Saturday, December 7, 2013

Reflections on Mandela's life and the second anniversary of my return to South Africa

Yesterday it was two years since we arrived in South Africa to live, and when I woke up, I heard the news that Nelson Mandela had died.

Someone wrote that "exile is a one-way trip, even if you return". Though I was not exactly in exile during my years away, I have found this to be true. I do not understand what it means to be South African anymore. I am South African, certainly I am nothing else, but I take my South Africanness, indeed my Africanness, as a birthright. It is not something I have to prove by trying not to act too white, liking the right foods, having native crafts tastefully placed around my home, talking about rainbow nations or the natural beauty of this place (I would like to communicate better in more South African languages, though- I think that is something real and helpful).

For South Africans my age, I have in common the story of Mandela- and the story of what the ANC once represented. I tell it as the miracle of my childhood, a miracle I hope to retell to my grandchildren one day, and they to theirs. While my understanding of this miracle changes as I grow up- and I frame it both supernaturally and naturally- I know I owe my life to Mandela and others who chose grace and growth over justice. For what it's worth, I would like that story to continue. I have only to drive through Langa to know that the story is nowhere near complete.

We will never be a nice Afrikaans family in a small farming town somewhere outside of Cape Town, even if we settle as homesteaders and live there for many years. Though we have thrown in our lot with South Africa with all the passion we could muster, we are not fully rooted here. Our home contains a weird mixture of customs picked up from everywhere, and mostly we just want to keep it passably clean. Eugene is Korean and American. I have lived outside of South Africa for many of the formative years of my late teens and twenties. I don't know if my children will marry South Africans or want to live here. And Cape Town is an uncomfortable place to live: conveniences and ostentatious wealth set against the constant reminder of the worst kind of poverty, poverty in which I am implicated and yet have few good ideas on alleviating. And yet here we are.

Part of me would love to share with Noah and Eli a deep connection to a particular place- to the earth and to specific people in a specific place. That is why it makes me so happy they are growing up near my family here in Cape Town. I am insecure about what spread-out roots mean to living responsibly, faithfully, sustainably. Perhaps that is what we will try to offer them through our lives - for now we are their roots. Perhaps not belonging also means understanding what it means for others to be outsiders, too. Perhaps we will all learn empathy together.

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