Chibundu Onuzo | Longreads | July 2018 | 17 minutes (4,340 words)
The invitation was for a literary festival in Durban. I had never heard of Durban. Only Johannesburg and Cape Town, but I knew South Africa like I knew my grandfather who died before I was born. If he walked into a room, I would recognize his voice and the cut of his suit from the stories my mother had told me.
I knew Mandela for the icon that he was. His image dangling from a leather chain. Mandela on a flag, fluttering. Mandela on a T-shirt, stretched across two pectorals. The man smiled and his eyes disappeared behind the smile. His teeth looked strong. Twenty-seven years without a dentist. A miracle.
I knew something of the struggle against apartheid. Growing up, our video collection was small. We watched Sarafina and Sister Act 2 until the images were blurred by gray static. Whoopi Goldberg played the lead in both movies, cast twice as an inspirational teacher. Sarafina was grimmer than the second Sister Act but only by a few shades. An African township versus an American inner city. Either way, almost everyone was musical and black.
I knew a few South Africans. After I’d moved to England, I met them in London. They were young, white, healthy, educated, and in exile from black South Africa. They couldn’t get jobs in their country. They couldn’t get the jobs they felt they deserved. For some, scions of wealthy land-owning or mine-owning families, their stay in England was to gain “international exposure” in a multinational company, to mark time before they took over the family business. For others, their exile was permanent. There was no place for them in a South Africa, where they would no longer automatically be at the front of the queue. Any bad news from home was met with a sort of schadenfreude. It was proof that they had been right to leave. The country was going to the dogs under black rule.
I was hostile when I met these white South Africans. It wasn’t my land, but it was my struggle, as it was the struggle of the thousands of black Africans who had donated financially to the anti-apartheid cause. The grievance was ours.