Story of a South African I Met

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Written by Griffin Lerner, student at North Caroline University USA, intern at TSiBA Cape Town 2013

Photo: Griffin is second from right in the front row - meeting Emeritus Arch Bishop Tutu

For my story of a South African I met, it is only natural that I chose the first person that reached out to me at TSiBA and treated me as a friend – Theo Wilscott.  One of my first interactions with Theo should give you a clear idea of the immense character and good heart Theo possesses.  On my first day of work, I spent four hours in Etienne’s van going to and from my internship.  On the second day, I told Theo about my long commute and he suggested I take the metro; seeing that I was unaccustomed to the workings of the metro, he offered to walk me to the closest station to TSiBA and inform me how to get home.  Once the train came, he stayed on past his stop and accompanied me all the way to Cape Town station, even showing me what street I was on and how I should get home from there.  More than simply helping me get home that day, Theo reached out to me and made me feel cared about at TSiBA.  He helped to get my internship off to a fantastic start and I will always be extremely grateful to him for showing me kindness and going the extra mile when he didn’t have to.  Since then, I talk to him almost every day, albeit briefly, as he asks about my time in South Africa.  Theo works within the business side of TSiBA, and he recently called upon me to use my tech savvy to convert a PDF file of the top 200 companies in South Africa into an Excel spreadsheet listing each company.  I saved him hours of work in typing out each company out by hand and he should now be able to contact those companies and document his interactions with them with ease.  In following the ethos of TSiBA, I was able to pay it forward to Theo in assisting him, and I am extremely thankful I got the opportunity to pay him back in one way or another.

In interviewing him for this assignment, I had the privilege of receiving a window into his life that I otherwise may not have seen.  In telling his story, Theo was consistently as good-hearted as the he was while escorting me through the metro.  Theo spent most of his childhood in Vredenburg in the Western Cape and subsequently Hanover Park in the Cape Flats, where he moved when he was twelve.  He said that growing up in a Coloured community, he was largely unexposed to the greater injustices of apartheid that he didn’t become aware of until adolescence.  Both blacks and whites were presented as the Other – whites as the benevolent, clever, rich superiors and blacks as the lazy, corrupt inferiors.  To him, the common narrative was that of whites being idealized and blacks being demonized, and to some extend he bought into that narrative.  His mother was a live-in domestic, so she was quite obstinate in her belief of the superiority of whites.  His father, on the other hand, was more liberal, as a merchant seaman who saw much more of the world. 

Theo’s negative experiences with apartheid were limited – all he can recall is being kicked off the whites-only section of a train once when he was a child.  He never truly became opposed to apartheid until he approached matriculation.  According to Theo, South Africa didn’t see the images of apartheid that the world saw due to the state-controlled television, and as he became privy of these uncensored images he began to appreciate the moral injustice of apartheid.  Despite being fairly comfortable with his own life under apartheid, Theo joined the South African Student Organization (SASO) against apartheid because he couldn’t sit back and watch as the injustice of apartheid unfolded.  A high school friend of his and fellow protestor against apartheid died from lead poisoning after the shotgun pellets from a policeman’s gun poisoned him.  It is very telling of Theo’s moral fiber that he fought against apartheid even though the apartheid system had rarely personally wronged him.

When asked why so many Coloured people I’ve met prefer the apartheid government to South Africa’s contemporary administration, Theo responded that it was both a socioeconomic and identity issue.  Under the apartheid government, the Coloured people were indeed second-class citizens, and by and large could not associate with people of another color.  Theo holds, however, that in an economy that incorporated only about 20% of the South African populace, being Coloured and in that 20% meant access to better schools, hospitals, and other public services.  Since incorporating the black population into the economy, many of these public services have deteriorated as they struggle to accommodate millions more people.  Thus, for many Coloured people, segregation was a worthy price to pay when given access to improved public services.  Theo agreed with my suggestion that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs could factor into the Coloured nostalgia for the apartheid system.
The Hierarchy of Needs suggests that people prioritize physiological and safety issues above issues of belonging or self-esteem.  In the Coloured case, while they may have been marginalized during apartheid, physiological and safety needs were met thanks to superior public services.  Today, however, these services have been rendered less effective while wages have dipped and employment is more difficult to find due to the Black Economic Empowerment Program.  While today’s democracy is morally respectable and no longer systematically segregates the South African people, it has left many Coloured people struggling to meet their physiological and safety needs, and thus they prefer the apartheid government.  Theo was fortunate enough to have his needs covered, and was able to begin attending UCT in 1994 at age 18.  Since he was provided for, Theo was able to critically analyze the moral issues of apartheid and consequently oppose it.  Another suggestion Theo made regarding the Coloured fond memories of apartheid is that the notion of a benevolent white ruler was ingrained so deeply into their psyches that the Coloured people would rather be ruled by whites than blacks.

Theo posited that Coloured people, especially in the Western Cape, are desperately searching for an identity and a history.  Many Coloured people don’t know their connection to the past, or where they came from.  Theo himself draws his roots from the Xhosa people, but even he is unsure about his origins.  Theo believes that Coloured people are “held captive by their lack of a past, and this lack of a long-standing identity will always shape how the Coloured people fit into South Africa.  Theo believes that while the Coloured people have a voice, it is not a unified one; the heterogeneity of the Coloured people makes a common agenda very difficult to create.

Despite not knowing how he fits into South Africa, Theo remains optimistic about the countries future.  He acknowledges that much of the infrastructure from the apartheid system was meant to accommodate five million as opposed to 50 million people, and South Africa is suffering from that transition today.  Cities like Johannesburg were not meant to hold 15 million people, and the rapid growth has been very trying for South Africans.  Despite this however, Theo believes the future is bright.  While the Gini coefficient and wealth inequality have increased, South Africa has also made significant progress on the Millennium Development Goals – Theo mentioned that education, HIV, and child mortality rates have all improved.  More importantly, Theo has seen massive progress made in racial relations as well.  Thanks to his college education, Theo has been able to move his family into a previously white-only area.  Most of his children’s best friends are white, and he claims that his girls don’t recognize race, preferring instead to judge people on the content of their character.  Theo told me that this is “the greatest gift he can give them.”

Theo Wilscott is one of the most pure-hearted, generous people I have met in South Africa.  He has an engaging personality and never stops smiling.  It was a pleasure getting to know him during my time here and I have no doubt we will stay in touch long after I leave Cape Town.  I think that our relationship is much like South Africa’s democracy; in Theo’s words, the story “is merely in its foreword and still being written each and every day.”

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