In the writing class I teach, a young South African manof Afrikaans, not British, descentread his personal essay aloud to us. He wrote of being born into apartheid, and never realizing that something in his world was gravely amiss until he was 8 years old. One morning, having collected his mother’s kiss and “I love you” on his way out the door, he hopped onto the blue and white school bus as usual. An ordinary school day until all those policemen with rifles got on, too. When the bus drew near the school, the children were ordered to lie down in the wide center aisle between the seats. The policemen had been alerted to the riotous protest that had formed outside the school’s doorsand now black Africans were hurling sticks and rocks and shouts of rage at the busload of privileged little white children.
My student, the then 8-year-old boy, looked out the window just long enough to stare straight into the face of a black boy about his age. He saw in that boy’s eyes hatred, hatred for him, hatred he did not understand, hatred that frightened him. When he got home, he didn’t say to his mother, “I hate them, too! They are bad people for trying to hurt me! They should be punished!” He said to his mother, “Why can’t those children ride the bus with me?” And so began his awakening.
The essay goes on to chronicle the release of Nelson Mandela a couple of years later, Mandela’s becoming president in South Africa’s first-ever free election, the successes of the ANC, South Africa’s winning the World Cup and then being chosen as the site for a future World Cup tournament, South Africa’s earning non-permanent membership in the U.N., and yes, the joy and pride they all felt watching one of their own, Charlize Theron, win an Oscar for Best Actress. The straightforward purity of shedding shameful feelings about his homeland and growing into honestly won pride in that land was palpable as he read his story, in his strange-to-American-ears accent, to the European-, African- and Asian-American writers in the room.
I was nearly in tears by the end; not tears of grief, but of deep sympathy. Because he eventually took the essay to a conclusion of: “I am proud of my country, now. We have proved to the world that great change and transformation without going to war is possible. The world can learn this from us.” Someone asked him if that reference to solving even huge problems without going to war was meant as a sly jab at America, and we all laughed, hoping it was so. (The essayist merely grinned and kept silent.) When the air in the room had emptied of our laughter, it seemed as if we all, then, heaved a great, wistful sigheach of us, I think, deeply wished we could recapture a similar, heart-swelling pride in our country; we longed to see our country instructing the world in positive change through powerful example, instead of being reduced to a sorrowful, bitter and deadly cautionary tale of power gone wrong, at home and abroad.
If, in 1988, when apartheid still ruled the beautiful land at Africa’s southernmost tip, someone had told me I would someday have occasion to envy that country, I would have dismissed the notion as ridiculous. There is still an enormous amount of work to be done there, as here. I would still rather live here than there, and I do not envy the long generations of healing and scarring that South Africa still faces. But I must say, I do envy, even as I admire, the direction they have turned, their dedication to it, and I do wish that such a revolution of direction would happen here. Soon.