Apartheid /əˈpɑrteɪt : state of being apart

Charlee Biel was born into the apartheid system and grew up knowing what he could and couldn’t do without having to even think about it.  Neither black or white, racism was just a part of his life and he shares some of life under apartheid with us.

The apartheid system was a kind of norm for us.  We always knew there were certain beaches that we could not walk on, certain parks we could not play in.  At the train stations, we had to walk past the first class section with its benches and ‘whites only’ signs to get to the third class end.  And if a white person got in your way, it didn’t matter if they were in the wrong, you would step back, give way, apologise…  That was the norm.

The strange thing about all this, I realized as I thought about what I would share, is that my first run in with racism was in a black township. Gugulethu.

My grandfather was a pastor.  He was based at the Riverside campus in the Good Hope Conference.  On the campus is the Conference Office, a church, hall and school.  I would go with Pa after school each Tuesday and Thursday, in the Meals on Wheels van to deliver food to some poverty stricken areas, renown for being the home to dangerous gangs.  But Pa was not afraid.   He would calmly greet the gang members and walk on by with the food parcels, deliver them with a prayer and a word of encourage, and we’d be on our way.

We had been in and out of Gugulethu numerous times.  At one of the homes we regularly delivered to, I befriended one of the kids there.  This particular afternoon, I asked if I could stay to play with my friend until Pa had finished with his deliveries.  Pa agreed and left us playing in the street, kicking a soccer ball.  Soon we were surrounded by about ten very upset African women, screaming at us in Xhosa.  I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but some of them were pointing at me.  Soon there was another group of people behind me, also talking loudly in Xhosa back at them.  A few minutes later, the scene had settled and my friend was able to explain.

The first group of women were angry with me, a white boy, in Gugulethu.  They were angry with him, a black boy, for playing with and entertaining a white boy, for bringing me into Gugulethu!  The situation was resolved when it was explained to them that I was the kid of the Meals on Wheels van, helping the hungry folks.  Viva, Meals on Wheels, Viva!

In the mid 1980’s, the streets of Athlone in Cape Town were a mess.  The fight against apartheid was on, and school kids were rioting all over the place.  I attended church school but as my parents both worked, I did not see them until after 6pm at night and MY entire afternoon was influenced and controlled by MY friends.  My time at the coloured primary school had come to and end, and my parents wanted me to attend a white school about seven kilometres away from home.  The school could have a small percentage of non-whites attending without losing government subsidies.

It was all about blending in – something the white families never needed to consider.  My parents sent pictures of what I looked like to the school, to make sure I did not look dark.  And the dichotomy that was my teen years began.

During the day, I attended school with white students who were now my friends, taught by white teachers who were pretty cool and nice to me.  And during my afternoons, on the streets of Athlone, I was learning to rebel against the white man, to hate him.  I took part in the riots, throwing a stone or two with the best of them.

But I soon realised how messed up this was.

The coloured schools, which taught a different syllabus and had holiday breaks at different times to the white schools, were striking and rioting.  Any kids caught going to school were street punished.  My parents had a big problem on their hands.  How were they supposed to get me to school?  In my ‘white school’ uniform, and with my ‘white school’ books it was not safe for me to walk to and wait at the bus stop.  My school allowed me to dress casually, not to carry my text books back and forth to school, and to arrive late, missing the peak travel time for school hours.

What did I learn from all this, that could even be applied today… here in Melbourne?

The people in the streets of Athlone had no idea really, about white people.  Yes they were oppressed.  They were given an education, but it was different to that of whites.  Yes they could ‘make something’ of themselves – I have an uncle who became a doctor – but even making something of themselves came with rules – that same uncle had to leave the country to become a surgeon.

The kids in the streets of Athlone were opposing apartheid.  The system.  And when it came to whites, they were programmed to believe all whites were the same.  But they did not know them.  The ‘whites’.  I had experienced something different.  I experienced acceptance, compromise, kindness.  And I had also experienced hatred at the hands of the ‘blacks’ in Gugulethu.  And fear at their hands when faced with the difficulties of getting to school in the streets of Athlone.

It was the system of apartheid and the way that all sides accepted different elements of it, that perpetuated the differences and misunderstandings and perceptions of racism at its very basest.

My Pa, who had fearlessly faced the gangs of Gugulethu, fearlessly took on our church leaders too, when he believed they were conforming to the unfair system.

Lets all of us look beyond the ‘systems’ of our own perceptions, preconceived ideas and stereotypes.  And see each other – really see each other.  Who we are, our similarities, our differences. How we have ourselves become trapped in the expectations of these systems.  And fearlessly call it as it is, when we see inequality and bias, rather than perpetuating it.