It is odd to be able to say that I once met someone, whose name I never learned, and who I never saw again, but who I am affected by every day of my life.
I am not even sure what the memory means any more, so I offer it, to see what I make of it myself when it is all written down. But it requires context, which will take some providing: I apologise for the length.
When I was 17 years old, I was very involved with my local church. I do not come from a religious family, but we had emigrated to South Africa when I was 5, and some of the moral absurdities of living in such a place had begun to weigh heavily on my mind. Christianity was a phase, and I outgrew it, but, overall it was a positive experience.
The church would sometimes send a delegation to a small town, several hundred miles away from my home in Johannesburg, called Olifantshoek, on the fringes of the Kalahari desert. On two occasions I was selected to join the group, on a round trip which, from memory, lasted a fortnight.
The church we were affiliated with was run by a black man, known to us only as Bru Africa, who preached the gospel in a large, swelteringly hot, tent. The community he was especially focused on was known at the time as ‘Coloured’.
In Nineteen eighty-five South Africa was ruled by a government which subscribed to a belief in the desirability of racial purity – a system known as Apartheid. The system was introduced in 1948, but had existed in all but name many years before, and was not founded on belief but on economic expediency. South Africa is enormously rich in diamonds and, crucially, gold. Johannesburg had sprung up from the soil practically overnight with its discovery. The problem was that the gold was not in nugget form, but finely distributed in solid rock. It required a ton of ore to produce one ounce of gold. The only way to make it pay was through a lot of cheap labour. The problem was that the people of South Africa at the time were by and large subsistence farmers, and had been for centuries. They had no reason to leave their land, and no use for the money it would earn them.
This problem was solved by the government of the day introducing the Native Land Act in 1913 – which at a stroke disqualified all non-white people from owning land. They had also introduced a poll tax, which had to be paid in currency. The only paying work available to many was in the gold mines. So, the able bodied men – newly homeless and in debt to a government which did not represent them, were reducing to living in barrack style accommodation, and spent all day down mines. A way of life ended – and decades before Apartheid. The devastating effects of this law on the people – awful enough though they seem – took decades to become fully apparent. South Africa was still a British dominion. Full independence would not come until 1961.
What Apartheid in 1948 did was enshrine the principle of racial purity: the races of South Africa should not mix – to do so was deemed contrary to God’s will. Marriage across racial lines was prohibited by the Immorality Act. I remember reading about a man who had married a black woman, and had children by her. When it was discovered – unbeknown to him – that he had a white ancestor in his background, the state acted decisively. In a dawn raid, police arrested him and his wife. After the legal process was played out, the family were separated and forced to live in separate sections of the town.
In South Africa, under the Group Areas Act, towns were divided into four sections: White, Black, Indian (South Africa had the highest Indian population outside of India) and Coloured. Coloured people meant anyone of mixed race – the result of what the law saw as an immoral union. Once it was decided you were Coloured, you could only live amongst Coloured people, and marry a Coloured person. Your children would be deemed Coloured. If the police were in doubt as to whether you were White or Coloured, they would perform a ‘pencil in the hair’ test. If your hair was curly enough to hold the pencil, you were Coloured. If not, you were White.
Almost all Coloured people spoke Afrikaans as their first language, which was the language of the ruling class. Culturally, they were trapped between two worlds.
I had grown up in a totally white area. I had no black friends, and no way of making any. The only black man I spoke to at all was our gardener. I went to school with privileged white children like myself, who gave little thought to the world outside our suburbs. During an informal school debate, I remember being a lone voice in favour of one person – one vote in a class of 30. The majority had also voted against freedom of speech, citing Britain’s miners’ strike as an example of what happened when people were allowed to say whatever they liked.
It was a shock in more ways than one to find myself walking the dust roads of the Coloured township of Olifantshoek. Firstly, it was unbearably dry and hot. Lukewarm water flowed from the cold tap at our camping site. I remember buying a chilled bottle of orange Fanta from a shop and drinking it in one swallow. Usually I was in a group of people, visiting houses, and encouraging people to visit the church rally to be held that evening. Some people lived in houses with televisions, and toilets. Others were not so lucky. I remember being amazed that some who lived very comfortably were right next door to those who had very little. Why don’t they help each other, I thought. I was young, it is true, but it is hard to believe that I was ever that naive, and missed the enormous irony of my thoughts.
We had not come to distribute aid, remember, but to encourage them to give thanks to heaven for their good fortune.
One day, I was walking alone down one of the little roads, and I saw a woman standing outside her home, looking at me. ‘You look hot and thirsty’, she said to me in Afrikaans. ‘Come and have a drink of water’.
I thanked her, in Afrikaans, and accepted. I addressed her as ‘Tannie’, which in that language means ‘Auntie’ and is the respectful form of address to a woman older than oneself.
She ushered me into her home. It was a concrete block, with a corrugated iron roof, about the size of a garage. The floor was cement. There was no furniture of any kind, apart from three grass mats on the floor, paper thin, which would have served as beds. Two of her family were squatting on their haunches in the corner, and smiled at me as I entered, but said nothing. I smiled back. I realised that I was drinking water from their tap; the sole luxury that they possessed.
The woman watched me drink from the cup she offered. ‘It is hot today’ she said.
‘Yes, Tannie’, I replied.
‘Are you far from home?’
‘Ai! You are tall: your mother will be very proud of you’
‘I hope so, Tannie’.
‘Does your mother know where you are?’
‘Sort of, Tannie.’
‘Ai! Have you not spoken to her since you came here?’
‘You must call her, or write to her! I am a mother myself. She will be worried about her fine young son.’
‘Yes, Tannie, I will call her’
‘Will you promise me that you will do this?’ She smiled, and raised an admonishing finger.
‘Yes, Tannie, I will.’ I offered her a leaflet about the church rally. She smiled, but shook her head.
‘We cannot read,’ she said.
I thanked her, and left.
This conversation has replayed in my mind a thousand times. Why?
Part of it must be the way that she ignored my race. I had occasionally confronted a little hostility from some people in the township, which I had anticipated. Others had been obsequious towards the wealthy white people from the big city. But she did not see my race, or the fact that as a member of it I was responsible (by association) for the existence of enormous injustices which directly impacted on her. She just saw a thirsty young man, and wondered if he would like a drink.
Also, she owned nothing. I was surrounded by people who owned a lot. New, expensive cars, big houses, vast swimming pools. These people drew status and confidence from what they owned. It made them feel superior to other people who owned less. Yet, this woman owned nothing, and she didn’t seem to understand that she should be ashamed of that.
And I had come to her town to tell her about Jesus Christ.
She wasn’t even ashamed of being unable to read. There were plenty of other people I had given the leaflet to, and I was pretty sure that some of them were too embarrassed to admit to it.
Reading is a wonderful thing – I read voraciously. But if I ever feel that by reading some great work of literature I have improved myself in some way, have a more finely tuned moral sense, or added to my store of wisdom, I remember this woman. I know many people who have read a lot of novels, and experience suggests that the ability of books to strengthen moral fibre is limited. And if someone in my hearing uses ‘illiterate’ when they mean ‘stupid’ I get angry.
I no doubt romanticise this incident in my mind – overanalyze it, and draw too many conclusions. I was young, and in a strange situation, at a strange point in history. But the purity of her simple act of kindness inspires me, by the effect it has had on my outlook on life, to remember that a glass of water to a stranger can be a powerful thing.