Today, I went with my host-mother Elise to Hammenskraal to by supplies for the spaza shop she runs from her home. Elise has a 1980 something (maybe early ‘90s) Nissan “buggy” (in SA pick-up trucks are typically referred to as vans, buggies or bakis, never trucks). The passenger seat belt was broken and the dash meters did not work. No defrost to deal with the early morning mist. And Elise’s friend riding in the bed of the truck.
We thankfully made it to Hammenskraal in one piece. Our first stop was the chicken market—a tiny cement building located behind a petrol (gas) station and slightly hidden from the main street. Our aim was to buy chicken feet, livers and heads. Despite the already ridiculous scene of the vegetarian surrounded by five liter bags full of chicken heads and buckets of chicken feet, the whole scene officially became ridiculously awkward when the only other white person—a six-foot something Afrikaner—came over to speak to me.
Previous to this moment, I had been doing my best to have conversation in broken Setswana and English while Elise waited in the queue. I found myself as the novelty of the chicken market—the white American woman speaking Setswana. (This was not the first time nor do I imagine will it be the last time that I find myself such a novelty.) The Afrikaner—he never told me his name—came up and began speaking Afrikaans to me just as Elise returned from the queue. I was taken aback as I had not noticed him until then. I told him that I did not speak Afrikaans, and upon hearing my accent he asked where I was from. I told him I was from the US and gave him the brief overview of Peace Corps. (We are now all fairly good at rattling this off in both English and our target language.) Elise was obviously uncomfortable (as was I) with the Afrikaners’ presence and remembered that she forgot to order the livers. She went back to the queue and I was left with the Afrikaner.
Awkward conversation continued in which I learned that he was a member of the Zionist Church—a predominantly black church in SA that has mixed cultural, ancestral practices with Christianity. (From what I have gathered, the Zionist Church is one of the largest denominations in SA.) According to my new Afrikaner friend being a Zionist meant that everything was okay between him and the black people of SA. However, watching his interaction with others in the tiny market said that this was clearly not the case. His attempt at joking banter in Afrikaans with others in the market was obviously not well received.
Finally he returned to his lorry (delivery truck)—which was the point when I came to understand why he was in the market in the first place—but before we could leave, he returned. Apparently he had been on the phone with his boss—also a Zionist—and had been working some sort of deal for Elise to get a discount on chicken, um, products if she left her phone number so that I could be contacted later on. My new friend wanted to take me in his lorry to I’m not really sure where to meet the head of the Zionist Church.
Elise and I decided it was best to leave without leaving a phone number for the unnamed Afrikaner. I didn't think Peace Corps would appreciate me road-tripping in the lorry of an unnamed man. I didn't like the idea very much either.
At this point in our stay in South Africa, we have had very little interaction with Afrikaners. This was only the third Afrikaner that I have had any sort of extended conversation with. However we are often spoken to in Afrikaans by black South Africans who assume that we are Afrikaners. During these times, I struggle with a deep desire not to be associated with the Afrikaners. I want it known that I am an American and was not part of what happened here. The sins of Apartheid are not my sins.
It is difficult not to sit in judgment upon the Afrikaners and the South African English who allowed racism and prejudice to drive a huge chasm through the heart of this country—a rift that has not healed and will likely not heal for many generations. It is difficult to find any sort of love for them when I see the great poverty that still exists in the rural areas largely due to Apartheid. It is difficult to not say “them” and “those people,” remembering that my forefathers also set up awful systems of trade and politics that counted other people as less than human and certainly less than white. It is hard to come from a place where a nation gathered the courage to elect a black man as president. It is hard knowing that for much of my generation the color of that man’s skin had nothing to do with why we did or did not vote for him. It is hard not to think of myself as the better person, and it is hard to be a vessel of peace.
I believe this is an issue that I will struggle with through the length of my service in SA. But it is important that I find my place within all of the “tribes” of South Africa—white and black—because healing the rifts of racism is part of our culture that desperately needs to be shared with SA. As many paces as we in the States have still to take to fully heal the rifts, SA has that many more. I come to believe more each day that I am here to be a vessel of peace and healing, though I have no idea what that ends up looking like at the end of the day. I am hopeful that God will clearly define that role as I seek His direction for my service here. It is much more than stepping out on principle; it’s stepping out of faith.