December 5, 2013 is the fateful day the great man Nelson Mandela died at the ripe old age of 95. He had been labeled a terrorist by politicians and a liberal by the Religious Right. I’m sure the historical Mandela was much more complicated than a few simple labels. Having never met him, I can only share what I’ve experienced in my short trip to the post-Apartheid South Africa.
It was March 12, 2006. Sitting in my uncomfortable airplane seat with my business suit on, I was flying my 3rd and final leg of my trip to University of the Free State, Bloemfonteine, South Africa. “Are you Dr. Sam Tsang?” a voice came with a tap on my shoulder. Standing over me was a very tall European young man, dressed in business casual. I wasn’t sure how he knew how I looked like. His name is Mika Hietanen. He said, “Professor Johan Vos from the University of Amsterdam is sitting with me in the back. Nice to meet you.” After flying over two days, I felt strangely happy from this unlikely meeting with co-presenters from Europe whom I’ve never met. The department head of the university religion department had invited us from all over the world to present our findings on Galatians. I was the lone American. For the next two days, we would go through every nook and cranny of Galatians from every conceivable angle. This was the year I published my dissertation From Slaves to Sons. I was going to enjoy this small gathering of colleagues whose obsession was singularly on Paul’s rhetoric to the Galatians. What I did not expect was my experience with the real South Africa.
In our forum on Paul, we spoke before an audience of very few blacks. None of the blacks I met were from South Africa. I began to inquire why this was the case. A few of the professors told me that not many South African blacks were educated enough to study for a graduate degree in divinity. I’m unsure whether this is still the case, but during the time I was there, I met grad students from Korea and quite a number of white students but not many blacks. During my short interaction with all the local professors, I did not sense any racism. In fact, many of them wanted to help the blacks get into their departments, but sadly there had to minimum requirement to get into a graduate religious program (or any program).
During our two days of discussions, the university facility impressed me. The lecture hall had every modern equipment and the places where we had lunch were magnificent. The entire university campus reminded me of some of the prettiest university grounds here in the US or in Europe. The colonists (both British and Dutch) had created a little slice of Europe in the middle of South Africa. Yet, when we ventured out in the township after the conference, things looked very different. As we toured the city, a few of my European colleagues wanted to go “downtown” to get some coffee at the cafes. At least that was what they did in the Copenhagen or Oslo. Our Afrikaner host suggested that getting off our van would be a very bad idea. The Europeans could not believe it until we drove near that “downtown”. When asked whether they wanted coffee, all of them shook their heads. The poor blacks in that area stared at us as we passed, telling us with their eyes, “You aren’t welcome here”.
After safari sightseeing and tasting all the best of South African cuisine (all generously paid for by the university), my little academic holiday had to end. This is where I really got the taste of post-Apartheid South Africa. After I got off the taxi at the airport, I started searching for my passport. It was nowhere to be found. I could feel my heart racing and my face turning red as sweat started dripping down my face. In the midst of a mild panic, I tried to figure out what to do. After all, I was in a foreign country with limited currency and no cell phone to any of the local numbers. The most logical solution was to borrow the airline’s phone to call the hotel. The airline was not helpful at all. In fact, they took their time letting me use my phone, even after I explained my emergency with them. Of course, all the people at the airline office were blacks. Finally, I found my passport and it was not in the hotel. I had it misplaced somewhere else.
At this point, I was already a little bit late. When I checked my baggage in, the counter service person was extra slow with mine. I was starting to lose my patience because I didn’t want to miss my flight. After all, I still had two more legs in the flight to catch. If I were to miss this flight, my other connections would be lost as well. As a bold American, I finally spoke up to the service person, “Can you please hurry up a bit because I’m running late.” She politely replied, “Mr. Tsang, you aren’t going to be late. I’m moving as fast as I can.” Well, she wasn’t and the seconds were ticking away into minutes. To make a long story short, I did barely make it by the skin of my teeth.
This entire episode was puzzling because the service to the local blacks was very efficient and fast. Only I was getting the “special treatment”. Upon further inquiry, the local blacks would consider me a white man. I’m quite used to being the “model minority” in the US but a minority nevertheless. In apartheid South Africa, the situation was more peculiar. There were basically three classes of people: the whites, the browns and the blacks. Yellow-skinned Asians like Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans belonged to the whites. The brown skin would be the South Asians like Indians and Pakistanis. The classes were not allowed to marry one another which explained partially why there were so many unmarried interracial couples living together. Just because the place has abandoned apartheid, the shadow and damage of apartheid is not yet eradicated. When I found out about the situation, I was much more sympathetic towards the flight of the blacks. I didn’t realize that I was an unintentional participant in this racial drama. I didn’t know that although I didn’t occupy a privileged position back in the US, I represented power and privilege to the local South African blacks. My problem of catching a plane paled compared to what they had to go through in their township and relationships. There is still work to be done. Racial reconciliation takes time.
Many of us in the West are under the false impression that everything would be fine after the abandonment of apartheid. This is far from the truth. Wounds of colonialism and racist policies have consequences. Things do not get better overnight, even evident in my own experience in South Africa. The speech of the university chancellor, himself a South African black, still rings in my head. He told us to share with our home country that South Africa still has many needs, ranging from AIDS, racial problems, and the lack of education among the poor. I’m also reminded of the lesson Nelson Mandela taught, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” If I knew what I know today when I was in the South African airport, I think I would feel differently. Lessons on race and love take time and an open mind, not only from the side of the underprivileged but also from the privileged. May the spirit of Mandela live on.