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Growing up under apartheid in the 1970s, I think that I knew my place from an early age. This is not merely a metaphorical knowing of my place and keeping quiet when I had something to say; by nine years old, I knew that I was a second class citizen. No-one had ever told me this, but I suppose nine years of living in South Africa under apartheid was bound to imprint some message of racial disharmony in my impressionable head.
I remember being nine years old – or I think I was nine years old – and going to Blue Route Shopping Mall in Tokai with my parents and my five year old sister. It was very likely a Wednesday because my father worked half days on Wednesdays and then we would go grocery shopping. Back then shopping malls often had play areas where parents could leave their children while they shopped. I don’t remember these play spaces having attendants, but maybe they did. What I remember quite clearly on this day, was that my sister and I were wearing matching soft cotton dresses with a green paisley-like pattern and flowers. I was also wearing my school shoes and socks with my dress.
My parents left us at the big plastic playground with the slide and the jungle-gym. There were two other girls there. White girls with blonde hair. They were barefooted. I remember noticing this and wondering about it.
Weren’t white people better than us? Weren’t white people better off than us? Is it because they are originally from Europe that the cold in Africa does not affect them as much as it does people from Africa, that they can walk around barefooted on cold days? Or is it because they’re better than us so they don’t have to worry about wearing shoes in a shopping mall, they don’t have to prove their worth? They don’t have to prove that they know about shoes? Being nine years old, these were more feelings than articulated thoughts.
The older of the two white girls was friendly and we ended up playing with them. I think we were about the same age. I remember feeling confused that they would want to play with us because I thought we were not allowed to be together, black people and white people. But then I thought that maybe it was alright because the white girl had initiated the contact, not me, and if contact was initiated by white people then it would be okay. I remember feeling that I had to follow the white girl’s lead and then everything would be okay. I thought that I had to defer to her.
I also thought I could observe what it meant to be white and that I could work out how they were different from me. All that I could ascertain, however, was that white people didn’t care about wearing shoes like black people did and that they seemed to be more confident, or less self-conscious about what they were doing.
Through most of this interaction, unfortunately, I was deeply in my head and unable to enjoy this unusual instance of southern suburbs inter-racial interaction.
A slightly different version of this memory was submitted to the Apartheid Archive.