By Cynthia Edwards - April 26, 1994
As today, for the first time, the polls open freely and universally in South Africa, my mind and heart are torn from my home and family in America. They fly to friends in that beautiful country of my youth and coming of age.
Tears stand in my eyes as I watch on the news an old black grandmother in a township being given voter education. A woman like sweet Angelina, who must now be so old, but who once washed and cooked and cleaned in our house with cheerful vigor. Angelina sent her children away from the dirty and violent township to receive a traditional upbringing with their grandmother in the distant homeland. She only saw those children one month out of the year, in accordance with the law that said she had no right to exist permanently in the white people's South Africa. When she came home to see them they called, "We remember you! You're Angelina." And she made this sacrifice of her family for the high-minded and noble cause of scrubbing my toilet every day.
You, Angelina, lived in servitude in our house, yet you reigned over us in purity of spirit and perfect resignation.
Thinking of the townships recalls Edith, who served in our household before Angelina. I often drove Edith home to the sandy and treeless township of Guguletu on her half-day off, to save her wasted hours on trains and buses lumbering in that general direction. In our suburban kitchen, Edith listened to my girlish secrets while she prepared gourmet meals for us. In her township kitchen, without advantage of electricity or plumbing, she prepared hot tea for me, boiled over an outdoor fire and lightened with sweetened condensed milk from a can, which needs no refrigeration. Edith kept all my secrets in her heart, even when we attended a blacks-only concert at the Seven Arts Theatre, me trying (and failing) to look non-white, to show my solidarity without actually courting arrest.
I remember, with unrelieved shame even after twenty years, the ultimate disenfranchised: a dozen or more black convict laborers who came one day to turn the soil and weed in our garden, with its flaming bird of paradise flowers and other exotic displays. And while the men worked under God's hot sun a white guard stood over them, pointing a machine gun at them to make sure none escaped -- at least, not alive. I watched with horror and prayed no one would put a foot wrong, lest his blood should water our soil, staining our household with the odium of oppression forever.
Today I remember my polyglot coterie of University friends, some of whom settled in South Africa, and some of whom left. Mike, Liz, Lucky, François; South African, Flemish, Mauritian, and a chaotic group of French-speaking Greeks from the Congo. I remember my first and best boyfriend, and his mother, who was a mother to me, too. I remember Tony and Rajah, good-natured Indian friends. I remember toothless Uncle Adam, our gardener, and Mattie, of mixed race, abused by men and society, yet never failing to get our ironing done on Thursdays. I remember Afrikaner farmers who opened their homes to me, a total stranger passing by, with a measure of familial warmth never equaled in Anglo homes.
I remember my first date with a black South African, a cast member of Ipi 'N Tombia -- ah, but that was in London, safely out of reach of the South African Police.
I remember a white lecturer at the University of Cape Town, who used South African Economics class to dismember the apartheid system, proving that policies like forced migrant labour were economically indefensible.
Today, as the sun rises above the majesty of Table Mountain and the riches of the Witwatersrand and dances brightly and without prejudice on both the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans, my old friends will leave their Cape Dutch mansions, their high-security ranch houses, their cottages, huts, and lean-tos and head for the polls. My prayers go with you all. You are middle-aged, you are old, and some of you are ghosts looking on. But today, you deserve to enjoy the youthful feeling of rebirth, as you vote the new South Africa into life.
Sala kakuhle, old friends ... go well.