A street sign in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town's Muslim quarter. VanderMeulen is my mother's maiden name.
It’s not often that I’ve been a visible minority. I’m a white farm girl from eastern Ontario. But here on the campus where I work, I’m one of just a handful of white faces. And so far, I’m the only one with this so-called American accent.
Not surprisingly, just down the road at the nearby shopping mall, it’s a different story. The mall is a frustrating maze: corridors snake endlessly in a thousand directions. Still, shoppers are undeterred and tirelessly navigate through the congested traffic. Here at the mall, I easily slide back into the majority. There are some black people, but most of them are behind the tills. There are “coloured” people (the word “coloured” has become part of the language here. It refers to those with both African and European blood. Most speak Afrikaans). But for the most part, the mall is just like any at home: a dizzying sea of white suburban moms and dads, stylish teeny boppers and middle aged, thin lipped women with their pot bellied husbands in tow.
The mall is an antiseptic and shiny cocoon from the shack villages we all passed on our drive here.
It’s easy to feel ashamed here. Especially if you’re white. And Dutch. And Christian Reformed.
My parents were born in the Netherlands and were among the thousands of Dutch immigrants who moved to Canada after the war. They brought with them their earnest work ethic, their farming sensibilities and perhaps most important, their Calvinist beliefs. The Dutch who moved to South Africa a few centuries earlier brought much the same.
By the time my parents reached Canada, the Dutch immigrants-turned-colonists in South Africa had settled in nicely, thanks to their Apartheid regime. It’s especially embarrassing since they pinned their regime on the teachings of their faith -- my family’s faith. Meanwhile, the Christian Reformed Church in Canada did little to break ties with its sister church in South Africa. Even as violence escalated and the country faced international sanctions, the Christian Reformed Church in North America sat on its hands and did nothing. In 1989, just a few years before the African National Congress won the fight, the church finally cut the umbilical cord and severed ties with the church in South Africa.
And so when I leave my residence in the morning and walk across the commons and cross paths with the dozens of keen, bright-eyed black students making their way to class, I can’t help but feel complicit in this country’s horrific history.
Touring the Cape Town Harbour