An Ex-South African’s Reflections on Racism

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I was born under two shadows; antisemitism and apartheid. Neither was discussed in my family or in the wealthy suburban bubble of English descendants and Jews where I was raised.

My grandfather, Nathan, was born in Ponevez, Lithuania, in 1879. When I was four years old, he died, so I know him only from photographs and family legends. A photo shows him as the prosperous businessman he was, puffing at a cigar. Confident and self-assured, he beams from behind his steel-rimmed spectacles. The chain of a pocket watch drapes a complacent stomach, and a pleated kerchief adorns his waistcoat.

Antisemitism was rife in Lithuania. At the beginning of the 1880s, many Jews from Ponevez immigrated to South Africa. At eighteen, Jewish boys were drafted into the Russian army and sent to Siberia, where they often died.

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My grandfather did not wait to be called up.

He left his parents and my grandmother, his betrothed, and arrived in Johannesburg. Legend has it he pulled a cart like Tevia’s in Fiddler on the Roof. The cart carried saddles and bridles for the Boer War. Grandfather probably sold them to both the English and the Dutch. I imagine he was indifferent to either since he was focused on accumulating wealth.

I doubt he had ever seen a black person before and probably regarded them as useful commodities. His generation called them “schvartzes” (blacks) in a derogatory tone of voice.

Eventually, my grandfather owned three houses in a row in downtown Johannesburg. The middle house was the shop where the saddles and bridles were sold. Another was for his wife and four children, one of whom was my father.

His parents lived in the third house. My great-grandfather, Aaron David, was a yeshiva bocher, regarded as a holy man. In Ponevez, he studied the Torah while his wife toiled to make a living and raise the children. In the new country, my great-grandfather had to prove his worth. He sat at the back of the shop. My imagination gives him scrolls rather than books. A yarmulke was his head, and he wore tefillin and payot. In keeping with the financial mores of the family, his job was to watch out for shoplifters!

From his humble beginnings, my grandfather amassed a fortune. Before the outbreak of World War 1, he traveled to England, returning with a shipload of ladies’ dresses which he’d bought for a song. He invested in the fashion industry, a dress factory, and property. The family store was “Ruskin House.” It was rather like Macy’s, but narrow and high, with several floors reaching the sky. I was the little Jewish princess, prancing around the store, deferred to by every sales lady.

Antisemitism was acute. The Nationalist government sided with Hitler. Experiencing my small share of discrimination, I related more to my friends’ Christmas and Easter holidays than Jewish festivals. One summer, I was thoughtlessly sent to a Christian camp. Rather than confessing I was Jewish; I told my tent mate I attended the Methodist church. Christian prayers started the day in my rigid English schools.

My family was comfortably removed from the racist atrocities perpetuated on the blacks. Violence was sealed in the black townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

My parents had three black servants who were given minimal wages and no pension or health care. Marty, my beloved nanny, dressed, fed, and hugged me longer than I can remember. As a baby, secured by a towel wrapped around her waist, I rode on her buttocks as she knelt to polish the floor tiles.

When I arrived home from school, I regaled her with tales of my day. When I had the measles, she barely left my side. She comforted me when Amy over the road chose a new best friend. Marty handled the household chores, from peeling vegetables, flower arranging, and creating mouthwatering desserts to pegging out the sheets in the courtyard dividing her quarters from the house.

During the week, she slept and ate in a small room with a single high window and concrete floor. A faded calendar bearing a picture of the Virgin and Child was tacked to a whitewashed wall. She made her tedious way each weekend to Soweto, with its stink of poverty, streets lined with garbage, and a hovel roofed and re-roofed with tar paper, cardboard, and rusty, corrugated tin.

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Every Friday, she’d ride a train and three busses to get there. Each Monday morning, she’d return to sweep and cook and wash for my family while her own children struggled to adulthood without her.

I was shielded by my parents’ lack of interest in apartheid and the suppression of the press. Black discrimination was not my concern until I became an instructor in the liberal English department at the Johannesburg College of Education. Running communication courses for black nurses and teaching black teens to give speeches in English began my awakening to the reality of racism.

This reality was forcibly brought home after I emigrated to America. To rid myself of the albatross of my South African past, I decided to write a book of short stories about growing up in apartheid. Research was necessary. I explored data on the 1976 Soweto uprising; demonstrations by black school children protesting being taught in Afrikaans, the oppressors’ language. The police countered by firing into the crowd. More than 600 hundred protesters were killed, many of them high school students.

I watched a graphic photograph of 14-year-old Hector Pieterson bleeding from the mouth and carried in a Soweto resident’s arms. Pieterson was declared dead upon arrival at the clinic. This photo became an icon, leading to the end of apartheid. I sat in front of my computer, tears flooding, horrified at the inhumanity and my ignorance.

I took no interest in American politics or history, apart from the necessary reading for my naturalization. After all, America, unlike South Africa, was the promised land of the free and the brave, not so? Why should I care who did what?

My attitude changed dramatically after the 2016 election. I became addicted to the PBS News Hour. That addiction increased exponentially when George Floyd was murdered. For the second time, I amassed Kleenex as I watched brutality. Attempting to take in Black Lives Matter movies was an exercise in horror.

Boning up on American history was another revelation. I learned what is familiar to school children; antisemitism and racial discrimination were (and still is) systemic, ingrained in society’s policies and practices and institutions such as banks, schools, companies, government, and law enforcement agencies.

The following facts slapped me in the face:

• During the first half of the 20th century, Jews were discriminated against. They were limited in employment and college opportunities and places like social clubs and resort areas. Antisemitism peaked with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

• In 1939, St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 German Jews attempting to escape the Nazi horror, arrived in the US. Immigration authorities sent the ship back to Europe. Nearly a third of the passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.

  • 150 years ago, black slavery ended — but not racism. Across the South, lynching, disenfranchisement, and segregationist laws proliferated. Jim Crow segregation was not outlawed until the Civil Rights Movement. After the Civil Rights Act, discrimination against blacks remained in the workplace. It negatively impacted living conditions, education opportunities, and health care. Harassment and arrests by police, as well as police shootings, were rampant.

2020 brought the third-highest spike on record for both antisemitism and police shootings of black people.

The Anti-Defamation League is an international Jewish organization based in the United States. The ADL’s most recent audit of antisemitic incidents in the United States recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism, and harassment. This was an increase of 12% over the previous year and remained at near-historic levels.

The reality of black racism has been on stark display. Racist acts take place every day across America. Racial bias was revealed in police killings of older, unarmed black men. According to CBS News, police have killed at least one black man or woman every week in 2020.

Meanwhile, the country’s indifference to an epidemic of killings continued unabated, including the murder of Breonna Taylor. In May, the nation erupted after the police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on George Floyd’s neck and ignored his pleas for help before he died. According to polls, more than 23 million people protested against police brutality, making this the most significant protest movement in American history.

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In the past, remaking society’s dream had faltered when white Americans realized what they would have to sacrifice to deliver freedom.

The question is whether that’s changed at this point in time.

The history of racism in South Africa and America is similar. Perhaps the main difference is that in South Africa, whites, not blacks, were the minority, constituting under 20% of the population. This percentage has now shrunk to under 10%.

Taking part in the protests helped assuage my grief and outrage. The progress of my enlightenment has been almost eighty years. But as I wrote in one of my poems:

“Wisewoman, generatrix, crone
An elder of the people is come to being
It is not too late
Not too late, not too late at all.”

What applies to me applies to all who are caught off-balance by the inexplicable and destructive racism of those whose worldview is vastly different from ours.

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I invite you to hold a glimmer of hope:

“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” — Elie Wiesel

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.” — Nelson Mandela

Shoshana Kobrin

www.shoshanakobrin.net

Shoshana Kobrin is a writing coach, editing consultant, and author. She gives writing workshops, individual consultations and is available for presentations.

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