Christmas & the End of Segregation image

Christmas & the End of Segregation

A few days back I posted some musings prompted by the death of Nelson Mandela. As well as that somewhat tangential post, Mandela’s death has caused me to reminisce about my experiences as a teenager in South Africa in 1988-89, and the extraordinary changes that nation has been through.

Perhaps the single most striking moment in my journey of discovery into the realities of apartheid was on a short train journey I took one day. I was staying in Kenilworth, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town and would catch the train into the city centre. I did not have much money and was not fussy about the quality of carriage I would be in, so on this occasion asked for a third class ticket at the ticket booth, rather than the normal first class. (Thinking back, I’m not even sure there was a second class option, which should have been a clue in itself of what I was about to experience.) By this stage, many of the most obvious signs of ‘petty’ apartheid had vanished, especially in liberal Cape Town. There were no signs on the train saying ‘Whites Only’ but the apartheid realities were still there: First class was for whites, third class for everyone else.

Arriving at Cape Town I walked to the ticket barrier, not even noticing that those who had been in the same carriage as me were not walking with me. At the ticket barrier my ticket was checked, and I was told I had to leave the station by the exit at the other end of the platform. This seemed ridiculous. Why did I have to walk to the other end of the platform? This was the exit! But the ticket inspector was insistent, and around I turned. In fairness to the (white) ticket inspector, this was an interesting example in colour blindness, as he could very easily have ignored my third class ticket on observing my white skin and let me through. But had he done so, I would not have had my apartheid wake up call.

The exit I had expected to leave the platform by led into a shopping mall that was by any standards western and ‘first-world’. The exit I was directed towards was thoroughly African. It genuinely felt a different world. There were no other white faces in evidence, and hawkers and traders were spread around selling their wares – something that was certainly not the case at the first class exit! This was not the South Africa I had so far experienced, but it was real.

What I saw that day was the incredible efficiency with which apartheid segregated the races. It did it in such a way that most of the white population were, for most of the time, not even aware it was happening. This was made clear when I spoke to Capetonians who had no idea that this ‘third class’ world existed at the station – I don’t think any of my white friends knew it was there, despite all being liberal (in the South African sense of the word), Christian, and anti-apartheid. Why would they? They were white, which meant they always travelled first class. I think they all just assumed that those (black) passengers in the third class carriages followed them out at the front of the station. It was as if there were two parallel universes, and unwittingly I had fallen through the looking glass.

In 2005 I was at a conference in Bloemfontein. I hadn’t been to South Africa many times since the end of apartheid and it was with some alarm that I heard a group of Zimbabweans at the conference were going into town for some food. In my mind, Bloemfontein was a bastion of apartheid, an Afrikaner stronghold, and restaurants were still segregated. I went with my Zimbabwean friends but felt genuine apprehension as we piled into a steakhouse together. I needn’t have worried – there was no issue. Black and white were both eating in the restaurant, and both being treated with equal courtesy. There were no separate entrances and exits. There were no reserved areas, subtly preserving segregation, no first class or third class. For me, few things could have spoken more loudly about the radical change South Africa had undergone.

Nelson Mandela has been lauded as the leader who made such a transformation possible, and in many ways that is a correct assessment. But the reality of apartheid-era South Africa stands as a picture of the segregation that happens in every heart; what C.S. Lewis described to a group of students as the phenomenon of the inner ring – the sense that there is a club to which we want to belong, but cannot be admitted; or to which we are admitted, only to find that there is another club to enter yet:

It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it, this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this: Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.

Lewis advised how to escape this self-destructive pursuit of the inner ring:

To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “I nsides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction. It is like the house in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

On that day in Cape Town I felt as though I had fallen through the looking glass. Nelson Mandela looked through the glass and took the long walk to freedom. But Jesus is the one who tore down the dividing wall of separation and has ushered us into his presence. In Christ we find that we are truly ‘in’ and all segregation is banished. And that is what we celebrate this Christmas time.


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