My father traveled around the city a lot. He would often go on trips across the country. It’s hard to explain just how big South Africa is to someone who hasn’t been outside of Europe. Essentially, when my father went on trips to Johannesburg (Joburg), it’s about the same distance as John o’Groats to Lands’ End. He’s always liked jobs like that. I don’t know if it’s because he enjoys driving or just likes working in a variety of places.
During one of his drives across Cape Town for work, he was shot at. For no other reason than he was driving his car at the wrong place at the wrong time. I think at this stage my mother was either very much pregnant with my brother or he was only a couple of weeks old. I’ll have to check the newspaper clippings she’s collected. Every time one of us is in the newspaper she clips it out and keeps it. There is a hilarious one of them looking sad around some very full recycling bins in the Cambridge Evening News. They’d asked for more bins, the council had refused, so they’d written in to the newspaper to complain. I only wish they’d hidden the wine and gin bottles underneath some jars or something.
I find it a little odd that my mother has this particular newspaper clipping, though. My father is described as a Cape Town businessman, shot at randomly from the side of the road. I can’t remember if it mentions me and my mother. I do know it’s only a matter of a few sentences, showing that it wasn’t really something of great significance at the time. Which, considering it was 1989, isn’t surprising as South Africa was in the midst of protests and rioting, with regime change just around the corner. It makes me shudder to read it. When I’d found it the first time my father showed me where the bullet entered the car. It hit the passenger window about 4 inches away from his head. My father was 4 inches away from death, my mother 4 inches from being a single parent to two children under the age of 4.
When I was younger, I always wondered if that was the reason he drove so fast.
I was 4 years old as Apartheid started to end. It’s considered to have ended in 1994, but change started occurring 4 years before that. I was oblivious to all of this happening. Why would I care, as long as I was fed and looked after? Besides, in my own little insular world, I was dealing with a pretty big problem of my own: a little brother. I didn’t really care about anything else.
However, by the time the first free elections were held in 1994, I was far more aware of the outside world. I still didn’t really understand what it all meant. If you’d asked me what voting was at that time, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I didn’t grow up in a politically active family. While my father’s side of the family didn’t agree with the Apartheid laws at all, they weren’t ones to rock the boat and say so. Instead they would rebel in little ways, whether it was sneaking their friends of colour into places they weren’t supposed to go, or going themselves to places they shouldn’t have gone to. My mother’s parents were another matter. I don’t really know what my grandfather’s attitudes were, but my grandmother didn’t approve of my father because ‘he has a touch of the tar about him’ and my mother was brought up to believe black people were really dirty. I doubt that she would have approved of what happened to South Africa after her death. That I didn’t grow up surrounded by people talking about what was happening and why it was important is probably a big reason why I didn’t completely appreciate the significance of it all. I do know that I understood it was important, and what I saw happening on the TV screens made a pretty big impression on me.
It’s hard to explain what South Africa in 1994, and again during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 felt like. There was a sense of excitement, tempered with cautiousness. Reading about it now I realise just how nervous people were about whether change could happen without there being mass uprisings and bloodshed. Even I, in my obliviousness, felt it. I saw the long lines of people waiting to vote for the first time in history. The lines went on for what seemed like miles. While the voting was supposed to happen on one day, the polls remained open for 3 days in order for everyone in those queues to have the opportunity to vote.
It’s why I was screaming at the TV screen in 2010 when people were still waiting to vote in the General Election and politicians were arguing the polls had to close because voting had to happen on that day. It’s my firm belief that polls should only ever close when all the people in the queue have voted. Who cares if that means they stay open for a day or two extra?
As you can probably tell, voting is incredibly important to me now. Those scenes, the joy on people’s faces that finally, finally they were able to be a part of the political process and have their say left their mark on me. I obviously didn’t grow up in the time of the suffragettes fighting for a woman’s right to vote. Instead I grew up watching just how important voting was to people who had never been able to do it before. The amount of power that being able to tick a box or two gives you can never be underestimated.
At the time of all of this happening, while I was vaguely curious about what was going on, it wasn’t really on my list of priorities. Sure it obviously had an impact, and as I learnt more it had even more of an impact on me. However I was learning to cope with an ever expanding family. As the eldest of the eldest of the eldest I had been the only child and only grandchild for 18 months, before my cousin Matthew was born. I was an only child for 3 and a half years when my brother was born. I had to deal with new responsibilities, different roles and expectations. I had to cope with attention being taken away from me and given to other people. I had to SHARE things. Why should I care about the outside world at a time when I was going through such a crisis of my own?