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[OPINION] We need to hear each other

Growing up coloured during apartheid only became a reality for me in my late teens when our family decided we were not going to emigrate. Our life was here, five generations later, we were ok and to my child memory, fairly unaffected by the whole political setup.

My friends despise me saying this. Over the years this has been mentioned to me in a rather accusatory fashion, which left me feeling disappointed I didn’t know more when I was younger. My truth is that as four girls, we were pretty much protected from apartheid and how it impacted our parents, grandparents and their parents. I knew my father studied law at UCT on a permit, I didn’t know that was exceptional as the principle was not explained to my young self. I do know my forefathers, as I knew them, always worked for the greater good through education and service to our community.

We were taught the principles of the new South Africa, while it was old. There was no rainbow nation or colour blindness but there was integrity, ways to treat other people and guidance around being a decent human being. What we brought was that we were enough, as we were and as we weren’t.

I remember the first time I realised, "Something is wrong here!" After many of our beloved family left for better opportunities abroad, our big Sunday family lunches, Saturday morning drives around the peninsula, buying snoek off a bakkie on the side of the road for a braai later that day stopped abruptly. It was the end of an era and a confusing time for me as a young girl. Some of my best aunts, uncles and cousins my age packed up for Canada and Australia and we drove them to the airport.

I felt abandoned and angry but could not really attribute my feelings to anything tangible. Our young family had to find other ways to amuse and entertain ourselves over weekends. We started taking drives for Sunday lunch every week. My dad had a 'combi' and we would buy our food and park at the beach, eat our lunch and then take the scenic route home. At that time, it was our quality time. Meanwhile, we were not allowed to eat in certain restaurants because we were coloured.

When I relate this story to my four born-free children, they are amused and disbelieving. It does sound like an exaggeration! An exaggeration to them, but to me an explanation about why family lunches in our different homes were valued and traditional.

One Sunday, my parents took us to the kiddies train at Muizenberg pavilion. We boarded the fun park train excitedly and so did the three black children sitting under the cashier’s ledge. What I didn’t know was that my dad had bought their tickets, they were as excited as we were. Then the angry conductor came and commanded them off the train.

"What was the problem?" thought my 7-year-old self? Before I knew it, my parents also whisked us off the train and demanded a refund. That was the moment. The moment I realised the world is not fair. If you want justice, you have to work towards it courageously. My sisters and I were allowed on the train because we are those coloureds who had light complexions, we spoke English and our hair was straight. Our blackness was not as obvious as most people in our country. We were less of a threat than the ‘swart gevaar’- a term long used to inculcate fear and resentment into the memory of white South Africa about black South Africa.

Over the years I have come to realise that growing up coloured in South Africa was a navigation of note. White people didn’t know what we were. I was asked why I identify as coloured when I had straight hair and my sisters had light hair and eyes. These were questions we were coached by our parents to understand and answer. Black people didn’t trust us as we looked 'whiteish' and lived better than most people.

What was amusing is that I didn’t know how little we had, until through school we started friendships with people who had a lot. Who knew it was a thing to have a swimming pool, tennis court, a separate loo and bathroom, more than one bathroom, an ensuite attached to your parents’ bedroom, a pantry or a double garage because your parents had more than one car? I never missed any of those domestic luxuries because we made do with what we had and had no reason to quibble.

A recent interview on the radio drew my attention to another moment. We created our traditions, culture and spaces and survival around apartheid. By the 1980s as student uprisings became more than background rumblings and our friends were getting beaten at school, teargassed in the streets of the Cape Flats and some of them detained and mysteriously battered and bruised by ‘slipping’, we had no option but to open this up and get involved with the clean-up.

Watching people who had privilege defending and explaining their privilege and other people forcing people to see what privilege looks like is a necessary part of our development and maturity as a democracy. It should, however, be a parallel process as we build a country that we can all participate in, feel safe in and raise our children freely and deliberately.

Racism is here and making its nasty self comfortable as we battle it out on social media instead of face to face and ear to ear. We need to listen to each other’s stories. Nobody needs permission. We need empathy, kindness and humanity. We can do it. We can definitely do it better if more of us do.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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