Fading Rainbow



FREEDOM: Is this goodbye? A democratic South Africa struggles to say goodbye to the man who freed her, as balloons, cards and posters fill up his hospital wall in Pretoria. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

In 1991, I came to a hateful, racist country that was on the verge of revival. Coming from Zimbabwe, I was shocked to see no black, Indian or coloured children in my class. “Where are they… the children of colour?” I asked my teacher one day. She looked at me confused. “Didn’t your parents tell you? We are separated here. We are different.”

Different? My black friends in Zimbabwe all spoke English. They taught me the beauty of an African sunset, those were the only colours that mattered.

I spoke fluent Shona. I could sing the national anthem, which has the exact same tune to the South African one, Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika. The television spoke of a civil war rising between the ANC (African National Congress) and the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party).

Madiba_Bang Bang Club

BANG BANG SA: Greg Marinovich and other photojournalists documented South Africa’s gruesome civil war as the Bang Bang Club, now a major motion movie under the same name. PIC: Internet

My parents were glued every night to the screen: “Maybe it’s time we go back?” “But we just got here.” Chris Hani’s gruesome assassination in his driveway rocked the country the most. He was the Communist Party leader and yet, being so popular, there was hint he had a good chance at winning the next elections.

The unrest and murders were documented by the Bang Bang Club in photojournalism that shocked the world. The ANC’s leader, Nelson Mandela (a Xhosa), was set free. For years, the country had labelled him “a terrorist.” Today, he is known as our most cherished “freedom fighter.” He was even condemned by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who later visited him as our leader.

I was only eight years old when Nelson Mandela took the oath in April 1994, next to FW De Klerk, to rebuild our country and her people. Yet, I remember it like yesterday. A man of peace stood before us. He was imprisoned for 27 years for treason. He was only allowed to send one letter every six months and get a visitor for only 30 minutes once a year.

Madiba_De Klerk

PEACE: The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1993 to Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk (who was his predecessor and deputy president) for “The peaceful termination of Apartheid.” PIC: Internet

It takes a lot to stand against your oppressors, learn their language and finally lead them. It takes a Godly man. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside De Klerk.

My dad took us to the Union Buildings the week after our first democratic elections. There was still confetti all over the lawns. Our new flag was flown proudly above the arches.
“Do you know what this man and flag mean for all of us?” Dad asked us.
“Not really…”
“It means we are all free. We are free to vote. We are free to take the same bus. We are free to go to the same schools.”

The rainbow flag fascinated me the most: the red for our blood-shed, the white for our peace, the yellow for our riches, the blue for our two oceans, the black for our tribes. The green “Y” shows two parts becoming one. Eleven languages were a result of our separation known as “homelands.” I even remember taking my domestic worker regularly to check her pass, a few years before. “I am different to you,” she showed me. “I have to be in bed at a certain time, I cannot go to certain places.” She had eyes, ears, a nose and curly hair like me and I also had to be in bed by a certain time, it was hard for a young child to understand.

Little by little, my father’s prophecy came true. Black, coloured, Indian children trickled one by one into my school. The children played with each other’s hair the most, it was fascinating to finally meet them. Nelson Mandela’s real first name is “Rolihlahla” meaning ‘pulling the branch of a tree’ and that’s exactly what he stood for. He took a poisoned tree of South Africa and gave her new branches: the branches of courage, forgiveness, patience and peace.

People were worried the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) trials would open old wounds. And, while they did, our new country (thanks to Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) bled less in her quest for peace. Most perpetrators were given amnesty or asylum elsewhere.


SPORTS’ HERO: Nelson Mandela reunited South Africa using sport. PICS: Various sources GRAPHIC: Vanessa Smeets

Nelson Mandela saw the one thing that united us all: sport. While the black people of South Africa loved football (or soccer, as we call it), the whites preferred rugby. As documented by the Hollywood movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela stood at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, shaking hands with our Springboks. They sang the new national anthem proudly that day, after much practice, and took the cup home for us. That golden cup represented a golden era for South Africa that would forever be known as the “Madiba years.” Father of our nation aka Tata Madiba, for his clan name. He was our oldest elected president at 75. But, he’s not only “father of the nation,” he’s keeper of peace and guardian of our rainbow nation.

Today, I am struck with the realisation it’s time to let him go. Yet, like so many other South Africans, I am unable to free the man that set us free. South Africa stands uncertain: what will happen to the ANC? To our peace?

My only wish is that his last memory of us will be positive. Despite our xenophobia, crime and incessant complaining, that we can rise above and meet his ideals again: a country bound by love and forgiveness. You divide a nation by fear and hatred. Those who fear and hate, they flee. He gave us courage and taught us forgiveness. The problem with every rainbow, is that it slowly fades, but its beauty lives on. Mandela painted that rainbow for us.

In 2004, with his help, we were given the chance to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It was the biggest challenge to ever face South Africa; our stadiums were small or worn down. But, somehow, his smiling face grabbing onto that trophy motivated us.

In 2006, I interviewed eight 8-year olds for a newspaper article about what they would give him for his 88th birthday. Their answers were beautiful: “eternal life,” “immortality,” “freedom” and “happiness.”


FREEDOM BABIES: Mandela has touched both our oldest and youngest citizens. Pretoria Montessori Pre-school’s art illuminates his hospital wall with messages of hope and love. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

Today, I am teaching four and five year olds what he means to us. These freedom babies have still a lot to learn about his legacy. Their messages on their art for his hospital wall reveal, however, that they finally comprehend what he stands for:
“He is the grandfather I always wish I had.”
“Our country will be so sad without him.”
“He was the best president we ever had.”
“Mandela means freedom for us all.”
“It’s thanks to him, I can go to school with everyone.”

It’s the biggest full moon of the year. In a way, she consoles us: “Don’t worry, South Africa. Rest assured, his light will shine on.”



Behind the mask of xenophobia (via Chica Papillon)

If only more people read this…

Behind the mask of xenophobia VANESSA SMEETS At the abandoned babies’ home, there are five newborns neatly placed in a row. One is a white baby, Luke, with tiny pink lips, whose parents are originally German. Two generations ago, the war played a part in his family moving … Read More

via Chica Papillon

Behind the mask of xenophobia

SANCTUARY: Zimbabwean refugees make their way to Beit Bridge in hope of food and work across the border. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets


At the abandoned babies’ home, there are five newborns neatly placed in a row.

One is a white baby, Luke, with tiny pink lips, whose parents are originally German. Two generations ago, the war played a part in his family moving to South Africa. He was the only survivor in a family car crash. Next to him, there’s a little black baby with big round eyes. Thumi is a product of rape. Her mother left her at the home after she was born. Next to Thumi lies Mamoud, a little Muslim boy whose parents had to give up, after they lost everything in Nigeria’s conflict wars. Mamoud’s neighbour, Sandra, is a beautiful coloured baby with piercing blue eyes. Her history is a mystery. She was found here after Christmas. Lastly, there’s tiny Bo, very premature and from Chinese origin. His mother passed away during his birth.

Luke, Thumi, Mamoud, Sandra and Bo have one thing in common: they are products of a new South Africa. Although their blood may not be Afrikaans, Zulu or Sotho, it doesn’t define who they are. They are all survivors and they have a destiny to live here, in a country that embraces them where not even their own parents could.

They all giggle the same as the nurse tickles their tummies. They all cry the same as she leaves. They even look the same with their blue and pink bonnets and tiny socks.
These children will grow up one day to learn about potjie kos, runaways (an African delicacy made of chicken feet), the national anthem and our first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.

One child will grow up to be president and one will grow up in jail. It’s their destiny to choose. All, however, will have to defend themselves in a world that is become increasingly cruel to immigrants.

FIRE WITH FIRE: Xenophobia was at its peak in May 2008. Courtesy: online

Xenophobia is not that different to racism, only that one hates the person’s origins more than just his/her skin colour. The person doesn’t belong because, although he/she may be black or white like you, they speak German instead of Afrikaans or Shona instead of Tswana. Parents and children of the same home also speak different languages, the mother speaks in Afrikaans, the child replies in English, yet no one gets kicked out of the house for saying ‘Dankie’ instead of ‘Thank you’.

Yet, one spits at one’s neighbour because they have nowhere else to go. Ask the Zimbabwean student what he had to go through to be here, or if his parents got through the Beit Bridge border in time for his graduation. It took 12 hours in the baking sun and 14 hours of road…

Luke grows up to be a historian. He speaks only when he is spoken to. He is humble and hard-working. He is the epitome of respect.

Thumi grows up to be the soul of the party, she laughs and smiles a lot and makes everyone feel loved. She is the epitome of friendliness.

Mamoud, despite his Muslim name, grows up to be a peer-group leader in a Christian school. He is kind, warm and caring. He is the epitome of compassion.

At sixteen, Bo falls in love with politics. Despite many hardships and financial trouble, he gets a scholarship, meets well-placed people and becomes president. He is the epitome of perseverance.

Sandra grows up to help troubled kids in juvenile prison. In fact, most of her teen years are spent here comforting and caring for others. Yet, she was judged already. “Grows up in jail” meant convict, right? Sandra is, therefore, the epitome of an open mind.

These five innocent babies who grow up to change the world they live in are the five symbols in conquering xenophobia: respect, friendliness, perseverance, compassion and an open mind.

Are we ready as South Africans to put away our judgements and embrace change? Or will we just sit there and mock the foreigner who speaks English strangely?

MIND SETS: Zapiro depicts the South African mindset on different countries in Africa. COURTESY: Zapiro

May 2008 claimed the lives of dozens of Zimbabweans refugees who had come here to flee an oppressed country. They had come to feed and clothe their families. Instead, they were welcomed with bitterness and hatred and fed to the angry masses.

Xenophobia is about our territorial natures. For some of us, it is harder to share our utensils, bedding and clothes with others. For some, it is about our own survival: who are they to take our land, our wives and our jobs? Maybe the story of those five foreign children at the babies’ home could teach us all a lesson. Maybe it’s time to dedicate ourselves sincerely to a zen created through peace and harmony, even after the festivities of the World Cup.