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Stories behind Words: South African

south africanIn the 1980s when I was at one of the very few ‘non-racial’ schools in the country, the word South African hung like a stone around my neck. We were all living in some kind of sin by association and although we were always surrounded by good people fighting a good cause, there was still a stink of shame in the air. At 18 I left the country and came to England. The English were (bless them) not exactly wild about white South Africans. People sometimes thought I was from New Zealand and so New Zealand became my adoptive country. I’d never been there but I sure as hell was from there now.

In 1994 the first open election was held in South Africa and I had just turned 19. It was the first time there was a reason to vote – I remember my mom saying she would never vote until she could vote ANC. I wasn’t very political but that day was something else. My friends and I went to vote in London, we had ANC colours painted on our cheeks. Nelson Mandela was going to be the new president, and he was black, black! What was that weird feeling fluttering away in my gut … was it pride? White South African pride? That was new.

It’s hard to fully understand the miracle that Mandela enacted by maintaining peace in this period. That year I went to visit a friend who came from a decidedly ‘right-wing-racist-but-we-mean-well’ sort of family. At some point in the evening my friend’s father sat back in his chair and said: ‘Mandela is a good man.’ I had no doubt that that was the first time he’d used the word man when speaking about (or to) a black man. I was in awe at the fact that one man had been able to so fully affect another human being’s outlook without ever having met him. That was real power. And that power came from a South African. The feeling of shame in the word slowly started to ebb away.

Now, only 20 years or so later the word South African is no longer a stone. South African has come to symbolise change, liberalism, flexibility – of course there are problems; issues like racism and poverty don’t disappear overnight, but the initial ‘Rainbow Nation’ idealism appears to have given birth to a vital, motivated, self-correcting next generation of South Africans. And I’m no longer a Kiwi.

About Laine Redpath Cole
Laine is the social media marketing person for Macmillan Dictionary Online. She freelances from Brighton and Hove actually.

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