Dark Memories of Sunny South Africa

My brother and I woke up on Christmas morning 1977, ages five and six, wide eyed and astonished. We had just arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa from snowy New York City. It was suddenly the middle of summer, the garden was lush and green, and there was a sparkling pool outside our window beckoning us. All year we had dreamed of our new life in Africa, imagining giraffes and zebras roaming the streets. And here we were; our pale skin quickly getting sunburned.

South Africa seemed like a paradise to us children. But it didn't take long for the ugly reality to seep through.

The death of Nelson Mandela last week brought back a flood of memories of my family's short time in apartheid South Africa, when my father was assigned there as a journalist from 1977-1979. Mandela himself was in jail at the time, serving a life sentence (he was released in 1990). International opinion was turning against the apartheid regime in the late 70s and internal discontent was growing.

The situation was increasingly volatile and untenable.

Although we heard bits and pieces at the dinner table, the tensions seemed far away to us children. We lived in a comfortable white cocoon, with swimming pools, tennis matches, and long "braais" (the Afrikaner tradition of barbecue) with neighbors on the patio. At school, dressed in a natty uniform with a straw boater, I learned about the Boer trekkers and how to speak Afrikaans.

But Johannesburg in the 70s was a dangerous place. Our house was surrounded by a high wall and locked gate and our guard dog scared off several would-be thieves.

Our beloved Zulu housekeeper, Glenrose, lived in the small maid's quarters behind our house, separated from her own children who lived hours away in the townships. It was Glenrose who opened our eyes, gently telling us about her life and her reality.

When she took us shopping and on errands we would sit with her on the black bench at the black stop for the black bus that took us to the black stores. We could be with her, but she couldn't be with us at the "whites only" places. She told us about her family and asked us questions about America. Could black people really mix freely with white people in the United States? We nodded yes, uncomprehendingly.

I was lucky to attend a school run by a group of feisty and brave Irish Catholic nuns, who took great risks by insisting on busing in a small group of black children every day from the townships. The girls sat huddled together in class, clearly ill at ease (especially during our mandatory swim lessons when the white girls swam laps around them), but the nuns treated us all alike and encouraged our interaction.

Sadly, one of my African classmates drowned accidently in a pool. We were all invited to the funeral in Soweto. On the day of the service, only a handful of white families showed up. There was weeping at the enormous packed church, but there was also resolve as everyone lifted their voices and swayed together in song.

The church where we gathered, one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in South Africa, was a central gathering place for meetings in Soweto and was called the "people's church." There had been a student uprising in Soweto just a year earlier, in 1976, that had ended in terrible bloodshed. In 1977 activist Steven Biko was beaten to death in detention, sparking anger and international condemnation. In the late 70s, labor union protests gathered steam and churches increasingly started joining the movement.

P.W. Botha, who became prime minster in 1978, was fearful about the rise of communist revolutionaries. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher shared his worry and initially followed a "constructive engagement" policy with the Botha regime -- but anti-apartheid and divestment movements gained strength in the United States and Europe in the 1980s and soon South Africa became ostracized and isolated.

The rest is history, with Nelson Mandela playing an outsized and inspirational role in South Africa's peaceful and inclusive transition. When we heard the news of his death last week, I shared my memories of South Africa with my children, who are not much older that I was then. Their eyes widened at my descriptions -- and as I remembered that period of cruel segregation, I too was shocked anew.

As a white American in 70s South Africa I was advantaged and fortunate. But the memory of those "whites only" signs haunts me today. It is hard to imagine this was reality during our lifetimes. Hopefully Mandela's legacy of reconciliation will live on.