As I mentioned before, I grew up in a very traditional racist Afrikaans house in South Africa. We always lived in pretty white-only areas and were almost completely cut off from the reality outside our little neighbourhood. Yes, we had a black maid working in our house and a black gardener, but it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with the way we lived. It wasn’t discussed in our homes, or in church, or in school, or on television, or in newspapers, or even in general conversation at the braai (barbecue). All of these where controlled by the Apartheid regime – everywhere where you would expect issues to be raised were controlled by the Apartheid regime. When you live in a controlled environment, you pretty much never know what you are missing – a ‘great’ controlled social experiment.
A question that I get asked often is ‘how did you land up this way? And it is difficult to answer. There wasn’t a single ‘big event’ that influenced me. It was a combination of many little things. And it added up. It is still the same process today – every experience adds a little bit of new insight and knowledge… and a realization that I still have much more to learn and still don’t know anything!
I’ll just highlight a few things that played a role in my initial ‘transformation’ while I was still at school. It didn’t change me overnight, but it did point me in the right direction and laid the foundation for my future behaviour.
It started with my mom. She wasn’t a liberal by any stretch of the imagination. But she wasn’t a racist the way my father was a racist. She always told me to never except anything as a given and to always question everything until I am satisfied with the answer. And I did. Maybe she didn’t want me to question the ‘establishment’, but she gave good advice.
Another major influence was my history teacher at school. Again, not a liberal at all. But he was a good teacher. We were never taught anything about the ANC, Nelson Mandela or the struggle against Apartheid in history classes – it was all about the white history. And specifically the ‘struggle’ of the Afrikaners against pretty much everyone. I loved history. Always did well and studied hard. Mr Grant knew that I was interested in history and always gave me a little more attention than the other kids. And then one day he stopped me as I was about to leave his class. All he said was ‘you know, there is another history of South Africa that I am not allowed to tell you about’ – and then walked out the class. That was it. Nothing more. But enough for me to start asking questions and dig around a bit more to find out about this ‘other’ history.
Music also played a major role in my transformation. It didn’t play a role in my early years as most of the music my parents played was pretty crap – Afrikaans music sucked back in those days, and still do. And then one day someone slipped me a tape with some music of Billy Bragg, The Smith and The Cure. That made me sit up and take notice, but not much. Springsteen did it for me. I was listening to Born In The USA when my brother walked in and gave me some of his old Springsteen tapes – Nebraska and The River. And I was hooked. I started listening to every word he had to say. Although he sang about the US and ‘his’ people, I knew that the same issue was true for most blue collar workers in South Africa. And most of them happened to be black.
All of these influences played a role. But they never connected. The light switched on when I was involved in a very typical but minor motorbike accident while going to school. It was rainy and I was running late. And I was about to write a history exam. I had Springsteen blasting away before I jumped on my bike. No Surrender was playing, and I had these words stuck in my head while driving to school – ‘There’s a war outside still raging, you say it ain’t ours anymore to win’. Bam! I hit the car in front – never saw it stop. I went flying, bounced off the back window, and was knocked out cold by the time I hit the road.
It was only for a few minutes, but when I woke up I had this group of people looking down at me and talking among themselves. And for some reason the first thought that crossed my mind was ‘why are they all white?’
And by accident I became an activist. But it all came little by little. One experience after the other. Always questioning a little bit more. Always digging for more information behind the story. It’s still the same today – open to listen to and learn about new views, but being critical of anything and everything.
I had many similar accidents in my life that made me who I am today. No big plan – just a few ‘minor’ accidents that happened to shape my life.
Thank you Mom. Thank you Mr Grant. Thank you Bruce. And thank you Yamaha.