Dreaming of Mandela

2013-07-18 00:00

DREAMING of Mandela is a piece by Roger Cohen in a recent New York Times. Cohen is an international columnist with many awards who currently writes for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

He is critical of South African Jews in a way that only Jewish people are allowed to be. I quote: “The blacks were a form of protection [for South African Jews] … If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks, you do not have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches of the Europe they had fled, the knowledge of the 69 blacks cut down at Sharpeville in 1960 was discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. Most, with conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans), looked away.”

I can’t agree with his generalisation. Jewish people, from Bram Fischer to Helen Suzman, Ronnie Kasrils and Nadine Gordimer, to say nothing of Arthur Chaskalson, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, or Albie Sachs and many others, have been pretty much at the forefront of making white South Africans aware of the injustices of apartheid.

But it was not that which sparked my discomfort. It was his description of his childhood in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was, it seems, a life of luxury —  black staff changing the nappies, a servant “houseboy” dressed in white who appeared at the dinner table when summoned by a bell. He talks of two gardeners, one to do the roses and one to do the rest of the garden. He says that the black servants cooked and cleared, they washed and darned and dusted, and they coddled white children.

“After the Shabbat meal on Friday night, guests might leave some small token of appreciation on the kitchen counter (‘Shame, I don’t have much change’) or slip a few rand into a calloused black hand.”

Cohen can exorcise his guilt if he wants. In fact, he doesn’t need to. His childhood in South Africa was brief as he was born in London in 1950 and was back in London by 1960 to attend Westminster School followed by Balliol. He has never returned. Ten years as a child in South Africa does not warrant personal guilt for the evils of apartheid. In what may be a sincere catharsis, Cohen is painting, yet again, that stereotypical picture of white English-speaking South Africans wallowing in luxury while the “natives” did the work.

Life wasn’t like that for all of us, or even most of us. For most of my childhood, my parents could not afford domestic help. My father was a bricklayer. He was an avid trades unionist, fighting for a better deal for artisans like him. My mother never finished school — but then few white girls did in her day. Her first (and only) job was as a sort of housemaid. Neither was in a position to earn a large salary. As we grew up there was no gardener. My mother did the garden, such as it was. There was no cook except my mother. The hot-water system was a wood-fired, slow-combustion stove. My mother chopped the wood and fed the stove unless, occasionally, we thoughtless children gave a hand. We children each had two school uniforms: one was washed and ironed each day — by my mother.

The myth that all white South Africans were wealthy, battening on the poor, is just that. No doubt Cohen’s grandparents may have lived in the way he describes. No doubt, since the family could afford Westminster and Oxford for the talented boy, they could afford to. But far from being the rule, that was the exception. For every rich family living in Bishopscourt or Parktown, there were many more families living in Bellville or Rosettenville. Many would have had some domestic help, but many of them, too, lived hard lives in the 50s that Cohen describes, very far from the lap of luxury. They were typists and shop girls and tradesmen and railway workers.

So did we benefit from apartheid? Yes, of course we did in many ways. Job reservation meant that there was employment for almost all of us, albeit not at princely salaries. We had virtually free education in good schools and inexpensive university studies, although in the 50s a majority of white children still left school at the end of Standard 6 or at most Standard 8, and university was only for the few. We had cars, although for most of us they were not Mercedes-Benz cars but Ford Prefects and Morris Minors. Were we prejudiced and racist? Of course we were: most of us knew no better.

We weren’t rich. We weren’t waited on hand and foot. We had to work hard to survive. We mostly didn’t get to go to Westminster or Balliol. Yet we were, unquestionably, much more fortunate and much better off than African people. And most of us were not aware enough or brave enough to buck the system. So, with Cohen, we too dream of Nelson Mandela.

Cohen’s closing remarks: “He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: what is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learnt young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe.”

We can say amen to that.

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