Were you on the Apartheid team, Dad?

‘No!’, the curly haired boy exclaims, putting his hand on his friend’s arm. ‘Botha was the baddest guy - VW Botha - he hated the black people!’

I am driving my youngest son and his friend home from school.  They have had some kind of Apartheid history lesson and they are trying to make head-or-tail of the bizarre story.

‘Dad!’ Tom calls for my attention as they hit a new impasse in the jumbled narrative.

‘Yes?’, I say, looking into the rear-view mirror.

‘Tell Zoli how you fought for the blacks, tell him Dad.’

I catch sight of them in the mirror, their heads pushed together. Tom is brown haired and green eyed and  Zoli is darker than plain dark, with perfect skin and wide eyes.

Tom prompts me again: ‘Zoli says all the white people were on the Apartheid team ...?’

Every parent who has been through social upheaval probably dreads the ‘so what did you do in the war?’ question.

For those of us in South Africa who lived through Apartheid and the changes since 1994 the question has special difficulties.

Were you ‘African’, ‘White’, ‘Coloured’ or ‘Indian’ - or even "Other Asian" in terms of the Population Registration Act?
Did you fight against Apartheid?
Did you ignore it and hope it would go away?
Do you feel injured and angry about the past?
Or guilty and wishing you had done more?

These are such delicate and complex issues for a child to understand, especially when they seem to think of the past as another country inhabited by young, pure and strong versions of their parents, striding across that idealised landscape.
Do you tell the story to emphasise the wrongs, the outrageous oppression of the past? Give it to him (or her) in black and white? Apartheid was a system that benefitted all whites and oppressed all people who were not white, especially Africans.
I can just hear Tom’s response to that: ‘But aren’t we all Africans, Daddy?’
And me: ‘Yes Tom, but there was this law called the Population Registration ...’
So back to the real world: Tom telling me that Zoli, his Zimbabwean friend, says that all the white people were on the Apartheid team. They are both sitting there in the back of the car. Zoli has probably picked up his views from his bright, combative MDC supporting Zimbabwean exile parents. How does that square with the tales I have told Tom about my few years in the anti-Apartheid movement in the 1970s and 80s?

‘Some whites fought against Apartheid,’ I say as I change gears, glancing in the mirror at the two expectant faces.

‘Some fought for Apartheid and against black people. But most whites just ...’ I search for the words,
‘Most whites just carried on with their lives and didn’t think about it ...’

I look at them in the mirror. They are puzzled, heads tilted away from each other.
How could anyone have failed to think about such an outrage? How could they?
‘Who wants an ice cream!?’ I  cry as we draw up to the cafe near our home.
‘Me! Me!’ they call in unison.
Watching Tom and Zoli lick their ice creams and seeing the simple delight they take, I refuse to berate myself for the coward’s trick of distraction by ice-cream.

They will get there, I say to myself. They will get there by their own paths and on their own journey.

What have you told your child about Apartheid?

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