signage for whites vs. non-whites outside building


By Merry Lynn Byrd on August 29, 2016

Although I ran away in second grade, I obeyed my mother and did not cross the street. Seven years later, anxious and unhappy—and unable to understand or articulate this angst—I tried the same technique. My good grades, composed demeanor, and compliant personality earned me an exchange student assignment in South Africa within three months of application.

I arrived at the airport New Year’s Day. Forty-eight hours later my tired eyes noted that the host family’s car resembled an old Nova and the weeds along the Transvaal highway looked like those in central Texas. What was not obvious on the drive to Brakpan was the pervasiveness of the very ISAs (ideological state apparatuses) I did not know I was trying to escape.

In my new home, these prejudices ran rampant. My Israeli immigrant host family made the most of apartheid, keeping a housekeeper, a cook, and two yard men. Although their children attended Hebrew schools, I was put in a public school where I got into trouble the first week for leaving my hair down and wearing pants. (After the second offense, my host mother located a hand-me-down uniform.)

Throughout the months of January and February I went to class, came home, and did Standard Nine homework. Math combined trig, geometry, and algebra. Rote memorization branded the colonization of Africa forever in my mind.

My stomach roiled each night when my “mother” rang her silver bell for Ida to serve. I substituted stealthily-purchased and hastily consumed corner-store candy in the afternoon for dinners my pangs of conscience would not let me eat, and insisted on making—and buttering—my own toast for breakfast.

I gasped but did not protest when my older “sister” called me “bitch” or “fatty” and tattled on my eating habits. Ingrained politeness kept me from confrontation. Unprepared even to face the imbricated isms of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and nationalism, I was woefully unprepared to vocalize them; so I ran again.

Joining a state-sponsored Girls’ Preparedness Camp in March promised a week’s temporary reprieve. After an 11-hour drive on Thursday, we had two days of survival training. On the day of rest, an officer preached that woman’s duty was marriage and childbearing.

“Says who?”

“You wish.”

“Deuteronomy 29:29,” I offered quietly.

“Yes.” Blue eyes thanked me as he went on to butcher the verse, “Secret things belong to the Lord: those revealed, do his law.”

In my next letter to my boyfriend, I didn’t mention my caving in to authority during the sermon. I produced the “appropriate” adventure narrative. The fall I described from Saturday’s tracking expedition was probably exaggerated, and I cannot say with certainty that the snake we saw was a green mamba. My account of renegade hippies destroying a model home was parroted from instructors, but I accurately recorded that the abandoned house in which we took refuge was in disrepair and that the rain was strafing and ceaseless.

Rain had turned our 25-kilo rucksack hike from Glenmore to Port Edward into a true endurance test, and the entire KwaZulu-Natal into a nightmare. After a soggy, sleepless night, we retraced our path in the downpour. I cannot name the river whose surging, thigh-high, clay-reddened waters I entered to return to camp. Wet and cold, yet unworried, I simply crossed—grasping the hand of Sunday’s preacher.

I noted at end of my letter that flooding in Durban made headlines. I wondered later why I didn’t mention that it killed seven people.

Although I keenly saw and felt the oppressions, I avoided political discussions—as instructed by exchange officials. Everywhere our servants went they had to display ID. Our cook’s husband lived in another township. He was refused permission to move closer to her and was often denied visitation. Every plant and factory, every storefront and business, every place exchange students visited had security.

Many of British ancestry openly despised Afrikaners and vice-versa. I found the stock argument for voting restrictions—illiterate Africans could only identify candidates by symbol (lion for Zulu, elephant for Tutsi)—invalid. I noted the disjunction between whites’ tanning practices and the country’s ban of “dark” foreigners. I believed our housekeeper, Inez, should be able to reprimand my disabled younger brother when he called her kaffir.

In April, my American boyfriend sent me a break-up letter; heart-broken, I enrolled in drama club and Afrikaans-vir-Buitelander where I learned an adolescent version of Dick and Jane. Boy, girl, dog: seuntjie, meisie, hond. Throw, kiss, run: gooi, soen, run.

The first weekend in June, I went to a club member’s braaivleis outside Jo’burg. The following Friday, I agreed to house-sit for the family. My new boyfriend cancelled our date, saying his reserve unit was called up.

Still, my sister’s call Saturday surprised me.

Nothing’s going on here,” I told her.

“In Johannesburg, they’re burning everything.”

“I’m in Johannesburg.”

“I’m watching the news.”

I’m in Jo’burg.”

My sojourn unraveled. Worried the country could collapse, my parents hastily changed my ticket. I quit school on Monday. With three days to pack, my sixteen-year-old mind fixated on souvenirs. I only said one meaningful good-bye, to Inez.

“Where you’re from, it’s better, no?” she asked.


“More free with friends,” she insisted.

“Not really.”

My parents’ decision was unexpectedly unpopular. After one interview, the exchange organization concluded our association and sent another student to the Cape. Acquaintances asked if I had come home pregnant. My two best friends had new best friends. My ex-boyfriend’s fiancé was pregnant.

By August, when rioting again erupted across the 26-square-mile township, I was back in school. The worst confrontation occurred at the New Canada Railway Station. Facilities were sabotaged; commuter trains between Jo’burg and Soweto were shut down. I clipped and saved articles, but I didn’t talk about it.

I never replied to a single letter from South Africa. I ran away to college and immersed myself in social theory and activism. Over the years I occasionally listened to recordings of Ipi Tombi and sometimes wore my Swaziland skirt, but for three entire decades, until the flood-waters of Katrina caused our country to confront its own racism and privilege and forced me to sort through what was left of my past, I just didn’t—couldn’t—look back at my own tiny heartbreak of 1976.