Life as a White South African Under Apartheid
Jenny Dodd, is the owner of Bohemian Lofts hostel in Observatory, Cape Town. Originally from the UK, Jenny lived through the era of apartheid in South Africa and as such has many inciteful stories to share. So, on 11th of July, early morning, while everyone in the hostel was still asleep and the air was still foggy and cold, I sat for an interview with Jenny at her desk, prepared for a long and interesting talk about her experience in this country of contrasts.
How would you describe your life during apartheid times? How was it being a white South African?
I was a child when we came here to South Africa; I was about 4-5 years old. My parents are British. So I arrived in this country as a child not knowing what apartheid was. My parents had come over here from England to better themselves, because I come from a very poor background. So they had come here to set up home and their lives. And as a white South African, as a child, I did not realize that there were no black children in my school, because I had never seen a black child in a school with me, so I did not realize that there should be. It was normal for me. You would walk down the street and I guessed there were black people around, but at a certain time of day they had to leave these areas. My mother still remembers in Bloemfontein, which was a very Afrikaans area, being in the city center at around 5-6 o’clock in the evening, and a siren would go off and it was to tell all the black people that they needed to get out of the city – they had to go home now! Again, as a child what would you understand about it?
I also lived at the farm for a while, and as a kid played with farm workers’ children, who were classified as colored. We had a great time. But teachers called my parents then, because the Afrikaans that I was learning, that was German-Dutch, was wrong. I was picking it up from those boys, and it was called “kitchen Afrikaans,” so I was speaking their slang. And the teachers wanted to know where I was learning this from and my parents answered, “well, she plays with the kids,” and the teachers asked me to stop playing with them. I don’t know why, whether it was language, or that I was playing with kids of color.
So it did not affect me directly. Growing up, I will be honest with you, my father was not one of the most liberal people, I loved him, but I did not necessarily like his beliefs. He was more on the side of apartheid. For my mother all were one and the same. Growing up in my house I definitely did not have any interaction with black people. But my father at the same time had black friends. So it was a very odd situation.
As a teen, I actually moved to Cape Town. We lived in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein when I was a child. We came to Cape Town, when I was sixteen. Cape Town has always been a more liberal setting. I was put into Cape Town High, which is in the city center, and there was already a slight mix of children, but very quietly, because it was sort of under the radar. And I finally realized that was happening in the country, because we had some really good teachers. Those teachers were very liberal, and they were trying to fight against the white men’s perspective. They were trying to help get rid of the apartheid system, which was also very difficult. A lot of black people did not like white people trying to help.
So it was a different time, when I arrived in Cape Town. It was also times when army service was compulsory. We were also trying to end conscription, so there were a lot of things happening in South Africa. It was in 1981-82.
There were things said amongst the white people as well, it was not just a black fight. I think it was maybe my generation, because we were growing up and starting to see what we had not been shown previously. Because you must understand that the newspapers, the TV, and radio were controlled; firstly by the church, and then by the government. They were connected. We did not see what the outside world was seeing. At this time I got involved in the protests, minor ones – I was not very adventurous. But I realized that we needed to do something – so we handed out pamphlets. During that time as well if you were a group of ten or more, it was classified as an illegal gathering. There were definitely people who were looking out from the government. And they would know names. Especially in a school like Cape Town High, that was very much middle-class white, as there were just a few people of other nationalities and races coming in. But the teachers which were there, because they were so progressive, they were watched. So, we would have to go to teachers’ houses by candle light in the back room, putting pamphlets together, because if they [the government] saw too many people they would raid the house. It was that ridiculous.
The Saint George Cathedral in the city center, that was used a lot for Black Sash meetings, which was large women’s organization fighting apartheid and many other things back in the day. And they would have gatherings there, but then we realized that there were cameras put in the church. The church had put them in there to watch who was coming to the meetings.
Me, I just sailed through all this, and I have always been white in this country. So I cannot understand fully, as much as I would like to, but as white people we will never understand how terrible those times were for black people. There were very few whites who were so involved in it at the time.
Observatory was classified as a grey [mixed race] area, and has always had students, artists, musicians and in this sort of rhyme who worries about race. And there were low-income people who lived here back then. So for those people race did not matter at all.
I suppose, that even youngsters of today cannot understand what went on back then. This is difficult for them to understand what their parents and grandparents were fighting for. It is a shame, because this is something that must not be forgotten. The same with the Nazi era. I think, a lot of young people are forgetting it nowadays. History books were so different back then as well. My history was very different from what, I expect, is being taught today. So, I had this history from a very white side: we were told that blacks would murder us when we were in our beds. That was sort of stuff that was pushed out there.
I do not see myself as a racist, but I am told I am, because I see difference in color. But for me it is more a case of description. For example, with our conversation right now how would I describe the “other” people? To me it is even more derogatory than saying black. “The other people” – I was brought up with it, so somewhere in my brain, it is still there. I cannot just get rid of it. My children would not have had such a problem. But we are still looking at forty-fifty years to really pass by. I was indoctrinated with this and you cannot just forget it. Even though, you know it is wrong it is still there. I can still tell you that my history was different: there were no black kids in the schools. I had no black teachers, because they could not be mixed with white kids. So my grandchildren, this is an era when racism will finally, hopefully leave the chain.
How did things change with the new government?
It was in the late 90s with the new government, the ANC, they were all very worried, that children were mixing. They were holding surveys in the mixed schools, but kids were mixing in the playground as well. There were black children, Indians and whites. Why would the government waste money on that? It is happening everywhere in the world, I have lived in England. If you go to New York, there are black areas, Italian or Jewish ones. It is just culture, it is not necessarily color. But I think we as a country have to get away from it, because it has always been color here. Our culture is very different; we are not Western here, definitely, not. There are a few pockets of westernization. Especially, when you look at the Eastern Cape where people still live very traditionally in the villages.
But I do not think this transition “affected” me. In 1994, I applied for a job in a five star hotel, newly built in the Waterfront. In England I would be cleaning houses. I decided to do the same here, and start from the bottom. So I applied for the cleaning position, but automatically got a supervising place. I have never worked in the five-star establishment, so it was because I was white. I can tell you that now. There it was still a thing that white was supposed to be in charge. It might have been because of education as well, because I still had my high school education. But an education system for black people just was not there. They had schools, do not get me wrong, but they did not get very far. I came out at the top, but wanted to start from the bottom to try and build my way, because you need to know what the bottom is before you continue.
My age is against me, but being white now I understand that it is changing. For example, if there were a black and white person of the same age group having a job interview, the black person would get the job. Nothing is wrong with it. It does not make me feel “oh, I need to leave”, that is just the way it is. We are still a new country; we only have been around since 1994. We have to do it right this time, but it is going to take a lot longer. And it would be nice if the government could get themselves together.
How did you decide to do what you are doing now?
I have no career. I only finished my school, and went out to do everything, from fashion jewelry to call centers and cleaning rooms. Years ago a good friend of mine decided that she wanted to look at some business we both can retire with. We started looking at guesthouses and such. But it was twenty years ago, and it was not a good timing. So I was looking for a job and saw this backpackers’ place for sale and I did not know at that point that this place was for backpackers. I have always been in customer service: restaurants, hotels etc. I like people and I love to travel, but from South Africa it is not that easy. So for me an obvious step would be to be around people who are traveling. I love this country; I love what we have got to offer so I could tell people what it is like out here. But I am not a businesswoman, unfortunately. I wish I was – life would be so much easier. But I am a peoples’ person. And that is how I got to be here. This place did not look like this, it was quite hard work. My friend’s daughter and me were building bunk beds, we were painting walls, and it was very cool.
Would you change anything about the choices you made in your life?
If I had known what was happening, I think I would have lived a different life. Most probably, I would have liked to be more involved. I mean I was involved, but I could have helped more. I think it would have made me grow more. But my life, no. I have had a good life – I am a lucky one. My parents are always around, and I have a fantastic brother.
But also, I would have liked to travel more, but it was very difficult back then. The opportunities travelling young people have today are huge. For any nationality, anywhere in the world, it is just so much easier today. As a South African woman back then, you were still seen as a second grade citizen. If you were looking for a job and it was to do something different, they would say to you “you are a woman, you sit in the office and type”. So the time was very different. I think it would have been easier for me to be a guy. But anyway, I am happy with where I am now, even with all the stress and nonsense that comes with it. This is where I wanted to be. I am not a career woman, but I have made a lot of friends and people who will be with me forever, which is great.
Finally, what do you think about the current administration, the ANC? Do you believe their promises? And what, in your opinion, should be fixed?
No, I do not believe them. Look, when I was younger, I followed politics a lot. I do not any more. Politics for me today is a kind of secondary thing, because the economy is so bad, so I think some people have to be thankful that they have made it through the day.
For example, for Zuma, I have absolutely nothing to say. As then, we had a very good political cartoonist, called Zapiro [Jonathan Shapiro]. When our “dear ex-president Zuma” was telling the world and nation, that if you have AIDS just shower after sex and you will not get this disease. It was a policy he put out there, and Shapiro did a cartoon with a shower coming out of Zuma’s head. After this picture came out, I just could not look at Zuma again, without seeing this shower. For me, he was a joke. I know he made promises, every time he wanted a vote, he got his people out into uneducated village areas, and handed out food parcels, made sure their tummies were full and this is how he got his votes from people who could not read and write. That is how he stayed in power for so long.
Ramaphosa [current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa] I have always liked. He is old ANC, for me he is Mandela’s ANC. However, he actually manages to not be like the others these days. I think the ANC, what they were meant to be was fantastic. I got to shake Mandela’s hand on Robben Island when I was working for this 5 star hotel. Back then he was still doing fund raising for the Children’s Foundation and they used Robben Island for this big event with huge amounts of money. So we were cleaning houses there for the politicians who would stay over. The next day when we were getting ready to leave, Mandela came and shook everybody’s hands. He just wanted to get things right.
Mandela was old school. He was a hope, but I do not know where it will go now. Because with the rest of the politicians, they just seem to not be bothered with everything that is happening in the country. They are just competing with each other and trying to figure out who is getting more money and power. But people here are worried that it will be another Zimbabwe. So I don’t know now.
And you know what I think, we need to start with the education in this country. It is not people, it is the system that is wrong. If we can get education right, things will change. That is why the younger generation is very important for this country.