Our own Apartheid

🕔Jan 27, 2010

I stood knee-deep in dilemma on the banks of the Fish River, trying to reconcile the death threats hurled my way. My students were from Soweto, where violence had reigned supreme for decades and death threats were a daily occurrence.

Tongue pressed against clenched teeth, I thought about how fear tastes like a copper pipe, the remnants of an adrenalin lollipop. I was only trying to teach the township youth of South Africa’s “Lost Generation” to canoe, which would in theory transform their lives. Yet, to them I was the “Boer”—the oppressor—so in solidarity the twelve were threatening to kill me. I didn’t know what they wanted, and as I observed the mounting hysteria it appeared that neither did they.

I arrived in South Africa in 1994 after Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress came into power following South Africa’s first universal democratic election. My impressions of South Africa were formed by the over-simplified mainstream media; thus I was set up to get myself into deep shit. But it turned out I had one ace up my sleeve that I didn’t know about before I came to use it: I had grown up next to a First Nation’s reservation in Canada.

Zulu reality
At Outward Bound South Africa I befriended Spusiso Sibiya, a Zulu man training to be an instructor. We talked often, embracing equality, making sense out of our diametrically different cultures. Once I asked Spusiso about Zulu myth. Receiving a long pause and lingering eye contact, I wondered if I had touched on a taboo subject. I held the gaze of his obsidian eyes in earnest.

Spusiso, in his way, explained Zulu perspectives of the universe. The cosmology of the Zulu reflected spiraling embers rising from the primordial fire; astrophysics merged with metaphysics in a fluid confluence of ancient tribal story, all told in Spu’s youthful vocabulary. Most vividly I remember him describing the interaction of light and darkness in each of us, mimicking the universal dance of shadow and light; how in each instance we reflect these undercurrents of the songs of starlight. Darkness shows up in each of us as shadow issues: the aspects of ourselves that we are unwilling to accept. “Sounds like our own personal Apartheid,” I blurted. Spu simply smiled; he had never looked at it that way before.

Apartheid is Afrikaans for “apart-ness.” In the 1950s South Africa’s National Party came into power, implementing the infamous Apartheid policy. When researching models of segregation, the National Party sent delegates to North America to look at Indian reservations. This was during the same era that Native children were actively being taken from their communities and sent to residential schools.

Apartheid led to the relocation of African people to Homelands and Townships, resembling our country’s reservations. As resistance rose, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela became the chief icon of ‘the Struggle,’ as the fight to overturn Apartheid was known.

The militant police state reaped profound economic gain from South Africa’s abundance of mineral resources, largely diamonds and gold. Tremendous disparity existed between black and white. Third-world conditions of poverty neighboured first-world affluence. Townships like Soweto, outside Johannesburg, centralized cheap labour on which the economy was built.

In 1976, the government legislated that all education be taught in Afrikaans. Most black youth boycotted education and learned about petrol bombs, AK-47s, and the trance of the toi-toi war dance. Heavily armed police made raids into townships, and violent outbursts exploded like wildfires in dry grass. A generation wound up in angst, tightly coiled and ready to strike. Soweto, the largest township, was the epicenter of the violence, and the youth I was being threatened by were former MK militia, foot-soldiers of the Struggle.

Smartass salvation
Standing by the Fish River I suddenly became aware of what was happening. Growing up next to a reservation in BC, I was familiar with the socio-economic differences that come along with segregation, and I had bled more than once as a result of such tensions. In that moment I drew the parallel between Apartheid and Indian reservations.

The Soweto youth were afraid of the water and the unfamiliar. They were reacting to their fears with their own Apartheid. Their subsequent solidarity and refusal to cooperate followed the downward spiral to death threats as a politicized response to gain control. At my wits’ end, I stepped back so my own Apartheid would not get in the way. The absurdity of the moment prompted nervous laughter from me, catching them off guard.

I spontaneously spoke. “Okay, I’ll negotiate,” I said. The Struggle had been a negotiated revolution, won by labour solidarity and strikes, and more than once through violent uprising.

“I came all the way here from Canada, to the opposite side of the earth, to teach you how to canoe, and not to be threatened or to fight. In Canada, the indigenous people canoed on the oceans and lakes, and rivers like this one, before the white man came. I didn’t come here to fight, I came to teach canoeing because canoeing is to Canadians like dancing is to Africans.”

They stirred with a communal chuckle. “In fact,” I continued, “I’ll only teach you how to canoe on one condition: a cultural exchange. I’ll teach you to canoe and you teach me how to dance!” Smartass salvation: I witnessed the sudden transformation to a peaceful party rather than acts of Apartheid violence. The women began to dance, and whenever the women danced the men were soon to follow.

We spent the rest of the day learning to canoe. Then we gathered wood from thorny acacia trees to kindle a fire. Buckets, pots, pans, sticks and a hollow log became an improvised percussion ensemble to summon the spirits of dance. Tribal harmonies came as twilight merged into night; the fire cast a luminous glow over everyone and magic happened. Schooled in various ways to wiggle the butt and let go of limbs and inhibitions, we met in laughter and joy. We danced until dawn, learning how to release the mind and tune the body to the essence of sound, an experience both life-altering and profound. At Outward Bound South Africa we learned that our students were willing to try anything as long as we danced a toi-toi first.

I think of that experience often now, drawing deeper meaning from those definitive moments. I still lament the lingering knowledge that the roots of Apartheid were deeply tapped into the Reservations of my homeland. I continue to revel in how that group of Soweto youth had in one moment threatened to kill me, then welcomed me into ceremonial dance, initiating me with their cultural songs. That night of sparks and embers rising from the central fire as I learned first-hand about releasing the coiled snake—umbilini in Zulu—summoned cultural insights that still burn strong.

Recently I limbered myself into dancing at a gathering for First Nations youth held at Hungry Hill, near Houston, BC. The archetypal drumbeats of a Haida song transplanted me back to the Fish River. Although the dance was different, the fundamental truth that it summoned was virtually the same: you can legislate and propagate cultural segregation, condone inequity and tolerate hate, but you cannot take away a culture’s song.