What did you do?

12 March 2019

When future generations look back at an era in which an estimated half a million people were butchered and millions made homeless by one despot’s determination to cling to power, they will ask: “What did you do?” This is the question Guardian journalist Natalie Nougayrède asks in relation to the Assad regime in Syria. In this case, we could blame Russia and Iran for propping up Assad and crippling any UN attempt to bring Assad before the international criminal court. But the question is not what did Russia or Iran do, it is what did you do? That question should haunt anyone with a conscience who has added either knowingly or unwittingly to the misery of others.

Existing generations have already asked that question of those who lived in the Republic of South Africa in the years of apartheid and who profited from a legal and social system that discriminated on the basis of race. If I, as someone who grew up there and benefited from being born white, were asked “What did you do?”, I’d have to reply, “Very little”. I was aware from when I was very young that what happened was not right – several incidents involving acute misery for black people that I knew made that obvious, even to a small child. Those incidents haunt me still. But I lived my life, went to my all-white school and later to a predominantly white university, graduated and gained professional employment, all aided by my privileged social position. My studies provided plenty of opportunity for understanding the origins of and the reasons for apartheid, as well as the chance to interact with staff and students who actively opposed it, sometimes at great peril to themselves. Although philosophically opposed to the apartheid system and happy to discuss my reasons with people around me, I did not actively oppose it in the way that some of my fellow students did.

Barbara Trapido (who also lived in South Africa as a young person) when discussing her biographical novel Frankie and Stankie, said “with mild irritation”, “it’s most curious to me how people from abroad assume that if they had grown up in that place, they would have been war heroes … people just get on with their ordinary little lives … People carry on living, having fun with their friends, getting married, going to birthday parties, buying new shoes, and the victims of the oppression do it as well”.

That’s exactly what I did. I married, bought a house and had a couple of children. Looking back, it seems preposterous to have brought two new lives into the rapidly unravelling society in which we were then living. And my children’s future is what kept me awake at night – not the suffering of the people around me or the daily injustices meted out by the organs of the state. It was for the children that we left the country of our birth and made a new life on the other side of the world.  However, we would not have had that choice if we hadn’t had the educational, professional and financial advantages that were the direct result of the privileges of apartheid.

There are many compatriots in this country and one of them, a former race relations conciliator, commented that you wouldn’t find anyone living here who didn’t oppose apartheid. It is difficult then for local people to assess your motivation for migrating and many assume that you did so because apartheid collapsed. Perhaps it is better to avoid complex philosophical discussions and say you migrated for the sake of your children. Any parent can understand that reasoning – most of this country’s population is descended from migrants who came here in the hopes of a better future, for themselves and their families. We did the same, just slightly less long ago.

So what did I do? Nothing is the short answer. A longer answer would be that I used the benefits of privilege to my own advantage and now live a comfortable life in a peaceful, well-ordered society. The only caveat is that I am acutely aware of my good fortune and that it was gained at the expense of others.