South Africa then and now

Nelson Mandela outside his home in 2005 (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS)
Nelson Mandela outside his home in 2005
 I GREW up in small-town South Africa in the early 1950s, when Afrikaans was the dominant language, although we spoke English at home. We lived a typically white-middle-class South African family life; my father was in business, my mother a housewife and didn’t work.
By the 1990s it was no longer politically correct to say of a housewife that she “didn’t work” simply because she was a homemaker, but it really was semantically correct regarding my mother; she didn’t work. We had three full-time live-in African servants, plus a woman who came twice a week to do the washing and ironing. T
he only labor-saving device was an electric floor-polisher, used by the “houseboy” to keep the vast expanses of parquet floor shining brightly. All else was done by black hands, including each morning stoking the huge coal-fired stove that stood in the kitchen and was kept going all day. When my father one day brought home an electric kettle, we felt we’d properly entered the 20th century. And when, in 1953, an American relative came to South Africa and presented my parents with an automatic pop-up toaster, I stood for hours admiring the amazing device and proudly invited all my friends in to see it too. They were appropriately impressed and we ate lots of toast.
Lydia was one of the servants who worked for our family for years. She had a young son who lived with her in the servants’ rooms at the bottom of the garden. We called him Oompie, though I don’t think that was his real name. Little Oompie loved riding on my bicycle with me. He was too small to use it alone, but I would take him on the pillion, and he’d shriek with delighted horror as I rode faster and faster, purposely wobbling from side to side to add spice to the ride. I had as much fun as he did. But one day my mother told me I could no longer ride with Oompie on the streets, although it was still OK, she said, to play with him in the backyard. I couldn’t understand why, and she wouldn’t explain. Years later I discovered that she had received an anonymous telephone call, warning her that the neighbors would not tolerate seeing a white child and a black child playing together in public. I was too young to know that I “should” have felt superior to him because I was white and he was black, or because he was “only” the child of a servant.
Oompie spoke the Zulu dialect of his mother, and I, of course, spoke English, but verbal communication, or rather, the lack of it, had never been a problem until then. Although he begged me, Oompie could not understand why I refused to take him on my bike any longer, and even if I had known the real reason, I could not have explained. Wisely, Lydia did not intervene. She knew her job depended on it. Oompie stayed angry at me for weeks.
We grew up never having to lift a finger at home. Our beds were made, our clothes washed, our shoes polished, our rooms cleaned, our food cooked, all by the willing hands of Lydia and her staff. To her dying day my mother was a terrible cook. The servants earned a pittance, but considered themselves lucky to have relatively good jobs. They had a roof over their heads, food, and even free medical attention. That is to say, my parents would, at their own discretion, pay the doctor if they decided that his medical services were truly necessary. My mother and father were strict but fair employers (all things being relative, of course), and the servants appreciated that. It was years before I learned about the iniquities and injustices of the apartheid regime.
I immigrated to Israel in 1971 and the apartheid policy collapsed in the early 1990s. The world applauded. The large ex-South African community in Israel was elated. Jewish activists had always played a central role in fighting the bigoted racism there; at last it had ended, officially.
Fast forward about 15 years: the South African currency has devalued sharply, property values have dropped, unemployment has skyrocketed, the promises of equal opportunity and egalitarianism have faded. The millions of poverty-stricken Africans have stayed poor, opportunity hasn’t knocked on many doors, corruption is rife, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. Violence, crime, AIDS and feeble governance are the lingua franca.
What happened to Nelson Mandela’s dream? What happened to Lydia and her team? Where is little Oompie today and does he own a bicycle? (Not to even think about a car.) Wiser men (and women) than I can give analytical answers to those burning questions but I have to wonder: what went wrong? Stop the Press: Cape Town is in the grip of a severe water shortage. South Africa is considering downgrading diplomatic relations with Israel, even though it has offered to help alleviate its water crisis. What went wrong in southern Africa?
Jonathan Danilowitz, a writer and retired El Al employee, lives in Tel Aviv.