Ruth looks back on her journey from apartheid South Africa.
Recorded 24 June 2020 in St Mary’s Secret Garden, Hackney.
The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota has shocked the world over. Once again a black person is brutalised by the police in America. This racist attitude of police happens in the UK as well – by the people who are meant to be there to protect us as citizens.
The anti-racist protests of young people today reminded me of the Soweto riots in South Africa in 1976, when the young people rioted against the apartheid regime for its brutal inhumane racist policies inflicted on the black population.
Lockdown through COVID-19 has given us the time to reflect. I was born and lived under the apartheid government of South Africa until I was 21. They were white supremacists that governed and segregated the population according to their colour. 50 million black people – the indigenous population – lived in shanty towns. 4 million coloureds were further segregated by ethnicity. My Indian friend at school had to be registered and accounted for annually. Indians were regarded as the merchant class, so their wealth was monitored by the government. The white and non-white population lived on opposite sides of the railway line to segregate us under the Group Areas Act. We travelled at the back of the bus, or on second and third class coaches of the trains.
I am the fifth generation of my family, born out of the slave trading that came from the east through the Dutch East India Company. My ancestry is African, Indonesian, Dutch and German
Apartheid was dehumanising and brutal. My father and grandfather’s generation suffered the most. They went out to work where they were further humiliated on a daily basis. I was lucky to come from a very supportive family.
I hated the country I came from. I was politicised at an early age thankfully by the teachers at my school. I saw that there were better places to live in, outside of South Africa. We had political activists murdered like Steve Biko, or imprisoned like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. We had the Sharpeville and Langa riots. Our next door neighbour was imprisoned on Robben Island for being politically active.
We wanted a better society to live in. I couldn’t see myself living under apartheid for the rest of my life. So the energy and sense of adventure that comes with youth, I planned to work for my flight and pocket money after getting my school education to leave the country for London.
My parents could not have afforded to send me abroad. At that time Barclays Bank started employing young coloured girls to improve their bad reputation on race relations in South Africa. So I worked there for 18 months.
I came to London and found freedom of choice. I fell in love with the city. In the UK, sport organisations were boycotting playing in South Africa.
People in the UK were persuaded to boycott wine and the Outspan oranges from South Africa. There was political and economic upheaval, and over time the racist government couldn’t afford apartheid any more, so they had to engage with the jailed political leaders.
When Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, I was living in London then. I sat at the edge of my bed and wept. I could now be proud of the place of my birth.
“History was never white. White is a metaphor for power” – James Baldwin, from the documentary film I am not your Negro.