I’ve had two distinct but similar incidents – separated by only by a couple years. The first was on a train during the FIFA World Cup, in Johannesburg, July 2010. I had boarded a bus traveling to the newly built FNB station for the Brazil vs Ghana game. I was new to JHB and the route to the stadium took me through a part of Joburg I’d never been to. At one point I asked the man standing next to me, who was of Indian descent, which part of the city this was. It was a suburb called Mayfair, and he proceeded to tell me a little about the area, and unfortunately ending by commenting rather angrily (and particularly to those around) that my ‘ancestors’ had forced his to leave the area decades ago. I knew it was neither the correct time nor place to engage with him, so I simply kept quiet, but for a while his words simmered under the surface.
The second incident took place more recently in August 2016, at the Taj Hotel Cape Town. I had met a friend for High Tea, and afterwards we were enjoying the evening wine tastings they often do in an adjacent room. I had befriended a young Indian couple from London who were in Cape Town on honeymoon. The conversation had been rather enjoyable until a rather inebriated older Indian gentleman burst into the conversation, his brazen bravado I think fuelled by both the alcohol, and the young bride’s beauty. After some rather garish conversation the topic was quickly moved to history where he proceeded to lecture the patient foreigner on what my ancestors did to his in this country. Again I realised this wasn’t the place to engage further, and to both my and the newywed’s relief the hotel management came along and helped him along elsewhere, as his words and behaviour became increasingly a problem to those around.
After the latter incident I was again reminded of the former, and both of their comments held me captive for the week, and caused me to think more closely about what they had said. Yes, in my family’s history there have doubtlessly been examples of racism and support of the unjust prevailing political system (mind you the present also as I and others still experience some elements of privilege). With this complicity acknowledged, it is however not the entire story. What both these gentleman didn’t know, was that my ancestors were of a rather different decadency to that which they had presumed.
On my father’s side, my great grandfather was a Jewish man who had along with other children at the age of 10 (one of whom would later become his wife), been smuggled out of Lithuania, and managed to escape to South Africa. Lithuania was a Soviet bloc country that was annexed by Russian invasions at the turn of the 19th century, and was unfortunately accompanied by a series of Jewish pogroms. My great grandfather and mother escaped persecution, and years later met in East London, and were the first Jewish couple to marry and settle in the area. I’d love to write more on this at another time, but for the moment perhaps some of the narrative and music of Fiddler on the Roof might help illuminate some of the history, as the well-known musical and film depicts the Russian pogroms and their effects on the Jewish people.
Hopefully it was my politeness and respect for their stories, that prevented me giving a sarcastic response to the two gentleman in the stories above. Perhaps if I get told a third time about my ancestors and what they did, I might ask them to tell me a little more about their story, but also as them if I could share a little of my story.Henry Wadsworth was quoted in the iconic South African novel The Commissioner:
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility”.
I couldn’t help but recall his words and in this context, the poignancy of them. Of course his intention is not to dismiss the unjust actions of others, but rather the reminder that we all have a history, and sometimes the brave/arrogant/naïve façade hides more than we think.
Image credit: I shot this picture in 2015 in the Drakensberg. The image depicts the conflict between the bushman and the Nguni – a reminder that conflict is literally, as old as the hills.