Recent events in South Africa have compelled me to write a bit about myself, my ongoing identity crisis, my thoughts on leaving my home country, and whether I would ever return. The issues are complex, and I certainly don’t seek to provide a solution or even any startling insights! Also, I can only write from my point of view as someone who lived for the first 24 years of my life in Cape Town as a white South African, but here goes!
A White South African?
I was born in 1989, just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, after he had spent 26 years behind bars as a political prisoner. Although South Africa was only really “free” in 1994, I attended co-ed, multi-racial schools and had interactions and friendships with children of different races. I knew I was white, obviously, but it meant very little to me at the time. My generation, and those after, were seen as the “Born Frees” – those born in the free, Democratic South Africa.
I am a 3rd generation white South African, but my roots are very unclear. My grandparents and parents were born in South Africa, except for my grandmother (my father’s mother), who was born in Exeter, UK, to an Irish mother. I know I have distant ties to Ireland and England, but I have never felt a true link to the UK, or Europe. I have distant Afrikaans ancestors but I know even less about them. I was always just “South African”, or so I thought.
I understand now that privilege is blinding, but as a child and young adult I had to learn, slowly, about my “place” in Africa. I don’t know why my ancestors left the Northern Hemisphere to come all the way to the tip of Africa – whether they were adventurers, travellers, entrepreneurs, or whether they were poor or criminals or seeking another life. I don’t know whose blood runs in my veins – I don’t have a clear family history or a family crest or strict cultural traditions, besides a few English ones that I wasn’t aware were “English” until visiting the UK!
I found all of this fascinating as a teen, although I certainly feel horror and shame at what my ancestors most likely had done during Colonialism, and Apartheid. I felt distanced from the grim racial history of South Africa, until I started travelling abroad, and I saw how people viewed South Africans:
Why are you white? I thought Africans were black!
Don’t be silly, you are DEFINITELY not African! I mean, not “African”…
South Africans are so obsessed with race, every South African I know is a racist!
I started to feel quite unsettled, and properly confused. I call it my Identity Crisis – especially seeing as I am not Afrikaans, and so I don’t have a culture that was “born” in my country. Most of the time I am simply bewildered when it comes to a National, cultural, or racial identity – I’m not African in race or history or culture, not European or British, not a “real African” despite being born in Africa, not anything really, besides ME. In my recent trip to Rome I met a 7th generation Roman – that’s pretty much as Italian as you can get! 😉 And it was just so bizarre and fascinating to me! Similarly, that the Rabbiosi family (my husband’s name) has a birthplace and a family crest is so special. I, however, have always been a kind of “citizen of the world” – belonging both everywhere, and nowhere.
South African Racial Tensions in 2015/2016
Which makes it hella confusing for me when reading about race debates, like the current Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement that is prevalent in several major South African universities.
Quick explanation about RMF –
During Colonial times, the University of Cape Town (and others) were founded, built, and funded by Cecil John Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 – 1899. He wasn’t exactly a progressive thinker, despite founding UCT and giving the Rhodes Scholarship as his legacy:
“the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works in India, in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa”. … If the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall be thankful that we have the natives with us in their proper position.”
So, we have a university founded by a colonial racist, which today offers scholarships to black students who were previously disadvantaged by Apartheid. Can you see the problem? In a total decolonisation, every artefact of colonialism would need to be destroyed, including infrastructure and universities. This is certainly not a new thought or a sudden radical movement – city names have been changed over the years, as have road names, and affirmative action is also in place in South Africa.
The main catalyst for RMF was the petitioning for the Rhodes statue to be removed from the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus. Then, a student protest against rising tertiary education fees gained a 0% increase. Currently, there are protests about the price of student housing, and racial divides between what is seen as “white privilege” at universities.
The current issue seems insurmountable. There are centuries of trauma, rage, and fear that have been festering like an abscess. It gets drained every now and again, to placate the people, but at present it seems fit to burst.
An Immigrant Abroad
So, as a white South African living abroad, who do I support? What can I do?
I support social and psychological decolonisation wholeheartedly, but I also support the preservation of history, even if it is horrific. I support equal rights for all races, but I’m also white, which comes with a lot of negative labels and the evil ever-looming PRIVILEGE.
Add the fact that I live in Europe, and BAM! Identity crisis overload.
I left South Africa for love – my boyfriend, now husband, is a German citizen (born in Kenya to an Italian father and German mother) who couldn’t find work in South Africa, and so he moved to Germany. We got married to stay together – I’m an immigrant, I married a German citizen to stay with him in Germany, I visit the Ausländerbehörde (Alien’s Office) to renew my visa, my visa gets checked even when I travel within the EU with my German residence permit. I certainly don’t feel “at home” in Northern Europe! Similarly, I have a good understanding of British culture, but I could never “be” British.
I feel caught between identities, and cultures, and this makes me feel utterly powerless when it comes to making a difference in South Africa. If only “Africans” can heal and change Africa, do I have no place? Can white allies exist?
Perhaps, as somewhat of an outsider, I can reflect on the situation with a bit more objectivity. It seems that the ugly, traumatic psychological legacy of Colonialism and Apartheid is deep-rooted in most young South Africans today. And it’s in all people – not just in black South Africans!
Shame and guilt, or vehement racism, or apathy, or the lingering “colonisation of the mind” is rife. It’s an awful mess, and with no reliable political (or even religious!) leaders to look up to, the battle is currently playing out at a tertiary education level.
Where to now?
So for now, I watch from afar, I hear things from my friends and family in South Africa, I watch the cellphone footage of students fighting at the Varsity Cup (rugby), and I worry about the future. At this point in time I honestly don’t know if I could make a decision whether to return or not, but I haven’t ruled it out! My husband and I are not ready to settle in one country yet (Italy is still in our dreams), and so I suppose only time will tell!
I do love my home country, and I watch it now with hope and also a lot of pain. My heart goes out to those fighting for what they believe in, and those who are simply trying to get on with life.
If you want to read about the RMF movement, opinions from South Africans who are witnessing the events or are part of them, or just keep up with current events, here are some great resources: