I am an African. Born of her soil. Formed through her travail. Here in the cradle of all humanity. More particularly a white South African who grew up in a privileged white box exclusive of the vast “not white” population.
In 1988 at the height of the evils of apartheid, when I was living in voluntary exile in London, my sister who was a doctor, was dying. Back in South Africa to be with her, I met Vuye, a black nurse who worked with her. Meanwhile my fiancé in London took another woman. Unbeknown to me the ANC were in secret negotiations with the government of the day. The next year my father died and I returned to be with my mother who died in 1991. Change was afoot both politically and personally. My only remaining friend in Cape Town committed suicide and my “twin brother” whom I had grown up with died of cancer. For my part I had ME (chronic fatigue syndrome) and could barely drag myself around.
That was when I met Gina, a coloured woman who worked near where I lived. She came to my mother’s funeral and dropped by daily to check up on me. In 1994 we stood together in the long snaking queue to vote in the first democratic elections ever in South Africa and then I took her to witness Mandela in the House as President at the opening of Parliament. Gina was 54 and until then had never been allowed to vote. Years later she told me she had taken a vow to God to look after me.
Vuye was a big woman with a charismatic presence. One day I asked her what it was like living under the Apartheid Regime. “You know, Rosemary,” as she was wont to say slowly, spreading her hands over her ample lap and pausing for effect, “it was like this, wena: One day I left my house in Guguletu. As I came to the stop sign an army Hippo drew up next to me. Out poured a troop of white youths, younger than my son, and surrounded the car. The leader swaggered over and said I should give him the car keys. I said to him, ‘Alright …., and then what?’ He said: ‘We burn the car’. ‘Alright,’ I said, looking him in the eyes, ‘then you must give me a moment to pray.’ I saw tears starting in his eyes. Suddenly there was a shout down the road, one of the soldiers called and he flung the keys at me and off they went.”
Vuye sat in silence and I started to cry. I knelt and asked her forgiveness. Her tears started. “You know, Rosemary, until this day, since I was a child, I have never cried. Not once.” I later found out that when she was a child her family had been forcibly removed from their family home by the sea near where I live in “white” Simon’s Town to “black” Guguletu. They have never been compensated, not that compensation could ever be remotely adequate.
For several Christmases after everyone died I was at a loss as to what to do, where to go. I gravitated to the poor.
Then one Christmas I discovered St Gabriel’s in Guguletu. It is a huge church down a rough road amidst rows of tiny houses with their patch of front garden, people chatting at the gates or sauntering off to church in their Sunday best.
The Church was packed. Long before the service, singing started with the Marimbas dancing along. Sing to the Lord with the Marimbas, with the sound of music ring out your joy reaching to the very gates of heaven: A great throng of the heavenly host praising God and singing: Glory to God in the highest and peace to people on earth.
Babies abounded on laps. Littlies gazed solemn around. Teenagers whispered the latest news. This was truly Christmas: To us a child is given, to us the Christ is born. Lo I am with you always …., I bring you tidings of great joy.
At the end the priest asked visitors to stand and say where they were from – Holland, America, Germany ….and myself, down the road. The congregation clapped loud and long to welcome each of us. Even after it was all over as the people poured out of its doors a group of old men formed a circle outside and continued to sing and shuffle-jive stiffly: There could be no end to the joy of the revelation of divine love. Truly Christ is among us.
Here in Africa, birth place of humankind, even in the worst suffering, voices rise in praise to the Supreme Being – forever and for ever.