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Does This Sound Familiar?

One evening I tagged along with Thea and Gys to dinner at their friends’ home.  They all welcomed me warmly, and I was charmed when the daughter, a shy girl of about 14 years old, with blond braids and big braces on her teeth, brought out her scrapbook to show me.  She earnestly leafed through every page with me.  They were full of photos of her family and girlfriends and horses and sweet, intricate handmade decorations.  Afterwards Hanya, the daughter, showed me her bedroom, which was also a riot of pink ruffles and plastic horses.


A little later, while we were eating dinner, someone mentioned that I loved riding the commuter train around Cape Town.   This was considered a little daring around that particular table.  I asked little Hanya if she’d ever taken the train.  She replied that she hadn’t, that her parents wouldn’t allow her to, but that she hoped one day to travel, and she would probably ride a train then.  In the most patronizing possible way I asked her, “Oh, and where would you like to travel?”


And she responded without a pause that she wants to go to Amsterdam, because she wants terribly much to see Anne Frank’s house.  And from there she wants to travel to Auschwitz and the other death camps of Europe.  Hanya is fascinated with — maybe even possessed by — the holocaust.  Well, blow me over with a feather!


This led to a long and completely mutual conversation about how it is that each of us, in our own way, is possessed by the conundrum of mass cruelty.  It was in this context that Hanya filled in many details for me about the Afrikaner experience of concentration camps.  During the Anglo-Boer wars around the turn of the last century, the British captured many tens of thousands of Afrikaners and incarcerated them in prison camps.  27,000 people died in the camps, primarily of disease and starvation.  According to Hanya the British knew that they could destroy the morale of the Boer soldiers by separating them from their wives and children.  And so they sent the male prisoners overseas and created the concentration camps for the women and children.  Most of the dead were these women and children.


This history seemed very fresh to Hanya.  She knew the names of camps and the numbers of people who died.  She was writing a report on this topic for her history class, which she loves.  It was in this context that she first read Anne Frank’s diary and was so deeply moved by it.  She wonders incessantly how it is possible for one people to be so cruel to another.  It was Hanya who first made the connection for me between the historical memory of Afrikaners and that of Jews. 


As you know, I was in Cape Town talking with Afrikaners, and particularly leaders in the Dutch Reformed Church, about their experience of apartheid.  And in many of these conversations I heard a similar recitation of history:


The Afrikaners have been in southern Africa since the seventeenth century.  They were and are deeply religious and saw themselves as chosen by God to spread the gospel to the continent.  They began to spread out from the Cape of Good Hope, moving inland, settling land and developing farms as they went.  As they did so they encountered resistance and persecution, first from the local tribes, who fought them with spears but fell in great numbers before their superior firepower.  In one famous battle the river ran red with Zulu blood, and a holiday is celebrated even today remembering that day of conquest.


For a long time after these battles the rural Afrikaners, known as Boers (Dutch for “farmers”) lived in something they describe as relative peace among the Xhosa and Zulu (though they enslaved the less powerful San and Khoikhoi natives,) farming, growing their language and their church and a distinctive culture.  But in the late 1800s gold was discovered in their farmlands, and the British attacked.   There were two Anglo-Boer wars: the first in 1880-1881 and the second, larger conflict from 1899 to 1902.  In both wars the British emerged victorious.  And afterwards the Afrikaner settlers were made second-class citizens, discriminated against in housing and employment.  Gys had told me that, when his father moved to Cape Town from a rural area, he encountered shop window after shop window with signs saying, “Help wanted: Afrikaners need not apply.”


Then in 1948, amazingly, the political situation reversed.  Afrikaners won the election,  and their National Party took over the government from their British adversaries.   Initially with all the goodwill in the world, said several of my partners in conversation, the new government recognized that the black and coloured populations of South Africa had different needs and different aspirations than did whites.  And so they set up separate homelands where they could rule themselves.  (If I poked a bit, the people I was interviewing would readily admit: yes, blacks and coloureds were removed from mixed neighborhoods where they had lived for generations.  No, they were no longer allowed to vote or to attend the same schools or play on the same beaches as the white population.  No their schools and clinics and roads and neighborhoods were not nearly as well-equipped as those for whites.  Yes, massive repression, home demolitions, imprisonment without charge, torture, assassinations…  Yes, in enforcing apartheid things got way out of hand.  But several insisted that it didn’t start out maliciously.) 


As I kept hearing versions of this history, a couple of distinct background notes kept humming in my ears.  First was from the time of the Great Trek, when the Afrikaners left the Cape, often on foot or in wagons, and encountered massive numbers of hostile natives.  Then there was that little melody about “we used to live in peace with our black and coloured neighbors.”  And finally, of course, the concentration camps.


With Passover coming next week, I am preparing to tell the story of our own Great Trek.    The temporal spans are different, but the tune is similar.  We too battled hostile natives as we made our way to settle our Promised Land.  We even had our own Blood River, though it was Egyptian blood and not that of Canaanite tribes, that turned the river red.


Millennia later my tribespeople migrated into (Turkish- and then British-controlled) Palestine and began farming and loving the arid land and raising future generations there.


And of course hardly a day passes that I don’t think about the concentration camps in which my great-cousins died at the hand of other Europeans.  And this rumination drives much that I do and think and choose and advocate.  


And I regularly hear told of the miracle of the state of Israel rising from the ashes of the concentration camps, though I no longer tell the story that way myself.  


There is a lot of heated discussion these days about the analogy between apartheid in South Africa and the situation of Palestinians under Israeli control.  It’s a fraught analogy, of course.  Most of the discussion I’ve seen centers on how the specific racial policies of apartheid South Africa do or do not compare with the policies currently in place as Israel controls both a minority Palestinian population within the state and a much larger Palestinian population in the territories it occupies.  I’m not sure how productive this disputation actually is.  Of course there are differences between how any two governments control their subject populations.  The most useful things I’ve heard said on this front is from my always-wise friend Rabbi Brian Walt, who said that the potency of calling Israel’s policy towards Palestinians “apartheid” is not in lining up the technical details of the two oppressions — it is in saying that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is as bad as the South African government’s treatment of blacks was under apartheid.


But there is another piece of the analogy that interests me as well.  And that not about the various repressive policies and who is hurt — but about who is doing the repressing.  I keep thinking back to a statement from another rabbi I admire — but this one really bugged me (and I am happy to say that its author now expresses himself quite differently on this topic than he did when he wrote this six years ago):


“The analogy between South Africa’s apartheid regime with Israel has a fundamental flaw: It obscures the moral complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. In South Africa there was no moral ambiguity: Clear lines could be drawn, so broad-stroked strategies [such as divestment] could be effective.”

Which is to say, Israel’s regime is not as bad as was South Africa’s — because Israel’s is morally complex, while South Africa’s was not.

Of course there was moral ambiguity to South Africa’s apartheid regime, as there is to Israel’s — if you are telling the story from the perspective of the people running the regime instead of its victims.  What is actually different is that the supporters of Israel’s policies have vocal spokespeople — many our friends, family and colleagues — expressing their perspective worldwide, whereas the Afrikaners did not.  So it is possible to think that Israel’s position is morally complex, while the South African whites were just simple racist sociopaths.   

It is notable to me that “moral ambiguity,” in both cases, is rooted in a startlingly parallel historical memory: one which sees your people as chosen by God to settle a difficult land; empowered by God to vanquish powerful tribes that oppose you; and paradoxically as victims of cruel oppression, from which you once again rise miraculously to power.

The way people tell their story, or what we like to call memory, makes peoples do some awful things.  Many of the Afrikaners I met — Hanya to the contrary — are still embittered by their humiliations from decades and even centuries past and are smarting from their current loss of power.  And it is very difficult for them to see that they are capable of depriving other people and causing them to suffer.  I don’t know what Hanya knows about apartheid.  Her grandfather, whom I later met, was active in the apartheid regime and is one of those unapologetic people I describe above.  I wonder when she will find out and who will tell her.  I wonder how hard she will struggle to make the facts line up with the narrative she has grown up with.  But I think that her curiosity about other people and her compassion will stand her well when the moment comes.


What Did They Know?



All around I had the most technologically jinxed possible time while in Cape Town, including managing not to record half of my interviews.  Now I’m home and listening to those interviews that did survive my bollixed efforts.  And as I do I’m realizing that people sounded more different from each other than the ways I have been lumping them together in my brain.  That said, I want to try to articulate a couple of impressions that remain with me from all the conversations I had…


Most everyone talked about how they were trained up at home and in school to believe the government.  RV said that in his childhood home, “The National Party and the President were as good as the bible, sometimes a bit better!”  People talked about believing that the government did whatever it did for the sake of their safety (which I think is actually probably true.)


Most people did not talk politics at home as children.  If anything, the style of child rearing was that you didn’t talk about much at all.  That said, several people shared a very similar account with me: that they remember their arch-conservative fathers observing a moment of oppression and making an uncharacteristic comment, saying, “This is not right.  This is not the way to treat people.”


People were also told things about blacks: that they were different, not as intelligent, not capable of doing skilled work, lazy, dirty.  At the same time they were taught to be nice to their black workers — not to use racist terms etc.  People who grew up on farms — which was the majority of people I spoke to — grew up with black or coloured workers and their children.  They usually played together and went to their houses.  They could see the differences in circumstance, but no one spoke of being bothered by it.  I heard a couple of weird and confusing stories about how kids were taught about racial disparities.  One person I talked to recalled seeing black workers regularly brutally punished for stealing food and other small infractions.  But one time he and a friend encountered one of the black workers tending a mealie (corn) patch on the farm and asked if he could have an ear or two.  The worker gave him a few ears.  When the boy’s father found out, the boy was beaten: the father said that the boy should have known that the corn belonged to the father, not to the worker, and so, by asking the black worker for it, he was stealing from his own father.   Another child was told that she could go live in “the compound” with the black workers‘ families if she didn’t like how things were done at her own home.  It was hard to tell from this story if that was a punishment or some way of saying that the workers lived as well as the masters.


People talked about being taught (in catechism class!) about the Communist menace, being shown maps that showed Russia in red, with red in North Africa and moving down towards South Africa — about believing that the Communists wanted to take over the government and get white people’s farms and diamonds.  There was a feeling of dread, that the takeover was inevitable, that whites would lose everything, perhaps be murdered.


GVS talked about growing up inside the closed Afrikaner world: “Segregation was so successful that all I saw was the white wall.  Everything outside of it was the communists.”  RVS said, “Social engineering made it possible for me to grow up oblivious.”   And indeed even today Afrikaners read the Afrikaans press and listen to the Afrikaans news — a language which no one outside of South Africa speaks as a first tongue.  I can see how the news and the situation would have been refracted through that very particular lens.


There was serious censorship going on.  RV spoke of the “safety police” sitting in on his sermons and the occasional farmer with a tape recorder in his pocket, all listening for seditious speech from the pulpit.  RVS talked about being unable to get books on feminism from the university interlibrary loan, because these were considered morally questionable.  WVS told of being in Europe at that time that Steve Biko was killed, reading the official account of Biko being a crazy guy who slipped on a bar of soap and died — he was curious about Biko and bought a book of his, which was banned at home, and smuggled it back with him.  He said that reading Biko’s words was a glimpse into a world he knew nothing about, that he knew no black people and nothing about their lives.  Someone else said that he never even heard when Biko was killed, didn’t even know who he was.


A lot depended on what college you went to.  If you went to University of Stellenbosch, the Afrikaans university and seat of the Dutch Reformed Church, then you hewed to the National Party line.  Even there you might have heard, as GVS did, an occasional English speaker challenging the government.   FW said that people at Stellenbosch discussed race all the time, that there was no censorship or inhibition about it.


If you went to seminary at Stellenbosch, as most of the DRC ministers did, you might have had Willie Jonkers for your professor, or Nico Smith, who spoke openly about the injustice of apartheid.  According to FM, Professor Jonkers spoke inclusively and lovingly, in a way that his students could listen to.  Professor Smith tended to point a finger and be easier to dismiss.   You probably also knew about Beyers Naude, who spoke out against apartheid in uncompromising terms and left the church, which was a big moment, it seems.


If, on the other hand, you went to the University of Cape Town or to University of the Witswatersrand, which were liberal universities, then you would have been immersed in the anti-apartheid movement and would have been challenged by other students and people of other races.  You might have seen, as RVS did, poor students and students of color rallying under the banner of “Liberation Before Education” and boycotting lectures.  And you might have been moved by their example, even if you decided to go to class.


Once you got into the work world, as LV or WVS did, you may have worked with Europeans or Americans, who would ask you pointed questions about apartheid.


Interestingly, I asked every person about the effect of the worldwide Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement on them personally and on their situation.  And not one person acknowledged being negatively impacted by it.  Most were barely aware of it.  In fact the only person who spoke about its effect on them was LV, who was in the insurance business.  And he said that the boycott was paradoxically positive for his business, as it forced them to come up with their own technological fixes for problems, resulting in less economic dependency and more innovation.  I don’t know if I totally believe him, but it was interesting to hear.


Several of the ministers worked for a time in black and colored churches, and they saw first-hand the hardship and injustice of apartheid.  JC and MC basically crossed the street and withdrew from the white church, making their spiritual home in the coloured community to this day.  But they are they only people I met who made this choice.


While I was in Cape Town, the BBC aired a documentary on TV about the apartheid struggle.  It included some of the footage I remember from my own youth — of children marching in Soweto, Casspir tanks, police with whips, Biko and Chris Hani and the cells at Robben Island.   My host, Thea, was anxious to watch it with me and kept remarking that she had never seen any of these visuals before.  While we were watching, her eldest daughter, who is in her mid-twenties, came in and glanced at the TV — “Why are you watching that shit?  What is it??” she asked angrily.


What strikes me in the aggregate is that most everyone I talked to had moments of knowing about the realities of apartheid, whether via an uncharacteristic aside from their usually taciturn fathers or through a professor or a news item or a question directed at them by a foreigner.  And — they say now, anyhow — they knew in those moments that apartheid was wrong.  But it never really went anywhere.  It never bothered people enough to feel that they had to respond in some way.


I think that what we mean by “knowing what was going on” is something larger than having information.  It is more about letting those bits of information coalesce and become important enough to shake the coherency of one’s view of the world.  The people I met with were, for the most part, able to wall off these little bits of input from their larger view of life.  Individuals were defended against this larger kind of knowing by their own fears and their racism.  And they were strongly supported in remaining untroubled because they were embedded in families, a church, schools, media, a culture and a government that energetically compelled them to uphold their point of view.




Say it ain’t so

I have heard zip US news these past five weeks, so I don’t know how the story of Oscar Pistorius is playing there. But here it is all anyone is talking about. Pistorius is the [white, Afrikaaner] South African double amputee Olympic champion who just last week shot and killed his girlfriend. My Afrikaner friends, Thea and Gys, desperately want it not to be true. I came back to their house tonight after being away a couple of days, and they were talking about the latest defense story: that Pistorius thought he heard an intruder, didn’t have his prostheses on, and so felt vulnerable and shot and bludgeoned the source of the noise, which turned out to be his girlfriend. I could hear the hope in their voices. (Yeah, right, I was thinking, like OJ and the glove…)

But just an hour or two later this evening, we were listening to the latest Oscar report on the evening news, now detailing the long history of allegations by women in his past of threats and abuse Pistorius has leveled against them. And I could feel the hope dying in the house here. Say it ain’t so, Oscar…

I’ve had a lot of experiences here of desperately hoping that something isn’t true — most especially the pervasive reports of corruption in the ANC government. I mean, I grew up, like all of us, thrilled by the freedom struggle here, amazed and honored to live on earth at the same time as Nelson Mandela and his comrades. As you who know me know, I have taken such hope in the transition that has happened here in South Africa. And I still do, very much. But I have a lot of “say it ain’t so” moments these days too.

Like today in Johannesburg, talking to a cab driver who has come to South Africa from Zimbabwe. This guy, Vincent Khumalo, turns out to be a very informed and thoughtful guy. And, since I have managed to leave my passport back at the house I was staying at and have to be rushed from the airport back there and then straight back, I get to spend a lot of time chatting with Vincent. We get to talking about Robert Mugabe. Vincent feels that South Africa, which is presently the political and economic powerhouse of Africa, has the power to pressure Mugabe to step down. “Why do you think they’re not doing so?” I ask. I’ve heard that Jacob Zuma and other ANC veterans in government still think of Mugabe as a freedom fighter. But Vincent says that he thinks it is probably because South African companies, many enriching people in government here, have huge mining holdings in Zimbabwe. If they threaten Mugabe, they fear he will nationalize the mines. And there go their fortunes in gold and diamonds. Say it ain’t so…

I have been, as you all know, deep in the world of Afrikaners here, a challenging place for me in the most precise sense of that word. My Afrikaner friends and interviewees won’t say it, but I know that many of them really don’t want to see the ANC government succeed. And so, for one tiny but intensely annoying example, a new currency has been issued, with Mandela’s picture on the bills where there used to be lions and such. And I have heard a huge amount of carping about the new bills, derisively called “mandelijies” — that these new bills just show the new regime taking over and stamping their own story on things that worked perfectly well before, like any revolutionary regime, that the new bills are worthless (they’re not — they’re worth exactly the same as the ones with the lions, which are still in circulation.) That they rename the streets and airports after the revolutionary heroes of the current power elite, like any new dictatorship “of the people” and so on.

Personally I loved flying into O.R. Tambo Airport last week. But I had an interesting little moment yesterday at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which a Jewish friend described as “the Yad Vashem of South Africa.” It’s a moving and impressive place, telling a passionate story that I know pretty well, of the fifty year-long struggle to overthrow apartheid and install a non-racial democracy in its place here.

But suddenly I found myself aware of pieces of the story that weren’t in the sacred narrative of the anti-apartheid struggle — the story I am hearing every day of the Afrikaner nation farming and loving the land here, the tragedy of the concentration camps in which so many of their women and children died at the hands of the British, the rebuilding of their people and their moment of redemption ( in 1948!) when suddenly they had political power for the first time in the land of their struggle. I didn’t see lists of white people killed by land mines or pipe bombs or knifed on their farms…

I don’t want to see that stuff at the Apartheid Museum, because it complicates a beautiful story that moves my heart and gives me hope. But, because of where I’ve chosen to place myself this visit, I am aware of how much I resist this contrary information. Just as I see the people with whom I am in conversation resisting the information — and the truth — of the viciousness of apartheid and their own complicity in it. One of my conversation-partners said that he never even heard when Steve Biko was killed. That earth-shaking news just never made it into his universe. Here at the Van Schoors’, we were watching a BBC doc about the struggle, and Thea said she had never seen that footage — which we ALL know, right? — of the brutal repression in Soweto and so on — the iconic images of this part of our political consciousnesses. They didn’t see it because they didn’t want to see it. And they don’t want to see how much they don’t want to see — this is one of the ongoing astonishments of the conversations I’m having here. But they’re not alone in this either.

I have a lot more to say about this. But for now I’ll just say that I am more aware than ever of the struggle we all put up to make the facts of life line up in the way we want them to and how sad and in some ways diminishing — and totally natural — that struggle is.
On a totally other note, I spent three unbelievable days in the Kruger Park and saw, among many other remarkable creatures:

55 elephants
22 white rhinoceros
29 giraffes
3 leopards
and a cheetah.

Oh my God!

Weekend in New York

I’m having a great time in Cape Town and a gruesome time with my blog scene. (Learning: phones aren’t computers… sigh.) This is the third time I am writing this same posting. And you don’t get any nice photos this time, even though I’ve got some great ones. Grrrr. But hello everyone nonetheless.

I spent the weekend at the home of Wesley and Moira Veldsman, friends of mine from the Desmond Tutu TB Centre, where I was a volunteer back in 2006 and again in 2007. Wesley was one of the drivers there, and we struck up a nice friendship. (Those of you who followed my adventures back then may vaguely remember a caper in which I wanted to drive a dead body to the Eastern Cape. Wesley was the guy who offered to drive the body and me… He’s also a lawn bowling champ and beat me in Bananagrams the very first time he ever played.)

Wesley and Moira are coloured, and they live in Paarl East, also known as Huguenot. Paarl proper is a fancy wine town, kind of like Sonoma. And Paarl East is the old apartheid-era coloured adjacent area. Twenty years since the end of apartheid, Paarl East is still completely coloured. I didn’t see another white face the whole time I was there. Moira tells me that there are a few black folks living there now. I can’t always tell a coloured from a black person by sight.

Wesley and Moira are fabulous hosts. For just one example, Moira remembered from my past visit that I like the color orange. And so she had gotten together some orange nicknacks and arranged them on her kitchen shelf just for the pleasure of my eyes.

It’s a poor area. Wesley and Moira don’t have enough electricity to heat water. They bathe with a bucket and water heated in a tea kettle. It being the end of the month, there wasn’t a lot in their fridge. On Sunday Moira took me walking through their neighborhood (called, to my delight, “New York.”)

We dropped in at the home of two of her sisters and an assortment of younger relatives — a couple of granddaughters and, I think, a nephew. Neither sister had a lot of teeth. One sister and her husband have been unemployed, I was told, for many years. There was lots of talk with the nephew, Charlsie, about his job hunt. “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know,” he said, kind of despondently. I think that right now unemployment here is at about 45% generally, and higher still in the poorer areas. We had the standard talk about crime and corruption. But then the sisters asked me, “What do you think of South Africa?” And, before I even had a chance to answer, they said, “Isn’t it wonderful here??? It’s like the Promised Land!”

From the sisters’ to the Pick-and-Pay, where there must have been 500 people shopping for Sunday supper and an equal number outside, milling around piles of peaches, watermelon and cabbage for sale. Moira seemed to know half the people there. She introduced me to everyone and told me a bit about each. Most seemed to be either relatives or friends from church. Several people threw their arms around me, and two of them invited me to stay with them next time I came to town. Nice.

The line at the checkout was insane. We stood for about 40 minutes in front of a pretty young woman holding a very young baby. Moira knew her, of course, and they talked the whole time. Apparently the girl’s husband has recently fallen back into drugging. Moira said, “I know him. He’s a good man. I will talk to him.”

Walking back I asked her how people get along with such stretches of unemployment. Are people actually going hungry? She thought for a bit and said that when they know that someone has no food in their house, they bring food over. “We help each other.”

Later on I asked Wesley how his life has improved since the end of apartheid. I hadn’t seen a lot of obvious measures of prosperity or opportunity there in New York. But Wesley smiled a beautiful smile: “What is different now is that I can vote. Yes, there are problems, but now I can have a say in fixing them.” He is considering a run for the equivalent of City Council.

Earlier the same day that I headed to Paarl East, I had been with a (white) friend in the fancy suburbs. We stopped by a birthday breakfast hosted by a friend of hers. It was in a beautiful cafe inside an interior design store. Pastries to die for, quiches, salad, cappuccinos with happy little messages written in coffee on the foam. And beautiful, accomplished, interesting women around the table, who were every bit as warm and welcoming of me, a drop-by, as anyone I’ve met here.

There too we had the usual talk about President Zuma’s mansion being improved at vast public expense, about corrupt officials giving out jobs to incompetent people etc. And, as everyone asks a traveler, these women asked me how I am finding South Africa. I responded that I find it exciting and vigorous and inspiring — and that I love listening to the news here because people actually talk about what people should be talking about in a democracy: about how to make the place work better.

The women all but rolled their eyes. “I can’t believe you are saying that!” they said. “It’s so nice to hear someone with anything positive to say about this country…”

A few days later I had yet another conversation in yet another fancy home with someone who said that poor people here are lazy and unmotivated and just expect a handout. And of course I was thinking that it wasn’t the poor people who seemed lazy and unmotivated to me.

More to the point, though — I’ve had a couple of lengthy talks lately with white friends about loneliness — mostly on the personal level. They feel isolated, like they can’t be themselves, like no one really knows how things are going for them.

I don’t think I’m one to glamorize poverty. But you wouldn’t hear this same thing in Paarl East. Nor did I hear the same sense of social despair.

And this is no scientific study or anything, but I am starting to intuit some kind of a relationship between loneliness, affluence and social despondency. I don’t have a whole theory, but perhaps in some way the same forces that make it hard to be personally alive and connected and interwoven with others also make it hard to see possibilities for change, to struggle for them and to enjoy them when they happen.

And maybe there is something about this same troika of negativity which makes it hard for Jews today to imagine a better future…

Since I wrote all this the first and second times, I’ve had a couple more really interesting talks, and I have a lot more stories and half-baked theories to run by you. But I want to try to get this sent. So I sign off with love — Margaret

Conversations begin

With the endlessly-gracious help of my host and friend Gys, I’ve now had three meetings with ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church, and he promises to set up just about one per day for as long as I’m here and ready.  Each conversation has been amazingly earnest and full, and I’ve found myself near tears at least one time each from something that just touches me in a surprising way.

So I’m beginning to see some threads in common, even from three chats.  I think what I’ll do here is just make a few generalizations and then share as best I can a few of those moments of surprise. And since I haven’t managed to take pictures at the appropriate moments to illustrate all this (and what would these be anyhow???) I’ll intersperse some snaps from my Cape Town romps that aren’t relevant to anything,  just to share my pleasures with you and make this look a little bloggy.

image Generalization #1 — During the apartheid years these folks lived in a twilight state of simultaneously knowing and not-knowing.  One told a story about his father, a staunch National Party guy (the NP was the apartheid party) seeing a black woman trying to dry a wet mattress in a sliver of sun in front of her tiny shack.  His father said, “This is not right.”  The minister telling the story was in high school at the time, but he said he didn’t remember this moment until after his father’s death ten years ago now.   They all had moments like this, maybe more.  They all had moments of hearing and thinking, “This is not right.”  But it didn’t go anywhere.

Generalization #2 — They all grew up keenly aware of their persecution as Afrikaners, mostly at the hand of the British.  During the Anglo-Boer war (I can’t remember the date, but within the last century) the British put Afrikaners in concentration camps (yes — that’s where the term came from.)  More recently, one minister remembers his father saying he moved to Cape Town from the country and, when he was looking for employment, saw sign after sign in shop windows that said, “Afrikaners need not apply.”

imageGeneralization #3 — During the apartheid years they  lived in a climate of  fear — mainly of communists.  I think they all mentioned seeing in school maps with Russia in red and then red spots in North Africa, further south and then within South Africa.  They thought that Communists were going to take over South Africa, take their gold and diamonds (note the word “their”) and expel or kill them.  The Afrikaans press was selective in what it published, so they knew a lot about the Red threat and black violence and very little about social and economic realities for blacks and coloured people under apartheid.

Generalization #4 — The ideology of the Dutch Reformed Church had some theological talk about Afrikaners as God’s chosen people, like the Israelites, whites called to bring Christianity/civilization to the southern tip of the continent and so on.  But mostly it was a marriage of church and state, and people in the church didn’t see much difference between the two.

Generalization #5 — All three of these lovely people expressed feeling hope and relief when the Change happened and Mandela became president.  All three shared their hopes, from 1994 and even presently, for a “new South Africa.”  All feel some mandate for their church to participate in the new state and to offer their services to poor people and people of colo(u)r.  [But there is something that seems to me to be missing here, some sense of accountability, of a need to transform.  I have had these chats in settings of relatively fabulous luxury.  I keep waiting for some word that there might be a call to renounce some bit of privilege, to equalize in some way, to face some loss or risk in service of these changes, and so far it ain’t there.  I’ll keep you posimageted…]

Now for a few of those little beautiful moments: Sitting with Gys at Vovotelo, the fanciest cafe in the Waterfront, itself the fanciest development in Cape Town, drinking cappucinos.  At one moment toward the end of our conversation he looked almost shocked and said, [during the apartheid years] “I was completely captured by my own life.”  and then he looked down at his coffee, shook his head and made a wide ring with his arms around the coffee.  “There was a whole world going on, and all I was concerned about was my cup of coffee.”

At the end of two hours with Rev. Francois Wessels he said that no matter what happens in the future he feels like the change ha already been a success.  It is an Afrikaans custom to call adults Oum (Uncle) and Tannie (Auntie.)  Francois says that he rejoices that today black kids call him Oum instead of Meineer (Mister.)  His own kids likewise now address black elders as Oum and Tannie.  “No matter how much there is to complain about today, I always focus on this.”

And with Rev. Rian Verster, again after he shared his own experience in the apartheid years and beyond, he said, “I think that during the apartheid years deep down we lost our trust in God.  We went to our services and baptized our children, but we lived in fear and conflict.  We lost the belief, the confidence, that God is in place.  Why all the fighting, the selfish grabbing?  Because of fear.  We didn’t trust that God would provide what was fair.”

What I am hearing sounds, of course, eerily resonant to my situation as a Jew, a rabbi.  I’ll keep you posted, or blogged!

“separate development” — I think I kind of get it…

I arrived here in Cape Town on Thursday, and on Friday afternoon I decided to get on the train and head in to the City Centre for a little walkabout, remember where things are, that kind of thing.  Most white people I met here in on my past trips never take the commuter train — it’s slow and skanky.  But in my earlier stays here I loved the train more than anyplace.  It was the scene of some of my favorite adventures.

But I’d forgotten a lot — couldn’t remember the train route, the names of the stations.  Needless to say there’s no route map posted anyplace.  (In fact all that was posted were sticker after sticker advertising  penis enlargement –“get your former lovers back” and “safe, painless abortions — same-day results…” )  Bys (son of my hosts Thea and Gys) has offered to retrieve me at the Bellville station on my return.  But  it was announced in the station that that particular train would be an hour late.  Grrrr.

Just a minute later — surprise — a Bellville-bound train pulled in, and I jumped aboard. The train was full and wild.  The car was a mess. Windows were opaque with dirt.  It was hot and sweaty and crowded.  I was in a third-class car, because I usually assume that the more crowded cars are safer — and, let’s face it, it’s hard to be the only white person in the ticket line and to ask for a first class ticket.  But there were a bunch of women aboard with me, and ever since my NY subway days I’ve always felt more comfortable in a crowd of women.

But people get off trains as well as on, and pretty soon there were just a few people in my car — still some women, but mostly gangster-looking young guys with glassy, wasted faces.  People would get on the train at a stop and seem like they already knew other people in the car.  They would sort of mutter to each other.  I didn’t like it.

The train was indeed Bellville-bound, but it was taking a different route than the one I’d come out on , through some townships.  At one point the train stalled in a station, a couple of guys jammed the doors open (welcome breeze but an aggressive gesture, like they owned the car) and one of those women I was counting on started yammering to her friends in a theatrical moan: “Oooh, this is an evil place!  We’re all going to die here!  I don’t want to die — I’m young…” and on and on.

After way too long the train started rolling, no one murdered any of us, and I arrived in Bellville an hour late to sweet Bys waiting in his father’s Mercedes to whisk me to their suburban home.

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about that train ride.  And with 3 AM logic it struck me that I didn’t belong on that train.   I don’t think anyone cared if I was there or not, but it was in some way their world, and I felt like an alien in all senses of the word. These weren’t the beautiful black school children I used to admire, with their uniforms and satchels, or the nurses off from work looking tired and kind, or even those wild train preachers who interrupt the riders to preach our salvation.  Nobody was bothering me or threatening me, but they seemed to have their own closed world that radiated the opposite of welcome.  These people were more different, and I didn’t like being with them.

In fact I think that any person should be free to ride on any train that they want to be on.  But what an interesting way to start talking to  white people about apartheid…

into blog-landia

Welcome to my maiden voyage, not to South Africa (to which, when I fly in two days, will be my fourth trip) but to Planet Blog.  Thank you for joining me here!  It’s all kind of strange, this modern world, but I do want to try to share some of whatever I learn over the next six weeks.  So here I am, hard at work on my tech skills…

Let me start here by telling you what I think it is I’m going to do in Cape Town:


#1 — See friends, among them Gys and Thea Van Schoor.  I met Thea when I volunteered at the Desmond Tutu TB Centre.  I spent many a weekend with the Van Schoor family at their home in Durbanville, which is at the edge of the winelands on the outside of the city.  They’re great, friendly, fun people, and gloriously hospitable.  I’m looking forward to more great wine and expanding my Afrikaans beyond the two words I presently know (“goie more,” pronounced something like KHWEE-ah MO-ray — it means “good morning,” I think.)

#2 — Talk to ministers about apartheid.  Gys is a dominee (minister) in the Dutch Reformed Church, which is the Afrikaans-speaking church in the past most famous, or notorious, for more or less inventing apartheid and upholding it all the way through to its end in the 1990’s.  Since those days the DRC has had to back-pedal in many ways.  Their leaders recanted the doctrine of apartheid.  They’ve made moves to integrate their churches.  They appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly ask forgiveness.  Gys has generously offered to connect me with his colleagues, so I can ask them a million questions about this whole experience.

I started thinking about this because of my own edging into the world of organizing about ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine.  These days I’ve been pretty involved with the Rabbinic Council of Jewish Voice for Peace — which means I’m relating to other anti-occupation rabbis — trying to get them to sign statements and write letters and bring motions to their rabbinic organizations and all that tedious  but necessary stuff.  And even these small gestures can feel kind of clandestine and scary.  We have a lot of conversations about  ‘What will happen if I show up at this demonstration/speak on that panel/sign this statement…?’  ‘Can I say this from my pulpit?’ A couple of rabbis are magnificently out-front about it all.  But most of us are pretty spooked.  And more than just worrying about our jobs, I think that there are other feelings that don’t get mentioned as much.  Like it’s easy to feel like kind of a traitor, like we’re attacking our own people — especially when everyone else in the world is attacking them (us) too.  And that’s just among those of us who are already convinced on the merits of the case.  A lot of other rabbis and other Jewish folks DEFINITELY feel like we’re attacking our own.  Not easy…

One day it dawned on me that I bet there is another group of clergy on this planet that would know a bit about this.   I imagine that at one time Gys and his colleagues also once felt like the whole world was mounting up against them, like their way of life — and perhaps their very lives — were under threat.  There are a few famous DRC clergy, like Beyers Naude, who stood up to confront their church about apartheid, just like there are a few rabbis today, like Lynn Gottlieb and Brian Walt and Brant Rosen and Alissa Wise, who are standing up to the rest of us.  What was it like, I wonder, for the rest of them as the world’s banks and universities and entertainers boycotted South Africa, as other churches condemned and isolated the DRC?  What was it like as it became clear that white rule and the separation of the races were going to end?  Did they feel cornered?  Did these ministers have misgivings about their church’s teachings?  Did they  feel like they had to defend them even so?  Were their certain messages that penetrated their defenses?  What would they say to rabbis today, twenty years after apartheid ended, about being on the wrong side of history?  Maybe, with all this hindsight, they’d even have some advice…  I really don’t know, but I look forward to asking.

#3 — See animals!                                             

#4 — Skype with Mickey…  (We’re already practicing.)


So that’s the plan as it stands.  God-and pilot-willing, I’ll be in Cape Town in Thursday and should have stories to tell soon thereafter.  I’ll also reconnect with other friends, including the folks at Mama Maphosela’s — those little tykes will be six years older than last time I saw them.  As will I, I suppose…

So stay well, and I’ll look forward to pressing the SEND button and seeing what happens —

with love, Margaret