This past week, Friday August 9th was Women’s Day, a national public holiday in South Africa. Although I was familiar with the international Women’s Day in March, I did not know the significance of South Africa’s national Women’s Day until I spent the afternoon baking with my host mom. She told me that during part of the apartheid era all black people in South Africa had to wear a badge with an id number and carry paperwork with them at all times. On August 9, 1956, more than 50,000 women staged a march in Pretoria in protest. They stood outside a government office building for thirty minutes with their children on their backs. When the apartheid era ended in 1994, Women’s Day was declared in commemoration of those courageous women.
Then on Saturday, we had a rather powerful training session on internalized oppression. During the session, some of the black South African Peace Corps staff shared their own and others’ experiences post-apartheid – experiences that speak for the issues that still remain despite the ending of apartheid.
One staff member spoke about being stopped at a stop sign when five young white men jumped out of the truck behind him and surrounded his car. They beat him with their fists and the barrel of a gun, then threw his keys in the river before driving off. When he made it to the nearest petrol station to call for help, the police told him what happened to him was a regular occurrence…each weekend these men go in search of a black person to beat up for entertainment.
Another staff member shared a community member’s story. She had cleaned and cooked for a white woman who never paid her her wages on time. After waiting several days past, she would be forced to ask the white woman to pay her the overdue wages. Often the woman refused. Sometimes the woman threw the money in her face. And on occasion, the woman would grab her hands and place them on hot stove burners as an answer.
Several shared about an incident that made headlines not long ago. A couple of white university students urinated in the food of several black women who were employed to clean at the university. The students videoed the act and also the women eating the food. They shared it with friends, and the incident became wide known when the video leaked.
The PC staff members also shared positive stories. Stories they say made them realize it isn’t always about the color of a person’s skin, but about the individual person. I think each of us as volunteers walked away from the session with a new appreciation for this group of black South Africans who have not only not judged us by the color of our skin, but who have shared with us very personal pieces of theirs lives.