Last weekend, I witnessed a young man from the most unlikely of backgrounds being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship – a harbinger of radical change in his story. It moved me, almost to tears, and reminded me of the power that that single moment (building on many prior moments of ever-increasingly revealed significance) had had in my own life. I was humbled by the thought of what where he comes from means for where he is going, and vice versa.
Albeit that my background is not as modest as his, I felt released by the empathy I experienced toward him to consider where my own journey began. Having not properly reflected on my winning the scholarship in these terms, I may have short-changed my parents: how significant it must have been for them (as for me) to see me win it and subsequently obtain a doctorate from Oxford. Therefore, I am committing this blog to a reflection on my origins and how I got on the path to where I am today.
I spent the formative years of my life in Soweto (an acronym for South Western Townships) on the outskirts of Johannesburg. I lived with my maternal grandparents, aunt, uncle and a couple of cousins in a small four-roomed house: two bedrooms, a dining room and kitchen – all of them only a little larger than many people’s bathrooms.
Where was our bathroom? Well, the corrugated iron-roofed toilet structure stood separately outside, facing our house – adjacent to a giant drain with our only tap hovering over it and connected to three of our immediate neighbours’ toilets. Most township homes were the same. For actual baths, we used plastic and metal tubs of varying sizes, in which one would put cold and then boiling water from buckets carried from the tap and coal-fire kitchen stove, respectively. Some of the tubs, one could immerse one’s little-girl bottom in; otherwise, one had to stand outside the tubs and use a facecloth to wet, soap, rub, rinse and then wipe one’s body.
I couldn’t live with my parents because they worked long hours in order to afford the care our “extended” family (on both sides), my siblings and I needed. Their hard work meant that they could come weekly (sometimes more often) to deliver groceries and some spare cash. Ultimately, they were able to provide enough money that two backrooms and a garage could be squeezed into the small property to relieve the overcrowding in the main house somewhat.
Being born at the start of the ‘80s, there was a sense often repeated out-loud that I was born in a different time: “born with a silver teaspoon”. After all – being at least 8 years younger than my siblings – in the context of our country’s history, I came a generation after them. This was powerfully symbolised by the fact that I was the first one who was able to attend a “white people’s school” (that is, a private school). Little did I comprehend, at the time, what this step in my life portended and its mixed blessings.
My parents were much more insightful than I. They were determined to give us all as good a life as they could. For them, that mostly meant giving us the education that they had not had. My dad had not finished high school but had at one point managed to win himself an apprenticeship in a furniture business then worked his way up through the company. When I was eight, he spoke of my one day going to an Oxford he had never seen with his own eyes. My mother had finished school (pre-1976 riots) under Bantu education only because her two-years-older brother had not, but had rather worked. She worked to get herself through nursing school and never forgot her “debt” to her brother or her other siblings. Now, together, my parents attempted a number of entrepreneurial endeavours to try to make their dream of educating us as best as possible come true.
For my sister who comes immediately before me, the best education my parents found for her as a black female was at a seminary in KwaZulu-Natal. But, by the time I was ready for school, the laws had been liberalised and I could attend a private school. I remember glimpses of the sacrifices that my parents made toward that, though they were only vaguely apparent to my all-too-young eyes. For instance, they worked late then rose early to drive me an hour and a half every week morning to school in the northern suburbs – an arrangement complicated by periodic ‘stay-aways’ and the harsh realities of the 1986-1990 State of Emergency, during which my education began and from which they tried to protect me.
I similarly recall the sometimes overwhelming sense of how great the chasm to be traversed in the almost daily trip from the township to the ‘burbs. My first day visiting a “multiracial” nursery school after a year in a township school stands out in my mind: I could scarcely pronounce the English vowels as my mother tried to help me sound them out while she drove me to the aptitude test. I can only imagine how nervous she must have been that I would fail and be rejected, even as she feared equally that I might be accepted and be led into a future that would make me thoroughly different from her.
I have indeed become very different from my family. A couple of years after my first day of schooling in the suburbs, my township friends would tell me, “you speak English like it’s coming out of your nose”. This refrain would become a staple even amongst my family (though obviously not one that was straightforwardly complimentary). To go from where I began – through the great fortune and trials of straddling two distinct worlds in a segregated South Africa – to a Rhodes Scholarship (fraught as that is also in its own way) is a journey to which I can scarcely assign words.
It is striking what the journey has meant for me in external terms: working at an elite academic institution, travelling abroad regularly, married to a man from a country on the other side of the globe, and having friends who speak a myriad of different languages and come from or live in foreign lands. What a different world I live in from that of my family! What a different world from where I started. It is even more profound, and complicated, if one considers what this journey has meant for who I am, as a person. But, that, I’ll have to save for another post.
The point is that, different as I am from my family, I do not forget that it is they who opened the door for me in the first place. As my mother often puts it, she would piece together the little knowledge and English that she had to negotiate, on my behalf, entry into places where I would acquire more than she possessed. As I summed up in the acknowledgments to my DPhil, today, “my father’s dream is complete and my mother can finally get off of her knees.”