Many people expressed shock at what former South African international cricketer Makhaya Ntini revealed in his interview on SABC about harrowing racism that he experienced as a sole black member of the Proteas. He achieved his 101 test matches while engulfed in racism. Nobody thanked him for his services.
Being an honorary white in South Africa is extremely exhausting.
Unfortunately, there are way too many Makhaya’s in our midst – broken souls that were created in the early days after the demise of apartheid. Many of us were Nelson Mandela’s sacrificial lambs who were barbecued (braaied) in the name of reconciliation in South Africa. These scars are still visible and very difficult to hide, yet very few people even want to know what we were going through. It is a great pity that even young ones like Lungisani Ngidi cannot tell a different story.
Makhaya and I are exactly a year apart but we never really met in person, except in one encounter at a hotel lobby in Harare towards the end of 2017. We shared pleasantries as homeboys but we don’t know one another. He grew up in the Cape and me in Natal. But the racism journey we traversed is exactly the same. He was a sportsman and I was a student at the University of Pretoria between 1994 and 1998.
Some people are asking why Makhaya “didn’t speak out earlier” about racism in cricket. Personally, l don’t think that is the point because there way too many Makhaya Ntini’s with broken souls across South Africa, and l am one of them. Many of them populate the much acclaimed black middle classes today, and others are either dead or dead poor after they couldn’t hold on. We are distinguished members of a big social experiment in modern times.
Today many of these people are approaching 50. They keep on wondering what freedom really means after so much sacrifice – like me, they were little kids who were guinea-pigs in the making of the globally acclaimed “peaceful transition” from apartheid to the “new” South Africa. In truth, the “new” South Africa rejected us from Day Zero.
It is good that Makhaya has spoken, and everyone is prepared to listen since he appeared on television. But the aim of this write-up is to highlight one point: the one Makhaya Ntini that people see or know represents millions in his group who were targets of sustained and painful racism, and sometimes violence, in the hands of white people in South Africa. Democracy arrived in name only because racism remains constant. And many people deny its existence but everything else, including economic exclusion and poverty, point the persistence of apartheid.
Yes, we wholeheartedly believed Mandela when he said it was time for reconciliation and gave our (young) naive all to the project without anyone supporting us to navigate the thick forest of Afrikanerdom, which was uncompromising, brutal and exclusionary.
The winds of change. My journey into the real racist world started in early 1994
Ek is niks, Mopanie is alles!
My Afrikaans teacher in matric recommended that l should also apply to former Afrikaans-only universities in Bloemfontein (UOVS), Johannesburg (RAU) and Pretoria (UP, also affectionately known as Tukkies) since they were cheaper compared to the former English-only universities such as Wits, Natal and UCT. As advised, l applied to all of them. And Tukkies accepted me for engineering studies, which l had to leave for commerce after less than two months in class.
A bumpy helipad. The first place of landing was the koshuis (student residence). I got a place at Mopanie together with a Zimbabwean fellow who today is like a brother to me. First-year students (eerstejaars) were the first ones to get to the koshuis, long before the university opened. Classes started much later.
When l left home, l was told that the reason we’d to get to koshuis was that all new eerstejaars were needed for “orientation” in order to acclimatise them in their new settings.
Deur Eenheid Steeds Höer! This was the motto of Mopanie residence (today it is called Mopane). It was required for all new boys to wear name plates (tit-plats) and a new uniform in koshuis colours most of the time. We would spend the entire day and night running up and down the streets like little donkeys.
We were matched with girls from Madelief koshuis near Hatfield, all it’s first-years. And had to pick up girls from their place in the morning on the way to class. We’d arrive early to perform the ritual at about 6:30 after walking about 3 – 4 kilometers from our residence. Every evening, we’d dance and sing for the nooitjies, Alison Moyey’s song ‘Only You!’
“Looking from a window above, it’s like a story of love / Can you hear me / Came back only yesterday / I’m moving further away / Want you near me“
The beginning of the year was fun for the white kids who would build floats (vlotbou) and compete among one other. But before competition day, we’d sent all over Pretoria, Krugersdorp, Roodepoort, Springs, Benoni, etc. to collect donations at intersections. I would open the sentence like this when l approached a white man with his family in car: “Dag oom, my naam is …“
Many people were excited to see dark faces and gave generously. But the racist ones would frown, “Voetsek, klein kommunis, hierie is Tukkieland!”
We’d go to orphanages and old-age homes where we met even more members of the Afrikaner community. Even the very psychologically confused knew and the senile could see a kaffir from far. Some kids wouldn’t want to play with you. And the old conservative men would state in no uncertain terms that they’d no time for blacks.
Generally street adventures where we would have contact with Afrikaner community was extremely unpleasant, and that is where you could not corroborate Mandela’s story and what you were going through. Walking as part of the group to their special places to eat or to have fun like restaurants or stadiums was unbearable.
We were openly abused as young black students by old men and women who told us in our faces that we were smelly, ugly and unwelcome.
Dag, oom Johan!
In the evenings after dinner it will be time for all sorts of treatment as if we were in an army camp. Mind you, conscription ended in the early 1990s, so the seniors had been soldiers. The drills were arduous and painful but a trip to the girls’ residences or visit by the girls always brought a bit of happiness to all the boys. All this happened before seniors arrived from holidays to meet us.
When they finally came after two weeks or so, we were ready to welcome them with a greet “Dag, oom Johan!” (hitting our chests). They would respond, keep quiet or say “Fokof!” As first years we were called ‘peppies‘ (still today l don’t know what this meant). The uncles were kind and caring, some took us under their wing as student mentors.
But in the main, life was hard and racist.
Afrikaner boys looked similar and their names sounded the same: Piet, Pieter-Jan, PJ, Jacobus, Jakob, Hendrik, etc. So, we would confuse them. I’d go “Dag, oom Johan!” (while greeting Niek). Nicer ones would respond, “Nee Peppie, my naam is nie Johan nie maar Niek. Sê dit weer.” Me, “Dag, oom Niek!” This would happen all the time.
This experience was like greeting 180 Chinese people in Beijing. Embarrassing, confusing and humiliating. Obviously, one would make this ‘mistake’ of mixing names every day.
Other ooms and fellow first years would refuse to have anything with black first years. Some would ask: “Hoekom is julle so swart?” We were the laughing stock and true underclasses. We felt in residences and in class.
During drills or in the dinning hall, they’d refuse to stand next to you. When you were in the shower, they wouldn’t allow you to see their little ‘Parys’. Of course we’d intimidate them with our long ‘Bophuthatswana’ (only legends will understand this coding). On campus, they’ll pretend not to know you, and let alone sitting next to you in class.
In the evenings, we’d sing for the uncles: “Alle Mopanie seniors is homoseksueel, Alle Mopanie seniors is homoseksueel!” The second years in lower floors would scream back, “Wie is ‘n mofie, julle?” Others would run to the top of the four-storey building with plastic bags full of water. They would throw them at us. “Watersakke!,” they called out loud. Then we would disperse back to our rooms to study.
In the mornings we’d be up very early to shower and to eat breakfast. Seniors would not queue for food or laundry. But every time we met l’d go, “Dag, Oom Lukas!” And bang my chest. The oom would nod in recognition and pass, especially if you said his name right and had your name plate. Nasty ones who either fed up because you would never get their names right or plain racist, they would shout back, “Jy’s ‘n dom, kaffertjie!” And leave you bruised and licking your wounds.
The house fathers who were meant to look after us had little or nothing to say. Government was just too far away and former freedom fighters were still sorting out BEE deals. We were neglected in a space that left very deep psychological scars that are too deep for anyone to understand.
Afrikanerdom, Jesus, rugby and alles
Being in Tukkies, one came face to face with Jesus himself who was paraded at the NGK on Duxbury Street. The deeply religious Afrikaans community cared less about the new strangers in their midst. They sang and prayed to the only God who was then forsaking them to barbaric blacks. Perhaps, they too were not ready to see blacks entering their little word they cherished so much.
This world is about maintaining Afrikanerdom. Many people seek a bastion in Afriforum and Solidariteit as well as soon to be built university in Centurion. But the Afrikaner community is inward looking and was never going to accept the new South Africa. Blacks reconciled with themselves. The creation of the enclave of Orania was symbolic of a state of mind, a political statement and economic rebellion against the end of apartheid.
When Mandela and FW de Klerk were honoured for a peaceful settlement, the black majority at the bottom was bruised. The story of the transition is yet to be told by man who went through the devastating political violence that ravaged black communities in the 1980s and 1990s. What happened in South Africa is akin to the US-USSR which is always wrongly termed as a Cold War while millions died in proxy wars in Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua and other parts of the world.
And life in Tukkies for me summed up the pain of young people who were left to be mauled while the rest of the world watched their screens to witness the first democratic elections. Though many of us were still young but we knew deep down that this was not the beginning of anything spectacular. We decided to focus on learning books that, in all honesty, we barely knew what they contained. We’d to pass and get out of the place that showed us a true meaning of hatred.
In front of cameras, we were portrayed as a new picture of the new South Africa but we were bleeding inside. In the same way, Makhaya’s teammates gave him high fives at Lords when he demolished England and when the cameras disappeared they were ostracised him. The hypocrisy is beyond comprehension and it continues to this day.
Unfortunately, nothing or little has changed in most places of education in South Africa from crèche to university. We also leave our kids like how our parents left us to fight Afrikanerdom which never had any interest of changing. Even where we are in the places of work, we are still overpowered by this strong monied community. Fair to say, blacks have grown accustomed to racism and racial discrimination.
Living as young black students during political euphoria in South Africa was excruciatingly painful and sickening. Living in abject poverty among the wealthy isn’t something that one can wish even his worst enemy to go through. Many black students, as they still do today, slept hungry and hopeless due to monetary problems.
I witnessed a girl resorting to prostitution in order to survive, and others became hardcore criminals, drug addicts and lost their minds. Life was getting more complicated with each day that passed.
Like Makhaya who tries to protect and stand up for his son Thando, we all do but in vain. Seeing our kids going through the same pain, it is like a replay of a very sad movie or even horror. The emotional and psychological burden is just way too much too carry. We try to shield our kids from centuries of oppression and indignity but the load is just too carry.
We fear for our children – no one knows how Thando will be treated after his father finally opened the door for all us to speak. Racism and abuse a normal game for our white compatriots that they have played for over 400 years.
That’s why memory skips Tukkies
All of this commotion was full of loneliness, anger, frustration and tears. As a 17-year-old, l don’t remember how many times l cried and felt like committing suicide. Or shooting a boer, only if l had a gun! I wish l could have climbed on top of the Union Buildings to tell my story but no one would let me in. No one would believe me.
And still there are people who ask Makhaya Ntini, “Why did you not speak earlier while playing cricket?” I couldn’t leave because l had nowhere to go. I was just too poor to quit. I got two degrees in a place that never embraced me. After leaving Tukkies l did not maintain contact with any of my white residence mates.
Through the act of nature, one of them was my neighbour who couldn’t even recognise me. While he and his wife were busy harassing my family, my friend and I recognized him. A few days later l decided to greet him … he was shocked. I don’t know when he left the neighbourhood. These are men who now probably lead companies and organisations in the stubbornly untransforming South Africa. Again, we act surprised.
I have never set my foot at Mopanie (or Tukkies for fun) since the day l picked up my bags to join the millions at the work place, another painful story of living in South Africa.
As l always maintain, l have nothing to do with Tukkies, but it is the place where l got my degrees and also picked up many friends.
By Siyabonga P. Hadebe