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White Beaches

January 31, 2011

It was almost midnight when Xolani came back to the guest house we were staying at in Rondebosch, in the suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa.  He had been moody all day, and when he suddenly disappeared in the late afternoon, we couldn’t help but to notice, and worry a little.  He was our cultural guide, our native Cape-tonian, but more importantly, he was our friend.  When he arrived, he came in quietly to court-yard in the back, where several of us were fitfully trying to do a little of our reading.  He sat down next to me, and I asked him where he had been.

“This beach.  It’s a place I go to when I’m upset and want to find peace.”

“I totally understand,” I began, planning on saying something inane about the soothing nature of waves crashing on the shore, but he interrupted me.

“When I was little, I went to this beach once.  It was very frightening, because I knew even when I was quite small that I wasn’t allowed to be there.  But my father was a brave man, and he wanted me to know what it felt like to be on a real beach, with sand instead of pebbles.  So he took me to this beach early in the morning, before the police or white people were out and about.  And I felt sand between my toes, and I saw the sunrise glint off the water.  But all I felt was fear, and I begged him to let us go before we got in trouble.  I could tell he was nervous too, and we left quickly.  It was a white-only beach, you understand.

“After apartheid fell, one of the first things I did was go back to that beach.  I was nine then, and stronger.  But as I set foot on the beach, I was terrified again, I began to shake.  I saw a white woman jogging down the beach in the distance and I ran off to stand on the road, where I had always been allowed to be.  But I made myself go back, and stand in the water, and feel the sun.

“I go back to that beach now when I need to find peace in myself.  Not because it is soothing.  But because my fear of that beach is something that I conquered, something that though I still feel, I can ignore and overcome.  It makes me feel like I have accomplished something; that I can be powerful.”

Don't let the rocks fool you.

Don't let the rocks fool you.

All the documents we were reading about apartheid as part of our study abroad program, all the museums we went to and plays we attended, none of them hit me in the way that Xolani’s experience did.  Suddenly apartheid and the pervasive fear that everyday children felt just existing with the wrong skin color hit me in a wave.  The fact that apartheid ended recently enough that Xolani, someone I viewed as a peer, could remember it, also hit home for the first time.

Apartheid (from the Afrikaner word meaning ‘apartness’) had been the practice in South Africa from 1948 until 1994.  It was a system through which you were labeled and treated differently depending on your skin color in a completely de jure manner; one was ‘White’, ‘Colored’, ‘Black’ or ‘Indian.’  If you were Chinese, you were in the other category of ‘Other Asian;’ if you were Japanese, you were considered white.  There was confusion over what constituted each class; for instance, there were numerous stories of families in which one child was labeled ‘Colored’ and another was labeled ‘Black.’  As the ‘races’ were separated geographically as well as socio-economically, this meant that families were torn apart.  Interracial marriage was a jail-able offense; many who committed these crimes against the “Immorality Act” were killed.

Apartheid ended in 1994 with peaceful, fair elections and Mandala’s inauguration.  Truth and Reconciliation Commission aside, It still seems a miracle to me that there wasn’t a genocide of all whites, or at least of all Afrikaners.  If I had oppressed like that, I probably would have given in to hate.  As much as I don’t want to admit it, I would have loathed the fear that the white system had instilled in the very core of my being.  I would have lashed out; I would have hated and been violent, just to prove to myself that I conquered the fear clawing inside me.

Xolani managed to do that just by taking a walk on a beach.

The name ‘Xolani’ means ‘Peace’ or ‘Please forgive’ in Zulu.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 18, 2012 3:04 AM

    Wow! I just cannot get enugoh of these breathtaking pictures. I soooo want to be there!!Thanks for posting all of these wonderful pictures up so that we can all enjoy them!Keep Posting!

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