Koos Kombuis

The hidden wounds of apartheid

2016-04-26 07:08

Koos Kombuis
There is an assumption that is prevalent in South Africa that whites benefited from apartheid whereas blacks suffered from apartheid.
This is not true. Whites and blacks suffered both under apartheid. This is a realisation that has crept up on me. When, first, I admitted it to myself, I could not bring myself to write a column about it. I was terrified of the potential backlash such a column would unleash.
However, it is true. Whites truly suffered under apartheid, and they are still suffering. Apartheid has deeply wounded everybody in this country.
The only difference is that, whereas the suffering of blacks were obvious and impossible to miss – not only were they physically humiliated, geographically unsettled, socially fragmented and economically ruined – the suffering of white people was more difficult to spot.
Black people carried their wounds for all to see. Everyone knows about these wounds.
The wounds of white people are on the inside. It is hidden away in the deep recesses of their psyches, where they bleed, bleed, bleed unto this day.
Black people, though of course they also hurt inside, have at least been aware of their pain. They have shared it within their own communities, they sang about it, they toy-toyed about it, they told their stories at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Their suffering is well documented and out in the open. And it is a terrible suffering, indeed, a suffering that has not healed yet.
For whites the prognosis is even worse. Since almost all of them are unaware of their inner wounds, since they live in denial of it, they are unlikely to ever deal with it. Many of those who carry this pain will probably die, not having solved it or even admitted it to themselves.
It is a pain that manifests itself as subliminal guilt, fear, paranoia, inner division, an inability to connect spontaneously, and a nameless horror. To call it ‘the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul’, as Douglas Adams did, would be an euphemism. To choose Sartre’s description of ‘Nausea’ is a bit closer to the truth, but ‘nausea’ is still not a strong enough word for the depth and the width and the breadth of the desperate vacuum that sits, like a black hole in the heart of a galaxy, in the collective subconscious of my fellow white South Africans.
This is not an accusation. Neither is it an attempt to excuse the behaviour of these people. It is a diagnosis. And I discovered it, independently, months before I picked up Nicky Falkof’s book The End of Whiteness in a bookstore.
I still have not scraped together the courage to read that book. It will be like looking into a mirror and discovering that I am not the person I thought I was. I am, in fact, only half a man. Not just half a man, but half an Afrikaner.
When my forefathers made that fatally flawed law in 1951, the law that scrapped coloured people from the voters’ roll, we lost half our tribe. It was like cutting off an arm and a leg for the sake of an ideology.
Of course that hurt us. When you cut off an arm or a leg, it’s not just the arm and the leg that suffers. The entire body suffers.
Oh, we try so hard to pretend we’re not hurting. We try so hard to project an image of liberal justice. And so we fight ever so fiercely for the protection of a single dialect of Afrikaans – our own – while we pretend to care about ‘all indigenous languages’. English is the enemy, we claim. We throw around words like ‘multiculturalism’.
But we’d be the first to cry out if, tomorrow, all black politicians decide to use only black languages in their political discourse.
“Shut up!” we’d shout. “We don’t understand a word you’re saying!”
“For years, we learned your languages,” they’d say. “We can all speak English and Afrikaans. But, though you have shared this country with us for decades, for centuries, you have not bothered to learn a word of Xhosa or Zulu or Tswana or Pedi. And you have even marginalised every dialect of Afrikaans except your own.”
Perhaps, the day that happens, we will be able to begin to see the untenable paradox of our position. The impossibility of what we thought we believed in.
And, then, maybe then, our eyes will be opened to see that we lack half our limbs.
Perhaps, then, understanding will dawn. And we might become aware of the pain we had been feeling all along, but tried so hard to ignore.

Perhaps then, and only then, we will be able to take the very first baby-step towards a country that may one day become a diverse yet united community of men and women who truly care about one another, and where everyone is respected and cherished as human beings.

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