The following is a piece that I wrote for a chapel service that we led at Hesston College. It was my attempt to tell a vast sweep of history in a few paragraphs and to give significance to the daily challenges of overcoming South Africa's history of racial injustice and separateness.
South Africa has long been home to diverse peoples. First occupied by Khoi and San or bush people, and joined by Bantu people from the north who migrated to South Africa’s fertile plains giving birth to the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho nations. Later, Vasco DaGama stopped on his way east, naming the southern peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope. Europeans, both Dutch and English, followed him, moving inland and coming into contact with earlier occupants. As Europeans began to carve out large farms and require more land, they began to exercise more violence and proprietary behaviour. Battles and wars ensued, most often won by those with guns and the Africans got pushed into smaller and smaller areas. Indians joined the mix, being recruited to cut sugar cane. As the various groups met, children of mixed race were born who would eventually be put into their own racial category and called coloured.
In 1948 the minority Afrikaners or those of Dutch origin, fully believing in their relationship to South Africa as that of the Israelites’ to Canaan, began to systematize the separateness they desired. The people of South Africa were divided into White, Indian, Coloured, and African. Over time, Africans were limited to substandard housing and education and excluded from all but the most menial labour. Claiming their desire for “separate but equal development” the Afrikans government held court, assessing a person’s ethnic group based on a series of tests such as whether or not they had freckles and whether a comb would stick in their hair. Those deemed to be African were then sent to live in the “homeland” of "their people", a somewhat arbitrary dividing of the land into Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, etc… areas. They were then allowed to travel only with special permission and proof of work in the other place. The system of oppression and privilege was so exactly ranked and proportioned that Nelson Mandela recounts in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom that in prison whites were given white bread and white sugar, Indians and Coloureds were given brown bread and brown sugar, and Africans were given neither, supposedly lacking the “sophisticated European taste for them.”
The system of apartheid, meaning separateness, finally came to an end in 1994 when the first free and fair elections were held, following a concerted campaign which included an armed struggle and eventual peaceful negotiations.
While the system has formally ended, the struggle to relate to each other in new ways continues. People who have been systematically separated do not readily find themselves in the same social circles, bosses do not naturally learn to treat their employees with more respect, and economic power is not automatically redistributed. And on a day to day basis, each person must choose how to respond to another, whether to stay in their own racial group or take initiative to move outside.
We followed this overview with retellings of experiences previously recorded as stumbling blocks to transformation, a beautiful moment, and morning at supa quick, attempting to show the challenges and joys of moving across boundaries. It continues to be our challenge and our great joy.