12/06/2013 05:39 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

I Grew Up in South Africa During Apartheid

I was born in South Africa, under apartheid -- a white child with every privilege. It was the year 1969, five years after Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.

While my parents weren't wealthy, my dad was an engineer, and a graduate of the University of Cape Town. We had a pretty little townhouse in the suburbs of Cape Town. I had good food to eat. There were dolls to play with, and presents under the tree at Christmas. I went to ballet lessons, and my lovely preschool down the road.

I had never heard the name 'Nelson Mandela'. I was too little to understand what was happening in my country, or what apartheid meant. I got the faintest glimpse every couple of weeks, when we rode the train into Cape Town to meet my father for lunch.

Apartheid through a child's eyes

Those were the only days that I actually saw black children. But it was always from far away, or through the window of a train. In the first six years of my life, I never got to speak or play with a child whose skin was a different colour than mine.

On those train rides, my mother and I waited on a platform designated for 'whites' waiting to board the train cars for 'whites'. There was a separate platform for 'blacks'. Once on the train, we'd pass parks and beaches clearly marked 'white' and 'black'. In Cape Town, if we needed to go to the bank, we'd approach a different counter than families with black children.

"Why didn't I do something?"

There's a certain guilt that comes from my childhood under apartheid. How could I not have known what was happening? Why didn't I do something, or at least, ask more questions? I see children here in Canada who not much older than I was then, with the courage to speak out against poverty and injustice. Some even start campaigns and fund-raising drives in their quest to make a difference. What was wrong with me?

Perhaps it was because I only realized what apartheid meant once we moved to Canada -- by experiencing something very different. That's not to say things are perfect here. Many of my friends from different cultural backgrounds have experienced struggle, discrimination and bullying, even here. But at least we can talk together, and share our stories and perspectives. At least we can listen to each other, and try to understand.

The legacy of apartheid

In my first year at Queen's University, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison. My classmates were euphoric about what this would mean for South Africa. My optimism was more cautious, and this frustrated my friends.

"How can you not see this for what it is?" my room-mate asked me, as we sat up talking late at night. "Everything is about to change for South Africa! I don't understand why you can't be more excited."

I wanted to be excited. I wanted to believe that everything would change! But I couldn't forget what apartheid had been like, how it had kept people from getting to know one another. How could the critical conversations even begin, when the people at the table were complete strangers to one another?

Crossing the train tracks

A few years later, I returned to South Africa with my husband for a visit. I remember driving back from a few days in the wine region, where we'd enjoyed comfortable accommodation and wonderful meals.

As we drove back to where my cousins lived, we took a route I'd never driven before. I'll never forget rounding a bend, and seeing it all spread out ahead of us in the distance: a township filled with thousands of broken-down tin shacks, stretching as far as the eye could see. I remember gulping for air, as though someone had punched me in the stomach. It was the first time I had actually 'crossed the tracks' to see what was on the other side.

South Africa's apartheid was about so much more than separate train platforms. And it didn't end in the years following Nelson Mandela's release. In that community were women the same age as me, who hadn't had any of the opportunities I'd had. Many wouldn't be able to feed their children that day. Many had lost a child to something as tragically simple as pneumonia or diarrhea. Their children may not have a chance to go to school.

That kind of apartheid -- not officially sanctioned yet economically and socially real -- is something we see all over the world.

Mandela's legacy in my life

I don't want to feel guilty any longer, about my childhood under apartheid. But I'm determined not to let the experience be wasted.

It's played a huge role in bringing me to my work at World Vision, where I play a small part in helping break down the walls of poverty and injustice. In the school playground, my experiences under apartheid help me decide who to spend time talking with, as our children play together. I'm purposeful about crossing the tarmac to chat with someone with a different country or culture, and I love hearing what they think about everything from federal politics to what to make for dinner that night.

I'm also purposeful about talking with my sons about racism, discrimination, and the danger of erecting barriers rather than pulling up more chairs at the table. Tonight, I will tell them again about Nelson Mandela, and his courage, patience and forgiveness. I will allow my memories to keep teaching me -- then take up Mandela's challenge to help build a different future.


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