The Ties That Bind Us: A Personal Reflection of South Africa and New Orleans

Editor’s Note: Our guest blogger, Rose Preston, is a white woman from South Africa. She works as a GED instructor with mostly black woman in New Orleans. We decided, for this time—for Mandela— to share her story. Her story is  powerful and informative. I hope you agree.

By Rose Preston, Guest Blogger

As a child growing up in South Africa in a privileged white family, I had no idea anything was askew, having nothing against which to compare my life. The black maids who cared for me were somehow family, even if they did live in separate quarters on the property.  With the dawning realization of the rigidity of apartheid came the awful sense of its heinous oppression and blatant prejudice, compared to the embarrassment of my dumb luck.  My parents and older siblings demonstrated that it took personal action to assist the disenfranchised.

I remember our family’s long-time maid, Bella, first took the time to make our morning coffee before asking for our help as her husband, Mac, had been arrested in a raid (he was from Mozambique).  I went to court and was heartsick at the desperate souls being shuffled about, no rights, and no representation, doomed to a predetermined fate.  The judge was solicitous as I explained Mac and Bella had been together almost twenty years and had children, but was adamant that allowing a reprieve in our situation would mean he’d have to do it for others, and arguing that Mac was taking the place of a lawful black person in the workplace.  We never saw Mac again; such unthinkable tragedies were not uncommon.

Studying politics at a liberal university, becoming a student representative, and attending demonstrations, it was a given I’d be under surveillance.  For me to attend a friend’s wedding in the black township of Soweto, I had to apply for permission to go there, and once there, I was stopped and searched by the suspicious police (even having ANC literature would land you in jail).

An Afrikaans pastor, Beyers Naude, considered a traitor by the regime for renouncing apartheid, mentored me.  He was ‘banned,’ which meant being under house arrest and only allowed to see one person at a time.  Visiting him, I learned to spot the undercover police in their cars, watching me behind sunglasses, and who would make pretexts to intimidate and harass me.

I began working in labor relations as a way to approach change.  Black unions were banned, but the factory where I worked allowed committees to raise issues with management; it was a paltry arrangement, but better than nothing.  As I met with the leaders, they expressed the desire of many illiterate workers to learn to read and write.  So I began ‘schools’ during their lunch break.  I have never had such diligent, attentive students, delighting as they learned to tell the time or write their names.  It occurred to me how I would have struggled mightily to do the same tasks in a different language, just as they were required to do everything in English.

n mandela story

The prevailing belief was that the country would be embroiled in a ghastly civil war; the history of colonial Africa pointed to such inevitability.  The saying goes: ‘The darkest hour is right before the dawn,’ and South Africa in the 1980’s was especially brutal.  Thus getting the news, in San Francisco, of Mandela’s release seemed surreal, the flicker of hope joyously, but warily, lit.

I returned to South Africa to live after Mandela’s election, which was a shock.  Black people drove cars!  Black people were  allowed out after dark!  There were interracial couples!  I had multiracial classes at the two universities where I taught!  And yet, you don’t undo the legacy of a dark and entrenched system overnight.  The inequities are still huge, and many argue that the chasm between rich and poor is even wider, even if it isn’t ostensibly predicated on race.  Still, it is a miracle that Mandela steered warring factions away from full-scale bloodshed.

I have often said that New Orleans is a microcosm of South Africa: both beautiful places, culturally alive (Cape Town is called the ‘new’ New Orleans), suffused with the stain of racism, riddled with crime, alive with rituals and friendly people.  Perhaps this explains the immediate sense of home I felt in NOLA  when I first came here twenty years ago.

I got a scholarship to study theater here and met my future husband, James, a proud local.  We went to California for theater work and studies, but returned often.  Tragically, ten years ago, James and his mother were brutally murdered during a visit he made to see his mom in NOLA.  I thought New Orleans was a cursed place.  However, in dealing with the painful aftermath I found loving and supportive people. I became an activist with issues of justice and wrote a free book for families of crime victims.

Mandela proclaimed August 9th as Women’s Day. This was in recognition of the role women played in the struggle. He acknowledged the difficulties women faced: “As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow.”  With the predominantly black women I have taught in Nola, mostly from housing projects, I again think of Mandela’s warning:

“As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance.”  These strong, proud women value  education and its impact on their families. In New Orleans women are marching on their own long walk to freedom.