There were two reasons I left the anti-apartheid movement in Norway in the late 80s, soon before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid was dismantled as South Africa’s form of government. The most obvious reason was that apartheid’s days clearly were numbered. There was another reason, too, that evolved as I grappled with my own White South African heritage, changing who I understand myself to be, how I understand God to be at work in this world, and what it means to me to accept God’s invitation to participate in birthing the new Creation. Because of what I learned, I felt personally called away from working by political means and instead started to seek spiritual solutions, and the Religious Society of Friends became my home. 

As it became clearer that apartheid was coming to an end, I started to hear more anger and judgment of Whites in South Africa. Some of my Norwegian buddies in the movement (not so much the South Africans) seemed to joyfully anticipate a time of reckoning for Whites in South Africa, when Whites would pay for what they had done. 

Although I had a lot of anger with the South African government myself, my feelings when considering White South Africans were much more complicated. My father, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is a White South African who left his home and family because of his resistance to apartheid. I thought of his parents, my Ouma and Oupa, and the time when they stood on the South Africa side of the soundproof glass wall at Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg. On the other side, the international transit side of the glass wall, stood my father, my mother, my brother and myself when I was about 7 years old. On either side of the glass divide we stood, pressing our hands against the glass, mouthing words that we hoped those on the other side might understand, until it was time for us to get on the plane to Botswana. The South African government did not allow us into South Africa until Oupa died, almost 20 years after my father left his home country. 

All these years later, as apartheid was drawing to an end, I thought about my divided South African family, about half of them supporting apartheid and benefiting financially from it, and the other half opposing it, at some personal cost to themselves. The separations, conflicts, and emotional costs to my family was, of course, of a different order of magnitude than the price that Black families paid. Nonetheless, apartheid was not a good thing for my father and anyone who loved him.

I also remembered my times together with my South African grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc when they came to visit us in Botswana or Norway, and ultimately in South Africa itself. Many stories come to mind to convey the many layers of how at least some White South Africans functioned within the apartheid system, but I will simply summarize my knowledge in this way: my (White) family members in South Africa are not very different from most people I know.

Most people I have ever met are the same – we are all trying to do the right thing, and we are all limited by our experiences and surroundings. Depending on our personality, character, and God’s grace, we are more or less able to transcend the limitations of our circumstances. People just don’t wake up in the morning trying to figure out how they can do the most harm to some other person. No-one does that – not even those who inflict the greatest damage. I say this not to excuse or diminish the importance of the damage that is done, damage that people I love have done, or damage that I myself have unwittingly done to others. Quite the contrary. I say this because of what it means for how we do the vital work of repairing the wounds that are inflicted and how we can succeed at preventing future diminishment, injury, or death of any child, woman or man – every one of us God’s Beloved.

But I didn’t feel I could talk about the humanity of White South Africans to my Norwegian buddies. While I saw humanity in White South Africans, I also hated them at some level, and that hatred included my own self. I grew up painfully self-conscious about my white skin because it made me different from everyone else as a child in Botswana. In Norway my skin made me look like I should belong there, but I didn’t feel at home in Norway. I wished my skin would declare to everyone that my insides were African, not Norwegian. I rarely confessed to my South African ancestry out of tremendous guilt at being associated with what White South Africans had done over the centuries. I disliked my own white skin, and I think I was afraid my anti-apartheid buddies would dislike my Whiteness as much as I myself did. 

Amazingly, forgiveness and a warm welcome into a better future were promised to me and all my White South African relatives by Black South African liberation theology and church leaders like Desmond Tutu and Frank Chikane. I could never expect or require any Black South African to love and forgive after what they have experienced, and yet many do. They were the ones who gave White South Africans our humanity back. Can you imagine how sweet their forgiveness is, and how deliciously humbled I feel to have been given my soul’s freedom back by the ones who suffered so much?

Understanding myself to be both a victim of apartheid and a beneficiary, I was strongly drawn to the Quaker belief of “that of God in every person”. I was drawn to the Quaker way of reaching out to the “enemy” in which we work for peace and change by seeking to nurture the Seed of God in those we seek to change. My experience tells me that even those who have more power have some knowledge of suffering, and this knowledge gives hope. Their suffering is a potential source of compassion for those whom they have harmed. Nurturing the Seed, to me, is just another way of stating Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemy”. Knowing the sweetness of being forgiven and accepted, it was clear to me that my pro-apartheid family members would be far more likely to change if they could trust that they would be forgiven and be given a chance to do the right thing. It is a truly amazing thing to be able to promise to wrong-doers that they, too, will get a taste of the same sweet forgiveness and delicious humility that I have known, if they will just lay down their resistance to Truth. This approach to peacemaking is one of the more powerful aspects of Quakerism for me and hold the keys to the Truth about God. This love and forgiveness can only be the workings of God’s amazing grace and it brings me to my knees. Can this be what Jesus’ death and resurrection are about? 

Query for prayerful consideration:

What were the forces at work within me as I was drawn to Quakerism?