Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series of interviews I’m conducting with people across the country. This is an effort to get to know the stories of the people whose status updates I see on Facebook. It is the discovery of how people came to form their political beliefs, what worries they might have and what gives them hope. These are #PeopleoftheResistance. If you have a story to share, shoot me a note
Sydney, Australia – It’s a sweltering day in Sydney. Temperatures near 105. Wendy Scott Cayless keeps a tall glass of water nearby, but she only ever reaches for it when her voice falters and tears well up from the hurting place deep in the memory of a girl raised up in Apartheid South Africa.
There’s a guilt Wendy carries closely, even after all these years, that leaves her feeling so conflicted about her homeland. It’s difficult to explain how she could love a place so much and yet feel so much shame for something she had no control over.
“Ah, yea, South Africa is in my blood,” Wendy says. “When I hear bits of music, it can make me cry.” She reaches for the water, takes a swallow and continues. “There is so much beauty in South Africa. The wildlife. The scenery. The textiles. The art.”
Wendy, 59, was born and raised in Johannesburg. Her dad was an accountant. Her mom, a bookkeeper. She has siblings – one, like her, left his homeland. Others who stayed behind. Immigrants always leave behind parts of themselves, most often in the way of family. That’s the hardest part, leaving one’s parents and siblings.
Of course, when Wendy and her husband Colin, despairing of a future in South Africa, left in 1987, Wendy was 29, not yet a mom, and blissfully unaware of what immigrating to Australia would mean for the young couple. Colin had some inkling of the transition to come. His family had moved from England to Johannesburg when he was 16. He understood that such leavings are costly. Immigrating means swapping all that is familiar for the completely unknown. Yet, Colin and Wendy could see no other way out of the political unrest of the economic, political and social injustices that defined Apartheid South Africa.
There were four legislated racial groups – Whites, Indians, Coloreds and Blacks. “The whites were on the top and the blacks on the bottom,” Wendy explains. Coloreds (mulattos being the more commonly used American term for mixed races) had the option of applying for reclassification with whatever group they identified with most, but that could be an arduous process. Blacks had absolutely no way to advance or improve their lives under the system.
And that’s the thing that troubled Colin. As a supervisor in a gold mine, he realized that his black peers could never advance. They couldn’t work their way up to supervisory roles, no matter how hard they slaved.
So the couple packed up and left. And for Wendy, at least, that leaving was very difficult. “I have the dust of Africa on my skin, the Penny Whistle music in my soul, the Thorn trees silhouetted in my vision.”
She didn’t just leave behind her parents, siblings and friends. She left her job as an English teacher and the culture of South Africa. “I even stopped reading South African literature.”
There were so many stories from her growing up that Wendy didn’t want to recall or retell. The memories just too hard. “There’s such a conflict you feel when you can’t be proud of your country because of the injustices and the inequality. There is the guilt of being born in white skin and the guilt of being born to privilege. I could never be proud of being South African.”
It was so much easier to identify as an Australian, so that is what Wendy learned to do. Today, she sees herself as a global citizen. She and Colin just returned to Australia after three years of working in Qatar. “I really loved it,” she says. “I got exposed to a whole range of people I would have never met.”
It’s not as though Australia doesn’t have a diverse population. It does. But Wendy says the diversity of the Middle East is even more far-flung. “I made friends with people from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, India. Even an Iraqi. I worked with these people so I got to know them really well. It was a totally different exposure to a different world. A whole range of people who broaden my mind and my view of the world. It was wonderful.”
She is bemused by those who consider the Middle East a very dangerous place due to that very diversity she extolls. “The first time I ever heard gunfire was while I was visiting a cousin in East Nashville.” Yes. She’s talking Nashville, Tennessee. “The irony is that I felt less safe in Nashville due to the gun violence than I did in the Middle East.” The only time she was ever really frightened in Qatar was when the jets would leave the American base to go bomb Syria.
Making friends from people around the world might seem old hat to generations growing up in a digital world, but it is a far cry from the girl who grew up in a sheltered white world. Wendy was six years old when Nelson Mandela was sentenced. Too young to even grasp the political implications of all that. Or even really to know who Mandela was.
Growing up, the only black person Wendy knew was Sophie Sithole, the black woman who served as the maid and lived in what was called the “girl’s room” out back. Sophie was in her 40s. She was married. She had children of her own. But for bulk of the year, she slept on a cot in that shack, rose before 6 a.m. and didn’t return to her room until 8 p.m. when Wendy and her siblings had all retired for the night. Sophie’s children stayed with her mother in an impoverished rural area 6 hours away. Sometimes her husband would sneak in to spend the nights with his wife.
“If you happened to be out on the streets before 6 a.m., you would see all these black men sneaking out of the neighborhood,” Wendy says. It was illegal for these men to visit their wives, their girlfriends in the white part of town. They made these visits at risk to their own lives. If the police were to catch them, they would be arrested. Beaten. They needed a “pass” to be in a white area at night.
Sometimes, Sophie would sneak her children in. Wendy’s parents would encourage this because they knew Sophie missed her children. But even an act of kindness could have been very costly to Sophie and Wendy’s parents had they been reported.
There was never any opportunity for Wendy to make friends with any black children, no opportunity for her to date or perhaps fall in love with a man of color. “I lived in a white enclave,” she said.
It was until she was at university, that Wendy even begin to grasp the history of Apartheid, how it came about and what its implications were for her life and that of her peers. Wendy took courses in South African history, and in an effort to better communicate with Sophie, decided to study Sotho, her native tongue. “The university had to get special permission from the government to even have a black professor teach us.” There were 15,000 students at her university and not a black student in the entire population. It was against the law. Black and whites couldn’t eat out together.
After she obtained her degree and began to teach English, Wendy had to concern herself with what literature she would teach. Teachers were forbidden from political or controversial subject matters. They could not lead students in discussions that questioned authorities. There was no such thing as free speech. If a student remarked that something seemed unjust or unfair, Wendy could not affirm that student’s insights. Or if she did, she did so in very subtle ways, lest she be reported to the police by parents or others.
Some of her peers did push back against the system, but inevitably it cost them. “I had a colleague who gave shelter to some African National Conference (ANC) members,” Wendy says. “That was a highly dangerous thing to do. I thought she was incredibly brave. A neighbor reported her. She lost her job and spent three weeks in prison, detained without trial. We all knew the system was wrong and immoral, but there was just a limit to what you could do legally to fight it. Some would put their lives on the line though.”
When her diary went missing whilst she was at university and involved in a project tutoring black high schoolers, Wendy worried that someone had handed it over to the Security Police. She had a family member who worked for the Security Police. She knew how the police would spy on people. This family member believed he was doing a good thing for his country, stopping an insurrection. He didn’t see his actions as oppressing a people. “Families had a wide range of political views,” Wendy says.
Dissent in any form was not allowed. Rather it was justification for arrests and beatings. Still, the civil unrest that erupted with the Soweto riots of 1976 had continued to fester.
Wendy left South Africa thinking things would never change. Yet, shortly after leaving, the economic and social injustices of Apartheid began to unravel. “We just couldn’t see a peaceful solution in our lifetimes, but we didn’t think the government would get dismantled as quickly as it did,” Wendy says. “Nobody could foresee in 1987 that president would do a complete turnaround and that the first democratic elections would be held in 1994.” Or that Nelson Mandela would become the first black president of South Africa.
Wendy had grown up thinking that Nelson Mandela, who had dared defy the keepers of Apartheid, would spend his lifetime in prison. She’d grown up in a South Africa that forbade the singing of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the Black National Anthem. So imagine if you are able the rush of emotions she experience on October 24, 1990, when she stood alongside her Aussie brethren, many of them immigrants from South Africa as well, and listened to Mandela’s healing words, followed by everyone, blacks and whites, singing that anthem.
“It was open air and thousands were there,” Wendy says. She takes a deep breath, reaches for the water glass, takes a couple of swallows, continues. “I can’t remember what Mandela said, but I will never forget the magic. It was just magic. Absolutely. Here was this stately man, epitomizing forgiveness and new choices. He was just amazing. If a man ever had the right to be bitter, he did. But he managed to unite that country in ways that nobody else could have done.”
It is because of all these experiences – the growing up in a racist world, the growing into a global citizen – Wendy is concerned about an America under the authority of Donald Trump.
“I have a lot of American friends who ask me, ‘Why do you care about Trump? You don’t even live here.’ But what Trump does affects the whole world on a global scale. His actions are affecting things here in Australia.”
One fascist leader gives rise to the next. It is happening in England, America and even in Australia. “When people in Australia see the leader of America being misogynistic, it gives them permission to be more misogynistic. Or racist,” Wendy says. “It’s scary. Xenophobia is huge here.”
Wendy recognizes the danger signs. That push back to dissent in any form. The inability of privileged people to be empathetic. The self-censorship.
Wendy watches the health care debate taking place in Congress and is completely flummoxed by it. “When it comes to health care in other countries, Americans don’t know anything about it really. I urge Americans to educate themselves on how the rest of the world works.”
Consider that Australia provides universal health care for all its citizens. It’s called Medicare and is funded through a two percent levy taken out of a worker’s earnings. Those under a certain level of earnings are not taxed. Medicare covers everything.
Wendy had been to a surgeon the day we spoke. The doctor informed her that she will need gall bladder surgery. Under the Medicare program, she won’t have to pay for that surgery. But because she and her husband supplemented their state-funded insurance with a private insurance, so she won’t have to wait two months to have the surgery. Her private insurance will enable her to be treated sooner.
“It cost me nothing to see that surgeon. It was completely covered by Medicare, as was my extensive bloodwork last week, and my upper abdominal and pelvic ultrasound scans. All completely covered by our socialized Medicare.”
If only we could move beyond our fears and preconceived notions of what it means to make health care universal. Building walls or fences is not good for any of us. Even if those are mental walls and fences.
“Americans are very insular,” Wendy warns. “And fear has caused them to retreat, to hunker down. I see it happening. The right-wing is very reactionary. Instead of exploring other ways of life, other ideas, they allow fear to isolate them.”
We would do well to start reading news from around the world. The more globally engaged we all are, the less likely we will be to fear new ideas or each other.
Instead of retreating, perhaps we should all consider ourselves global citizens. In this digital world in which we abide, we don’t have to live in the Middle East to befriend people from the Middle East.
You might could even Skype with a friend who grew up in South Africa, who worked in Qatar, and who lives in Sydney.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Where’s Your Jesus Now? How fear erodes our faith. (Zondervan).