‘I wish I had fought apartheid’ — a white South African’s big regret

I was born in Cape Town in 1970 to middle-class white parents. My father is Jewish by birth, my mother by choice — she converted to Judaism after I was born. Twice, in fact, because Reform (or Progressive) conversions are not recognised by Orthodox Jewish institutions — but that’s a story for another day. Both conversions happened after I was born, so I wasn’t born Jewish. (You are only considered Jewish by birth — in the eyes of Orthodox Judaism — if your mother is Jewish. I can’t thank mine enough for choosing to ‘complete’ our Jewishness by converting. Whatever objections I have to the way traditional Jewish institutions treat those they consider unworthy of inclusion, it has made my life and that of my husband and children so much easier.)

We lived first in Pinelands, then Tamboerskloof, before moving to the then up-and-coming suburb of Camps Bay, where, bar a short move back to Tamboerskloof, we stayed (downscaling drastically after a dramatic downturn in our circumstances) until I moved out of home in 1993 to share a flat in — you guessed it — Tamboerskloof.

I attended a Jewish day school from preschool to matric and then, predictably, studied first at UCT then at Unisa in the years leading up to the dawn of democracy in South Africa. I was in the same school lift scheme for 12 years with friends from homes similar to mine, give or take a few luxury sedans (theirs) and family scandals (mainly mine).

And so, I managed to reach my twenties without any involvement in or concern for the politics of my country. Blinded by my whiteness and that of the vast majority of people I came into contact with, I didn’t support the government — I ignored it. I simply never questioned the inequities of the system that entrenched me and my kind in our middle-class utopia.

I can’t pinpoint the moment it changed for me but I know that it was too late — the liberation struggle was over and I had played no part in it. This is perhaps my one big regret in life. One of the biggest inequities in modern history happened on my doorstep — and I was so immersed in the vagaries of my own insular life that I didn’t question it. As a Jew, especially given my people’s history, I am ashamed of myself.

I was recently privileged to interview Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela for Fairlady magazine. The focus of our meeting was her book, Dare We Hope? Facing Our Past to Find a New Future, which I read together with her earlier award-winning book, A Human Being Died That Night. Her words transported me back to the 80s and early 90s, and reminded me that my own experience of that era was so far removed from that of the majority of South Africans as to seem unreal.

But more than that, my encounter with the world she described made me realise just how little I know about what it felt (and feels) like to not be white when being white, an accident of birth, determined (and for many still determines) the quality and context of your life.

I have no memories of “Only whites/ Net blankes” signs, passbooks, curfews, forced removals, forbidden love. I learned about District Six through the lyrics of David Kramer and Taliep Petersen; I didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was until after the unbanning of the ANC.

The closest I got to the horrors people who looked like me perpetrated against people who didn’t look like me was knowing that one or two of my classmates had gone “to the border” after school. I only recently found out what this meant. (Paul Morris’s book Back to Angola is one of the many vying for my attention; Pumla’s books exposed me to the dark underbelly of conscription, the apartheid government’s brainwashing weapon, and I want to understand what went on in the minds of those young boys, my contemporaries.)

I feel like I missed out on my own past — the one I remember feels hollow and unreal. How could I have been that self-absorbed?

It was only after I returned to South Africa in the late 1990s after completing my law studies at Cambridge University that I noticed the injustice around me and widened my circle of influence. I started using my skills and resources to better the lives of those whose suffering the younger me failed to recognise.

Even though I am now living a more considered and considerate life, the boundaries of my daily world are still fairly narrow — I still live in Cape Town’s City Bowl and my children attend the same school my husband and I did. And I still yearn for an authentic experience of the past. And while I am involved with people and in projects outside my comfort zone, I still yearn to know more and fill the gaps in my memories of the past.

My bookshop is piled high with books, both fiction and non-fiction, describing the experiences of real and imaginary South Africans before and after 1994 — Zakes Mda, Sixolile Mbalo, Gillian Slovo, CA Davids, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Zukiswa Wanner, Dominique Botha, Nic Mhlongo, Thando Mgqolozana, Damon Galgut, Mandla Langa.

I devour these books in an attempt to fill in my gaps, vicariously experiencing South Africa’s past through the lens of those who have stories to tell based on their own or someone else’s past. I can’t change my own history and, although I judge myself harshly, I know I need to move on from these limiting emotions in order to be a meaningful part of South Africa’s future.

We recently celebrated Yom Kippur — the Jewish Day of Atonement. One of the most important prayers we recited was Al Chet in which we confessed our sins. And in this litany of things we repent for I found these words: ‘And for the sin which we have committed before You intentionally or unintentionally.’

I didn’t intentionally ignore the dehumanisation of my fellow South Africans. But that doesn’t excuse my selfishness. Nor does it in any way diminish my shame.

First published in Rand Daily Mail on 3 November 2014.