South Africa 1985
4 - Looking Out
‘We used to salute the flag at school', said Elizabeth.
I did not understand immediately why she was telling me this. We used to salute the flag in Australian schools, although the habit seemed lately to have lapsed in favour of ‘I ♥ Australia' T-shirts.
‘The Afrikaner believes that this is his land', explained David. The fact that he did not say ‘his or her' also told me something about Afrikaner society. ‘Afrikaners trekked north to get away from the English in Cape Town. They reckon they made this society -- and really they have. In just half a generation the Afrikaner has changed from a farmer to a business giant. There is deep pride and profound belief in their own place within South Africa.'
David was not an apologist for Afrikaner society; he was simply explaining it. Elizabeth did not explain it; she described it.
‘What was your attitude toward the English?' I asked.
‘I hated them', said Elizabeth venomously. It startled me. ‘If a shopkeeper spoke to me in English I would call for the manager and tell him that I would refuse to be served by a person who could not speak Afrikaans. I could not speak English. And I would not learn it.'
For a moment my mind sailed off on another track. I asked David, ‘Did you speak Afrikaans when you met Elizabeth?'
‘No. Not a word.'
‘Then how did you ... er ... get together?'
‘It was the eye language', they responded cutely in perfect unison. Apparently I was not the first to ask.
As we talked it became clear that if Elizabeth had been brainwashed to hate the English, her animosity towards the blacks had been even greater. ‘We believed that the blacks were dirty and diseased. If they came to the house for water, we would not give them a glass or a cup. Ajam tin -- that's what we gave them a drink from, a used jam tin. We didn't want any of the black rubbing off onto our crockery.
‘And they must not come to the front door. They had to come round to the back door.
‘I have two brothers. If either of them came to our house and found a black sitting there' -- (she pointed where I was sitting) -- ‘he would turn around and walk right out. And I would never see him again.' I actually found myself shaking with emotion at the thought of a racial hatred that strangled even the love between a brother and a sister.
‘I remember the first night that a black man stayed overnight in our house', she went on. ‘He was a lovely young evangelist. We had had blacks in our house for meals before, but suddenly I realised that this man was going to have to sleep in one of our beds. I went into my bedroom and said to myself, “How can I let a black man sleep here? He'll get black all over the white sheets!”'
She was not saying this as a joke. There was an awful loathing in her words which came from deep inside a heart that had been trained from childhood to despise the blacks. Again I was shocked at her passion. The emotion showed in her voice and eyes as she honestly recalled the struggle in her heart between her society and her God. It was not that she still believed such a silly idea with her mind. It was that her heart still believed it from her childhood.
‘What did you do?' I asked like a straight man in a drama.
‘I just prayed. “Lord help me to do this.” And I just went calmly into my daughter's bedroom and put fresh sheets on her bed and invited him to sleep the night. A black man. Sleeping under my own roof. In my own daughter's bed! I couldn't believe it.'
In my experience until then, the beliefs of upbringing were nowhere more powerful than in South Africa. But Elizabeth could testify to the power ofJesus to reshape even an Afrikaner's sense of reality. Her family still did not know that black people had slept in her house. ‘If they did, they would refuse to see me again.'
Some years earlier, Elizabeth and David decided to go without black servants. ‘Everyone still thinks we are very odd', Elizabeth said with a grin. ‘The kids get teased at school. Other kids say to them “You make your own bed?” They don't believe it. Our kids just reply, “We have six nannies at our house -- and they're all white!”'
I cast myself in the role of devil's advocate and asked carefully, ‘Surely there will be some people who will say that you are depriving a black woman of a job by not having a nanny.
David and Elizabeth both attacked with a force that shocked me.
‘It would just be impossible for us to have blacks in the house as guests if there were servants here too. They would not take us seriously', said Elizabeth quickly and precisely.
‘If we could pay a housekeeper a just wage it would be different', explained David. ‘But the going rate for a housekeeper is seventy-five rand (A$1 15) a month. The poverty level in Johannesburg is 200 rand (A$300) a month. For us it is simple exploitation.'
It did not need to be explained how Elizabeth and David had thrown off the values of society with which they grew up. The redeeming and transforming power of a lively Christian faith was in their eyes and on their tongues.
But how much was yet to be transformed? Clearly a revolution had happened in Elizabeth's life to permit her to share her home with black guests. But such behaviour is commonplace in other parts of the world, even among people who do not know Christ. Was this all that God required of whites in South Africa?
Evidently not. Elizabeth and David told me how, after many years at a Methodist church, they felt that God was calling them to leave. David's father and grandfather were Methodist ministers. Leaving was not easy.
Although the conviction to leave was strong, the place to go was not so easy to find. One day, Noel Vose, a member of the World Vision Australia board, was a guest for Sunday lunch in their house.
‘Do you know this church?' Noel asked showing an address on a slip of paper. ‘I have to preach here tonight.'
‘It was a Baptist church just down the road', recalled Elizabeth. ‘We couldn't just drop him off We had to go in. The pastor was new. He'd come from Nairobi Baptist and this was his first non-black church! We heard a message like we had not heard in years. So we had found a new spiritual home.'
Within five minutes drive of Elizabeth's middle class house, with its brick walls, modern kitchen, swimming pool and proudly kept garden, was a town of blacks and coloureds. They lived in shanties, without drainage, sewerage, electricity, refuse collection or sealed roads.
‘For thirty years this church had run a Sunday school down in the shanty town under a big tree', David and Elizabeth explained. ‘The new pastor cancelled it and laid on a bus to bring the kids up to the white church. The first week he filled a VW Kombi van. Now we have a big bus load every Sunday. A lot of white people left the church, but many remained. We really enjoy teaching in the Sunday school.'
After they had been at the church a little while David and Elizabeth volunteered to start a Bible study in the shanty town.
‘People thought we were mad. That we'd get killed', said Elizabeth. ‘Now, every Thursday night, we drive over there and meet in one of the houses. If David's away, I go by myself. We meet around a candle in a room about half as big as this.' This was about three metres square. ‘We try to do a lot of listening. But we share our feelings honestly and so do the others. I think most people think we are pretty foolish', Elizabeth said with a self-mocking smile.
I recalled Paul's words: ‘God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom' (1 Corinthians 1:25). A small part of South Africa was being transformed by such foolishness.