a taxi rank – something few of my fellow white South Africans can pull off).

But

All I learned was to persist in my privileged white ways in spite of my surroundings.

So, the food gets stolen. I bring in a little fridge from home (thank God I managed to share it with her) and food is safe. When I visit my mom on the weekend and come back to find that she shared my bed too, with friends of her who found place in the white res, I am unable to just share and accept. I make a scene about people sharing my sheets and now I had to wash them (not because the girls were coloured, but because I wanted clean sheets when I get back from home). Of course I don’t communicate this well at all and the only message she gets is “don’t sleep in my bed, it gets dirty. She also wears my clothes without asking and I cringe. I understand tht sharing is the way people get to have more than what they would have if they only used what they themselves owne, but I want to be asked. And I do not understand the difference between people sharing food, (or taking it) and sharing clothes, or taking it. Sharing food is not okay,, but sharing clothes is – between whom?

She brings back ‘huisbrood’ (home made bread from the Nammakwaland) when she comes back from vacation she offers me a piece. I know this bread is valuable to her, it is her umbilical chord. She desperately wants my approval and watches be eat it. It tastes of animal fat and it is dry. I don’t like it, but instead of lying, thanking her for her generosity tell her that I don’t like it and with that, I see her face fall. She wants me to approve and like her, but I reject her like every other white in the cosy apartheid system.

And yet,

When she tells me about her home and her school, the awkwardness is gone. I laugh at the antics of her and her friends. I am shocked at the lecherous behaviour of a fat school teacher and how they find ways to deal with it resiliently. We laugh like any two people discovering that they are both human.

I remember this moment of story-telling as the only time that the shit of my privilege and her uncertain struggles fall away.

I wish I can tell you there were hours of these moments. I remember only one.

I wish I knew then how to create more such moments.

I wish I was not the agent of her pain, but in many ways I was, bringing the hegemony and sustemic injustice into her room unable and possibly unwilling, to see its insidious, parasitic invasion of all that was dear to her. It would have been easier for her to have a coloured friend staying with her. IT would have been less painful if there were no white invader in her world when she needed comfort and companion ship.

Dearest roommate, I dedicate this blog to you.

To everything you taught me unwillingly and unwittingly, especially to the story moments we shared.

Dear Reader, may we share more of these and heal our hurts.