To have lived as a white person in South Africa during the apartheid years was to have lived with a poisoned gift. Having been born into a Jewish family who made their home there, I became the beneficiary of a system which accorded me privilege and protection by virtue of my status as a white person. All other aspects of my identity, including my Jewishness, were of lesser significance when it came to rights and opportunities. The poison lay in my awareness that I was profiting from an iniquitous system and that those who were not white were consigned to a life of perpetual servitude and degradation.
The descendants of the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652 were swept into positions of dominance by the tide of history and became obsessed with the belief that their superior power lay in the fact that they belonged to the white race, with all its attendant cultural trappings. Race, they believed, was the main factor which should determine a people’s right to govern and lead a fulfilled life. Consequently, they embraced all other whites and fought to exclude those with dark skins (which meant the vast majority of the population) from exercising that right and having an equal share in the country’s prosperity.
So I came to be the beneficiary of an unjust society. The poisonous nature of the gift expressed itself in the harm done to my social development by the mixed messages I was constantly picking up. The black servants who looked after me were warm, friendly people, yet they were being brusquely ordered about by my mother and dismissively treated when it came to wages and working conditions. Their children could never be my friends and my classmates and teachers were all white.
The cruelty inherent in the apartheid system came to me before I could formulate any thoughts on injustice and inequality. Like most children, I could feel suffering in others, but I also had a child’s ability to shut out those feelings, especially since my parents never talked about the plight of black people. I simply assumed that ‘we’ and ‘they’ were of different worlds and that there was a social order in which our lives and theirs followed different trajectories. We were Jewish and had our own problems to contend with, even within the superficially friendly envelope of white society. They, ‘the blacks’, had their problems, which were really none of our business.
My grandparents had emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa early in the twentieth century. Advance parties made up of trusted relatives had scouted the terrain and sent back word that here was a potential haven from persecution and a land of opportunity, so my grandparents set sail, with my parents in tow as little children. They left behind the menace of antisemitic Europe and escaped the tragic fate which awaited those of their loved ones who had stayed on.
Many of the newly arrived Jews fanned out into the interior of the vast country, establishing congregations and finding ways of earning profitable livelihoods. My mother’s early years were spent in a dorp (small town) quaintly named Aberdeen, which was situated in a hot, dry region of the Cape Province. My father’s parents settled further north, in Benoni, a mining town not far from Johannesburg, where my grandfather, an orthodox Jewish scholar, taught at a religious seminary. My father trained as a teacher and worked his way through the system of Christian National Education to become headmaster of a primary school in Johannesburg. My mother became a piano teacher and both my sister and I reaped the benefit of first class schooling and a university education in an all-white environment.
Within the white stratum, I straddled two worlds. At home, we were immersed in Jewish culture. Candlesticks, a menorah and a blue-and-white JNF collection box adorned our entrance hall and there were Jewish books aplenty on our shelves. My parents frequently conversed in Yiddish and my father taught me to read Hebrew. We were not too concerned about religious observance, however. The Passover meal was a highlight, the Sabbath candles were regularly lit and we visited the local synagogue on the High Holy days, but that was about the extent of it. At school I mingled happily with Jewish and gentile children alike and became friends with both.
Black society impinged only marginally on my life. Black people lived far away when they were not working for us, and spoke a strange language among themselves, which at one point I tried to master, but there was no reinforcement for my efforts, either at home or at school. The spoken languages we were taught in the classroom were English and Afrikaans. To the servants I was ‘the young master’. Black men were addressed as ‘boy’ and a black maidservant was referred to as ‘the girl’.
Like most of my family I was strongly Zionistic. I knew about the fate of European Jewry and was widely enough read in Jewish history to reach the conclusion that the key to a truly safe life was to build a country of our own. My maternal grandfather saw South Africa simply as a staging post on the journey to the Jewish National Home. To secure our destiny he purchased a plot of land in what was then Palestine and wrote into his will the condition that only those of his children who settled there would be eligible to inherit his property.
Between the ages of six and thirteen my social life was much influenced by Zionism. The Israeli flag was imprinted in my mind as an emblematic icon and I followed with partisan eagerness news of the military struggles which enmeshed the new state. At the same time, being a political animal, I followed events in South Africa with equal emotional investment. I knew, as did most of my Jewish friends, that there could be no long term future in a land where the entrenched domination of the white race was enforced with a forest of increasingly repressive legislation. Secretly, I rooted for the rise of black nationalism, just as a child watching a movie hopes to see the redress of injustice and the triumph of good over evil. But what would happen to me and my family when that day arrived?
Just as my grandfather’s generation had done, my friends and their families adopted different solutions this quandary. Many packed their bags and emigrated, some to Israel, others to prosperous Anglophone countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain. Some remained in South Africa, either in a spirit of optimism that a new era would dawn or because of inescapable family responsibilities. Whichever solution was chosen, the poison which permeated the gift was never entirely washed out of our systems.