The plane was a 747 – a jumbo jet – and it left Frankfurt airport in the afternoon. This was my first flight ever and it truly had everything about it that could make someone hate flying.
First of all it was a long flight. Almost 12 hours.
Back then smoking was still allowed on planes and while we sat in the non-smoking zone you had a vague smell of smoke everywhere. I didn’t find that too annoying. My mother was a smoker. My grandfather was a smoker. I was very much used to cigarette smoke.
And much later in life I started to smoke myself and I blame Santa Claus for it, but that’s another story of personal stupidity and perhaps I’ll share it another day.
We went through heavy weather that night including a nasty lightning storm and some hefty turbulences. It was a troublesome flight but to me it was an adventure. And I still love flying today, even after many dozens of flights.
The main reason today perhaps is that on a plane you don’t have control over your life. You are in the hands of the pilots and – some might argue more so – the machine. And you are stuck to your seat and even mobile phones are not allowed. You are as much alone with yourself and your own thoughts as you ever can be these days.
It might be at least part of the reason for my love of the Outdoors. I love being alone with myself from time to time.
But back then I was very young. There were no mobile phones or notebooks yet. I was looking forward to go to that country where there were lions. And cheetahs. And zebras and elephants.
I had working school English back then. I was a good and eager student when it came to languages and I was able to read English books. Sometimes I needed a dictionary to look up the occasional word.
As the sun rose again beneath us there was a great mountain range all covered in the magical red of the first few rays. It was like we flew over some land of magic. It seemed untouched and so pure to me.
A little while later we landed in Johannesburg where we had to wait for our connection flight to Durban.
We were guided to the correct gate by Lufthansa personnel and sat down.
And I think while we sat there I saw what was not the first black men in my life. But perhaps the first time I saw black people just doing a job. There were two black men in grey overalls cleaning the huge windows. It was almost hypnotic to watch them. At the same time I was too polite to watch anyone for any amount of time.
You see, up to this point the only black persons I had known were a guy from Togo who had married a German nurse, a colleague of my mother. And a dentist. I liked the dentist. I didn’t so much like the guy from Togo. When we visited he often drank too much and he treated his wife like a personal slave. Which was something that conflicted with my views of how women and men should share household duties.
And before anyone gets out-raged here and now, I don’t say all men from Togo are like that. These are the sentences I hate to write, but with the current climate I feel some explanations might be in order from time to time.
True, I had also seen a few black people there and then in Hannover, but I had never been to a country where the color scheme would be put on it’s head – from my perspective at least – and black people were predominant. And I still hadn’t, as I would soon find out.
The flight to Durban was a quick one and we were picked up by my aunt.
She and my uncle had left Germany many years ago. My uncle worked as a mechanic. My aunt was a hair stylist. She still works at her job today.
I was always somewhat in awe about my uncle. He would wake up early in the morning, grab his surfboard and be out hunting the waves for a few hours. He’d then go to work and in the evening it was snooker or squash. I actually learned playing squash from him and my cousin.
He also looked like a god. Fit and ready for anything. And he was funny.
I also liked my aunt and it was her that guided me through my first days in South Africa.
In Durban we lived about here. (Now, even if you don’t like this article, don’t pester people there. Times change and people move.)
It doesn’t look like much from above, but at least back then it was a pretty mid-level apartment quarter. With a nice beach and beach restaurants close by. A lot of palm trees.
And I started to learn right after the first step we took into the apartment building. Starting with the fact that there were separate elevators for black and white people.
That there was a uniformed porter watching the entry doors at all times. Things I had never seen before.
My aunt and uncle had hired a black maid and she would do most of the shopping, a lot of the cooking. Washing. She was a a middle aged woman and of course she didn’t live close by. She traveled to Durban every day by bus.
You must remember what Apartheid meant. It meant segregation of the races. The word is Afrikaans but I think anyone can grasp it’s meaning.
Apartheid was visible everywhere. It was almost ironic. The whole goal was to separate the races – and subjugate the black population -, but at the price of always being aware of it.
So many of the beaches would have signs like this one:
And there were buses solely for whites. And buses for black people. I once traveled with one of the buses for black people. I never did again as someone offered me a seat in the quite full bus. And I got a lot of silent stares.
Because – you see – I wasn’t trained to make such racial differences. I had learned that all humans are equal. That I owed respect to everyone. As long as they treated me the same way.
I found the separation based on skin color a very silly thing. And of course I wasn’t alone.
There were a lot of boycotts against South Africa in place back then. The majority of countries definitely didn’t take easy on the Apartheid system.
There was no international court in place yet so boycotts and part-time embargos were the only way South Africa could be pressured from the outside.
And a typical discussion with many – and I say many, not all – white people about the situation would often go something like this:
“If it weren’t for the white people here, they would kill each other, tribe against tribe! We give them order and peace.”
“If all white people left tomorrow, this country would be in ruins in a week. Black people don’t know about economy.”
There were a lot of white people who saw things differently of course. But the general gist was that Apartheid wasn’t such a bad idea, because: “Just look at the neighboring countries where they expelled the whites!”
I didn’t believe it, but there was really nothing I could do about it either.
One thing that was true at the time was that it was quite dangerous to get out alone outside the cities.
The segregation worked both ways and the risk to end up with a burning car wheel over your shoulders (the way of murder en vogue at the time) was very real for a white person.
And of course “the blacks” was an almost friendly term. Niggers or more frequently kaffers/kafirs was what you heard many call them.
There is a little grain of truth though in even the most outrageous claims sometimes.
South Africa was better off back then than many neighboring countries and they had to fight a wave of illegal immigration because of it. There were also your exceptions to the rule. Certain black South Africans became TV or movie stars. And quite some also studied or had high profile education.
I would meet a lot years later when I studied myself.
Some owned their own farmland. And there were friendships between black & white people. Despite all.
During my time in South Africa I learned two things.
I learned what a beautiful, magnificent country South Africa is. With a great number of interesting people from all kinds of cultural heritages.
I’d love to go back there, even live there, any time. Although times aren’t the best at the moment, I hear.
And in the South Africa back then, I learned what true and systematic racism was about.
Nelson Mandela later always spoke of the Rainbow Nation. He spoke of forgiveness.
Of course there also was a tactical calculation behind it. The white South Africans were still in control of the army, the greater part of the industry, the bureaucracy when he became president. So he took measures to not take away their culture or drive them away. (Clint Eastwood has made a fascinating homage to Nelson Mandela with his movie “Invictus”. If you haven’t watched it, you definitely should!)
But: If Mandela’s dream one day comes true and people of all skin colors and heritages can live in peace in South Africa, it would be a great beacon of hope.
We are definitely not there yet. Meanwhile this article has grown long enough as it is.
Perhaps I’ll write a follow up later, if I see some interest on the topic.
„Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa South Afrika—South Afrika.“