‘Hayr Mer, vor hergines yes’, … recited Joshua Benjamin Segers, my eight year old grandson, during a blessing of our meal. With pride he delivered The Lord’s Prayer fluently in Armenian; his maternal grandmother’s mother tongue. His ability and confidence filled me with pride but also a deep sadness for my mother tongue. What is my heritage? What is my language? Why have I not passed on my mother tongue?
Growing up under apartheid left my siblings and I confused about our mother tongue. Our home language, a constant battle between my parents, left us confused and switching between Afrikaans and English.
My Dad, born on the island of St Helena off the west coast of Africa, spoke only English.
‘I only speak the queen’s English’, my Dad regularly announced. ‘I will never utter a word of his oppressive government’s language.’
And he never did.
My mother, born in a country town, spoke Afrikaans as her first language. My maternal grandfather, born in Lisbon, spoke only Portuguese. My maternal grandmother, raised on a farm where her parents, my great-grandparents, worked as slaves, spoke only Afrikaans.
My maternal grandparents, despite their limited ability to communicate with each other, had 16 children. A definite communication in the language of love!
Researchers say that we hear our first language while in the womb and that language is responsible for the development of a child’s personality. A child’s perception of existence starts with the language that is first taught to them. My mother spoke Afrikaans so that makes it my mother tongue.
Afrikaans was my only language during school hours. As soon as we stepped inside the house, Dad, who was the main carer while my Mum worked, addressed us in English. As siblings, we switched between English and Afrikaans depending on who we were with, or talking to. It was common for us to switch from one language to another mid sentence. The majority of children in our neighbourhood spoke Afrikaans.
I often wonder how I completed my schooling in Afrikaans while reading only English books borrowed from the library. I have no recollection of reading Afrikaans books during high school. I remember every English ‘setwork’ book.
My writing, during childhood, turned into hand made books, told stories of great adventure; in the English language.
Here in Australia, every language spoken, and there are many, represents a rich culture, a connection with ethnicity, and is a special treasure. Many immigrants, see it as a duty and responsibility to preserve their language and to pass it on from generation to generation.
For us it is different. Our mother tongue, the language of our oppressors, left many vehemently opposed to speaking Afrikaans. It was one of the forms of rebellion against those who ruled us.
On the Cape Flats, where I grew up, a unique dialect of Afrikaans was the spoken language. This dialect has colour , humour and warmth. A language developed by the people, deeply connecting us beyond mere words. An identity, a cradling of our spirit. Only those who walked the streets of the Cape Flats, felt that pull in their psyche towards the expressions. It brought a smile to many a face when hawkers sang their tunes to sell their wares and women gossiped over the backyard fences or front gates in this familiar dialect. The expressions embodied a deep warmth that reverberated when a friend called from the street for us to come out and play. A familiarity that only a language can imbue.
Now, there are days when I long to hear my mother tongue, to laugh at the expressions and to be carried back in time. I long for a language that ravaged my childhood and tarnished my memories. Something embedded so deeply in my heritage that it left tracks that cannot be filled.
My father, put the fear of God in us if we as much as uttered a word in his presence. Because of oppression, detesting the language so intensely, he addressed our oppressors in English even if he knew that they could not respond other than in Afrikaans.
‘If you speak their language that is when they control you’, Dad often said. ‘Speak to them only in English so that you can maintain control of something.’
And that is what we did. It was some kind of vengenance in Dad’s psyche that he passed on to us. As siblings we continued this trait, taking pleasure in speaking to our oppressors in English only to watch them struggle in reply. Dad turned Afrikaans into their language; not ours.
I felt no pride, no special skills in having the ability to speak another language. It became a burden, a socio-economic indicator that we wanted to distance ourselves from. And we did so fiercely.
Since our move to Australia, our fourth generation now speak other languages as part of their vast lineage. This great asset offers a new window to the world, a deeper respect for other cultures, their lifestyles and beliefs.
I am left to ponder my mother tongue. It is, afterall, a language that one part of my lineage proudly spoke. Through their enslavement, Afrikaans developed into their mother tongue. This was passed on to my mother and through her to us.
In recent months my life has been turned upside down with crippling panic attacks as a result of high levels of anxiety. I thought that I was well prepared for the launch of my memoir and the activities involved with promoting it. How wrong I was.
I was aware of other writers whose mental health suffered post publication but, hey, I felt invincible. I owned my power. This was a story that I wanted to tell. I wanted our future generations to know where their roots stem from.
I had regular discussions with my family, friends and my trusted editor. I was so open and honest about my life and felt that by sharing my story I would encourage others to do the same. While growing up I was oblivious to the dehumanising conditions I was relegated to under apartheid in South Africa, but as I grew older, anger and frustration started rearing its head. After the launch of my book, the talks and public engagements opened old wounds. The scabs were itching to come off. Before I knew it, it had started to fester.
This all started through emails from readers and members of the public. The new-age communication sometimes used by those who cannot speak face to face. Most messages were heart-warming and filled with their own stories of survival. A few were accusing, ‘you ran away while we stayed to fight for the rainbow nation’ messages. And some were downright heartless. One person in particular, had found a shovel and had begun to dig so deep, exposing the layers I had so carefully covered up. That digging revealed what I thought was a healed wound, leaving an area so raw that it felt as if it had been waiting to burst. Through the pain, my voice roared like a wounded lion into the darkness.
The searing pain sent me spiralling into a bottomless pit. The attacks were relentless. Just when I managed to climb out of the hole, then someone would take the liberty to shove me right back in. Graphic images of dead bodies, blood baths and horrific injuries appeared across my screen. Images that I was accused of inciting. Deaths that I was made responsible for. This, coupled with personal issues addressed in my memoir, overwhelmed me. I crumbled.
Human beings are incredibly capable of deep emotions and feelings of empathy, love for one another, courage, peace etc. These emotions have sustained us for generations and made us evolve into one of the most intelligent species there is. However, this capacity has also revealed the ability to hurt, to hate, and to destroy. Experiencing this dark side of human capacity left me completely drained, confused, and angry. I know most people would say that being hurt is part of life, but that does not mean it is something we have to inflict on others or absorb submissively when it is maliciously directed our way. It is also not something that we need to tolerate.
In an instant I had allowed these faceless monsters to take away the joyous feelings of achieving my dream. Panic attacks took over my life – 24/7. Now usually, I would ignore these emails but for some reason, in my vulnerable state, I spiralled into that dark place. My growing reluctance to communicate face to face with anyone, my fear of leaving home and of being alone sky rocketed. My family and two close friends smothered me with love and attention. I tried to push on. Some things happen to us when we least expect it.
The advent of social media has forever changed our lives and the way we engage with others. Whilst so many positives have emerged from this revolution, it has also brought out the very worst in some of us. Gossip and bullying was to an extent always part of a dark undercurrent of society, however, these days faceless trolls spew poisonous vitriol to complete strangers. And all this under the cover of anonymity. These trolls have become oblivious, it seems, to the hurt they cause or perhaps even worse, they’ve lost the very essence of humanity – supporting, encouraging, empathy, compassion.
As I continued to creep into my own world, away from these poison arrows, increasingly I became paralysed with fear. I could not grab hold of the fear to rid myself of it —it’s not an actual physical thing. In my emotional state, I gave life to my fears and became stuck in my self-imposed prison. My soul searched for joy and hope but my mind and environment offered none.
When my doctor made a few suggestions, the one even more alarming than the other, I froze. How can this be my life? A life filled with medication and therapy. For days I wept in self-pity. This was not what I had envisioned. I longed for my ancestors. I wanted to draw on their strength and wisdom. My thoughts were consumed with digging myself out of this hole.
‘I recommend cognitive behavioural therapy, try this person’, the doctor suggested. I looked at the name, researched it and instantly felt drawn to the principles of the practice – spiritual and holistic clinical treatment.
Suffering from a lack of sleep, vulnerable and anxious, my first appointment was a confronting experience. While I was cautiously optimistic that this could be the start of my road to recovery, I didnt have the foggiest idea what I would say. The faint smell of incense of some sort hung in the air. The large room looked as if it was used for yoga or some other form of therapy. When he walked towards me, smiling and friendly, my first thought was ‘he looks too young’. What would he know about my life and troubles?
I stared at the paper work for a few moments, then diligently ticked the boxes and followed him into his room. Pointing to the couch, a 2-seater, he settled in his chair. By then I was ready to collapse on that couch. But it was too small. In the movies people stretched out on the couch in therapy rooms. I wanted to close my eyes to shut out this moment. Where am I supposed to stretch out?
Avoiding his piercing gaze, my eyes scanned the books on the shelf while he rattled off some formalities. The titles popped out at me, PTSD, Anxiety, Emotional Anxiety. Such serious topics. How can I bare my soul to this person? Where do I start? What would he know about my complex history? This is a mistake. My mind raced all over the place. My eyes rested on a brass bowl on the shelf. I had seen a bowl like this before.
As my thoughts raced, I felt that familiar panicked feeling in the pit of my stomach. My first instinct was to excuse myself, go to the bathroom, splash water on my face and return a while later.
But somehow, transfixed by his gentle gaze and relaxed posture, I managed to remain in my seat clutching the pillow next to me.
‘You are not crazy’, I repeated to myself while trying to concentrate.
Before I knew it, my journey of self-discovery and unburdening had begun. Two months have passed and while there is still a lot of work to do, His method of healing is one of self examination, inward search and self healing. It’s not merely words but a deeply spiritual healing. One that leaves me with a sense of calmness and a curiosity to search for what my purpose is.
I now feel closer to my ancestors. My journey into spiritual healing is deeply exciting and brings me comfort. I want more and I want to tell you more.
It was on top of that mountain of my childhood home town where Oprah Winfrey’s words resonated with me: “When you educate a woman, you set her free. Had I not had books and education in Mississippi, I would have believed that’s all there was.”
On my last visit to South Africa, the country of my birth, I stood on the slopes of the mountain near Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, much to the surprise of passers-by, and screamed: “This is my book, my book!” When the mountain echoed, I was reminded of a specific humiliating incident on this very mountain when police officers enforced the degrading Immorality Act. A law legislated under the apartheid system that was so humiliating and repulsive, ruled that we were only to have relations with our own race. That incident still haunts me to this very day. This time though, it was a different echo to when, as a young woman on a date, the sound reverberating was that of the cries of injustice.
I had never set foot on that part of the mountain after that incident many years ago. That day the reality of the injustices of the laws of the country stared me in the face. Until that day in early 1970s, I had heard about these laws but it did not make sense and where I grew up it had no real meaning in my life. After living in Australia for many years, life had changed. For the past 31 years, I have lived as an ordinary citizen free of the political tangles that so many South Africans are still unravelling.
In this centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s life, my life had changed forever. Nothing could have prepared me for this long-held dream coming true.
This feeling of euphoria runs so deep, most days it swirls around in the pit of my stomach and fills my being with so much joy. It’s been nine months since my book A Darker Shade of Pale’s world-wide release. There were many special moments in the lead up to seeing my debut book listed as a bestseller next to acclaimed and respected writers I deeply admire. The excitement of my first publishing contract, the first glimpse of my book cover, the layout of my book, and even the look of the font consumed my waking moments. I won’t lie, many times I’ve felt the urge to whip out a copy of my book on the train to show it to the stranger sitting next to me. But, of course, I stopped myself.
My writing journey has not been easy. It started with a dream in an ill-equipped township high school on the Cape Flats of South Africa. Classified as coloured, and rated as a second-class citizen, we were banished to live among the sand dunes and blocks of concrete flats in council housing estates. The setting reeked of depravation and failure. But among the dusty roads and overcrowded houses, rose many pillars of strength that prepared us for a better future. Parents who grappled with hardship through menial jobs were the drivers of our path to a better future.
After many years of starting and stopping, the task seemed impossible. It was fraught with fallen rocks and winding paths leading to nowhere.
Standing on the mountain, near the spot where I was vilified and humiliated as a young woman, I thought of the many people who experienced my pain and humiliation. As a citizen in this country I was born into a life of injustice and inequality. I knew no other life. All I had to aspire to was to be like those who revelled in a privileged classification. But, that was impossible, in the eyes of the law my skin was too dark. In South Africa through my mixed heritage I was doomed to a life of hardship and injustice. Born at the wrong time on this soil, the odds were stacked against me. Along with many others, we endured a revolting abuse of our human rights. An ordinary life in a country going through an extra ordinary time in its history.
When I looked across the slopes, at the vast landscape I felt at peace with having grown up in this unequal society. My footsteps, once forbidden, was now welcomed everywhere. After a life changing decision, I devoted two whole years to full-time writing. There were many early mornings and late nights, bottomless coffees, writing classes, the dreaded red pen edits and endless feedback, until I did it. I told my story, with honesty and integrity.
At that moment more than the excitement of my book launches, the praise and admiration, I prayed that somewhere in this town, a girl who looks like me, with a dream like I had, will overcome her fear and pick up a pen and write. Not just write, but that she will follow her dreams and achieve it much sooner in her life than I did. I hoped that she in turn will lead others to write about their adventures.
Today, my achievement is also dedicated to the young girls and boys, to women and men who have dreams and those who need encouragement to achieve it. I hope that as they run towards their dreams, that courage will stem their fears and that the words in their souls will find a way out onto the pages of their books. I know fear, it has gripped me for most of my life, but when that moment arrives where fear gives way to a greater purpose, then they must be ready.
I felt overcome by the realisation that my mother was our saviour, despite the odds stacked against us, she was steadfast in her belief that education would save us. Her extraordinary foresight in that overcrowded environment, did not overwhelm her nor did it fill her with despair, instead it spurred her on to tackle that long road on a bicycle every morning and night to earn her wages. She had her plan for our future and devoted her life to fulfilling it. She felt no greater joy than to see us dressed for school with satchels filled with books and pens. Our report cards and book prizes were her reward.
For a few moments I turned my face to the mountain and wept. My dream realised is also her dream fulfilled.
In our township, among the overcrowded conditions and lack of facilities, the small library was our source of entertainment, it opened our world to life in other parts of the universe. It was there that I escaped to and read the books that made me dream about writing my own adventures.
There is no better feeling than achieving your dream. Be that writing a book or baking a special cake or buying your first home. To feel your dream come true is like dancing with wildness on a mountain to a song in your head, watching your cake rise in the oven or carried over the threshold of your new home. And, how can I forget that exhilarating feeling in the tips of my fingers when I typed The End on my manuscript.
I salute the many fallen souls who fought that brutal regime to bring freedom in South Africa.
Our history, our stories must be heard.
When my thoughts race all over the place then I must be the craziest yet most empathetic person around. But then only I know it.
I’ve lived more of my life in Australia but my connection with South Africa will forever be a big part of who I am. I did a whole lot of growing up there.
As we age, our childhood memories become more precious. There are triggers, someone mentions a game or a particular snack or even a song and it can set off hours of conversation. I know in our household it does. Just ask our children.
For those born in the 50s and 60s, things were very different in apartheid South Africa. Some younger South Africans, thankfully, won’t know the full horror of apartheid. They were impacted economically but may not necessarily have experienced the daily humiliations that their parents or even older siblings suffered.
This is why we need more stories. We must ensure that this information is not lost. I grew up during a time when segregation between the races were strictly enforced by law. Depending on socio economic backgrounds, the different race groups never mixed socially. I worked with people in an office but could not sit in a cafe with them. It was forbidden by law, based on my skin colour.
What bothered me when I wrote A Darker Shade of Pale is, there were fellow South Africans who allowed the discrimination to continue. They sat down in a cafe when they knew that I could not. Many white South Africans relished in the life that was handed to them.
What I will say, is this, my observation, many of us don’t know in South Africa and out of it, we don’t know where we belong or who we are. The human rights history of South Africa is so tragic. We need black and white South Africans to bridge the gap, so that those who were classified as mixed race can slot in.
I’m not talking about those who are wealthy, who are living a different life because economically they can choose their path. I’m referring to those, they call ‘previously’ disadvantaged, but who remain disadvantaged.
I couldn’t get to know white or black South Africans while growing up. But our lives were intertwined in some absurd way. I think absurd is the right word here.
I was thrown into that absurd mess without my permission. And many of us sought refuge in a foreign land. White and black South Africans with so much in common but too polarised to know it.
We need true reconciliation. An apology, or a simple statement: It was wrong, we should have known better. Just don’t say ‘we didn’t know’, cause that is painful.