By the time I started school I already knew about the apartheid system, the meaning and the implications of it. I, like million of others growing up in Africa in the 80s, knew of the apartheid fighters’ struggles. I remember as a little school girl in Rwanda reciting every morning before class that apartheid was an abomination and needed to stop. It was drilled into our young minds, that human rights, right to live, right to own land and freedom was integral in the building of a society. This went on all throughout my primary school years, but the irony of it all was that by the time “our” and the rest of the world’s pleas were finally answered and black South Africans were able to use their democratic right and elect a president of their choice, my little homeland was being thrown in to one of the worst killings in recent human history.
I never got the chance to stand up in the morning sunlight and sing praises of the struggles that took decades to fight and win. By the time Nelson Mandela was sworn in to office, I was what the United Nations call “internally displaces person”, meaning I wasn’t quite at the stage of “qualifying” as a refugee because I was still in my own country and there was still hope I would return to my town, once things settled. Two decades later and I am not back and have since been “upgraded” to refugee status.
Since then my journey has curved a pretty interesting picture, earning me “homes away from home” in countries like Kenya and Norway, where I currently live and call home. Having come to Europe at a young age, being African and living in the diaspora, oftentimes the image of my motherland is romanticised and embellished to fit my own aspirations and hopes for the continent.
Almost 20 years to the date of the events that changed both South Africa and Rwanda, I had the chance to visit a country that has been branded “model nation on reconciliation and peace”, a notion that my own country, Rwanda, on the heels of its worst history of genocide, modeled its own reconciliation idea after. However discussions I had with both friends and colleagues while visiting South Africa, and what I saw for myself told another story. The “rainbow nation”, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu warmly talked about, seemed to me it was nothing but an illusion. Many alluded to the same when I asked about the state of today’s South Africa and the unity that’s globally spoken about.
To be fair I spent little time in the country and was only in major cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, but especially in the latter, I’d say the biggest differences are more apparent, as the dissimilarity between rich and poor is very much in your face. J’burg doesn’t fare any better, really, especially when you see the opulence of neighbourhoods such as Houghton where former President Mandela resides, among stately homes or the skyscrapers of financial business district of Sandton, just a few miles from one of the poorest townships, Alexandra. On this trip I saw a South Africa which still struggles with its discordant past, with rich and poor still divided by width of rivers, roads and bridges as it was for almost 50 years under apartheid. The togetherness and inclusiveness that I had heard so often about, and that I hoped to experience wasn’t easy to find with daily harrowing stories of xenophobia which often lead to attacks and killings of foreigners trying to make a living in South Africa.
However deeper the wounds go, I haven’t completely lost my sense of Pan-Africanism, of a dream and hope of a “free”, prosperous, united and peaceful Africa.
Yes, many countries are riddled with issues and troubles, but as a child, who for a period didn’t appreciate my African heritage, I’ve grown into a young woman who loves her home, accepting her past, cheering her present while saluting her future, and mostly importantly her people who are tirelessly working to making Africa a continent where no adjectives will be required to describe her, where her children’s dreams and hopes match the reality.