GRACIE AND I LEFT KIMBERLEY, SOUTH AFRICA, ON A HOT JULY DAY IN 1961, AND MARY MARGARET WENT WITH US. We left everything and never looked back. The next day, the wind was tender and kind, but bitter and hard the next. We became refugees in Luanda, Angola, where we learned to hunker down during the bad times and give thanks during the good. Even when it seemed life could not get worse—to us, things always looked better there in the north. We simply learned, like all the others, to survive and carry on.
The hardest part was watching South Africa—our homeland—from a distance. In Angola, we watched as black children were given inferior instruction in school. They were forced to learn Afrikaner instead of their own tongues. We watched as our brothers and sisters were forced to carry passbooks to move from one township to another…from one ghetto to another, with no hope for economic stability, and no hope for freedom. We watched as our brothers and sisters were called terrorists, Communists, when all they wanted was to be free. We watched as children were jailed and murdered there. Parents couldn’t even bury their dead according to their own traditions and preferences.
We watched the start of the Rivonia Trial and saw its tearful end. We watched Mandela and his nine comrades being sent to prison on Robben Island. We watched our youth attempt to take control of the struggle during the infamous Soweto uprising. And we watched as those working to enforce apartheid became even more bitter and hateful, all this as Afrikaner Christians went to church on Sunday and prayed to a God who didn’t seem to exist for blacks. How could justice and the law dictate one thing and the Church dictate another? How could we go on our merry way, as if nothing had happened? Even the Jews supported us; where were all the Christians?
Blacks were no better than slaves in South Africa, and from Angola we could only dream and wait. We were not animals; we were Africans, Christian Africans. We waited for other Christians to stand up and say, “No” to apartheid, and it took so long.
Finally, after so many years, we watched as our leaders at Robben Island were set free. We saw the day that Nelson was set free. “Glory to God,” we all yelled that day. I was on a Luanda street, and it felt like the day of reckoning had finally come.
Mandela negotiated the black man’s freedom in South Africa. Baby steps, some might call them, but they were steps in the right direction. We saw the bloodshed that followed, black-on-black violence that almost pushed the country back into chaos. What a monstrous period for South African blacks to have to go through and survive. It was soon after when Mandela stood and spoke but only a few words; suddenly it all made sense. Apartheid was over, but it was up to the black people of South Africa to walk out of the darkness and let the hatred and bloodshed go. “Take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea!” He spoke with such eloquence and understanding of what all blacks needed to hear that day.
Finally, we watched as twenty million South Africans—of all races—cast their vote for a free South Africa. We watched as the blacks and their leader Nelson Mandela took over. That day was April 27, 1994. I was fifty-three years old; Gracie was in her seventies; and Mary Margaret was the same as she was when we first saw her.
And after all this, so much pain and waiting, I now know one thing for certain: when an Afrikaner changes, he changes for good, 100 percent. This was how Mandela explained the miracle that happened in my country. Everyone expected a bloodbath, all-out civil war, whites killing blacks, and blacks killing whites. People in churches all over prayed to God on high, “Lord, help us so when the white people turn to loving, the black people don’t turn to hating.” And then out of nowhere, the people of South Africa decided: we are all South Africans. What a glorious day that must have been for those in South Africa. What a glorious day it was for all of us. There is still so much change in South Africa, freedom is still in the wind, and yet we still watch from afar.
I know the past cannot dictate your future unless you allow it, but it sure seems like the past has had a chokehold on us for a long time. But a marvelous thing happened at the bottom of my misery, and this is the real reason for my urgency to go home. We all have to find our way home some time.
I have two mothers—two mothers who love me the same, two mothers who cannot go home, and I cannot go home without them. I need your help. My family needs your help. Gracie is dying and she needs to go home now. Time with Mary Margaret is truly a gift, but it’s time for her to go with Gracie. She will not be forgotten. Both will be remembered as they are today…two strong and beautiful women who should have lived their lives together.
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