Nelson Mandela casts his vote in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. File picture: John Parkin/AP
Nelson Mandela casts his vote in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. File picture: John Parkin/AP

Our democracy as seen by a 16-year-old

By HANNAH ABRAHAMS Time of article published Sep 2, 2019

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History is my favourite subject. Perhaps this is because I’ve always been a naturally inquisitive person, but it’s my favourite nonetheless.

I remember when we were learning about apartheid and the events that led to a democratic South Africa.

The lesson had been like any other up until the moment my teacher started telling the class about how he couldn’t understand why people born after 1994 - today’s youth in particular - are still upset about what happened during the apartheid era.

According to him, their anger and frustration are unreasonable because, again, according to him, apartheid in no way affects them and they were born into a South Africa of equal opportunity.

He then said, and I quote, people must “build a bridge and get over it”.

I immediately felt two things.

The first was bewilderment. I just couldn’t understand why he thought that he, a white man, of all people was qualified to make such a statement.

Second, I felt rage. I was enraged because his lips had uttered those words so carelessly, as if it meant nothing and didn’t carry any weight at all.

James Baldwin puts it best in his essay, The White Man’s Guilt: “History as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And one does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

This makes me think of when people, especially white people, say that they don’t see colour. I’m a coloured girl, and there is an endless amount of history behind the story of coloured people. And it is this history that makes a big contribution to my frame of reference, a contribution to the lens through which I view the world.

Therefore, if you don’t see my ­colour, you fail to see me. This is how I interpret what Baldwin wrote.

There are many people, like my one history teacher, who think that what happened during apartheid doesn’t affect the people born after that period.

It does, though maybe not directly, but there is still an effect nonetheless. We can see this truth if we look at the areas where people live and the schools children attend, the jobs people have and the wealth they will inherit.

Many white people think they need to apologise or feel guilty on behalf of their ancestors, but nobody is asking them to do that. What they can do, though, is break down the systems their ancestors created which they still benefit from.

I often think about that comment my history teacher made. And because he could say it so easily, it makes me think of how many other people are saying something similar without thinking about what their words could mean to someone with a different experience from their own.

And so I think a lot of the work that needs to be done to reach a more equal South Africa involves understanding other people’s experiences.

This means having uncomfortable conversations with those who disagree with us and listening to their points of view. It means becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable.

* Abrahams is a 16-year-old, Grade 10 pupil at a high school in Gauteng. She is considering studying media and writing after matric

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