Personal Insights: From South Africa to Northern Ireland it is time to shed age old divisions and labels

In this personal reflection - to launch a new digital series called ‘Personal Insights’ - Dolan O'Hagan reflects on growing up in South Africa and Northern Ireland and in particular a childhood road trip which began a journey through which the division and violence which acted as a backdrop to his youth could be filtered and ultimately understood.

Personal Insights: From South Africa to Northern Ireland it is time to shed age old divisions and labels

This journey begins in 1969 with the simple but brutal words ... “Fenians Out”.

That was the hateful message which echoed from the shadows gathered outside my parents terraced east Belfast home as they looked, in shock, at the brick lying amidst the shattered remains of their living room window.

They and their five young children did not, as many of their neighbours did, seek sanctuary from the north of Ireland’s latest outbreak of sectarian violence in one of the Catholic enclaves located in the west of the city, however.

As an engineer and a nurse my father and mother would look further afield for sanctuary and ultimately migrated to a new life and fresh opportunities in South Africa.

A soldier on lookout in Belfast shortly after British troops were deployed onto the streets in response to growing sectarian unrest in 1969. Picture: PA
A soldier on lookout in Belfast shortly after British troops were deployed onto the streets in response to growing sectarian unrest in 1969. Picture: PA

That is why, 18 months later, I entered the world as their sixth and final child against the backdrop of a thunderous summer South African lightning storm.

The memories of the 11 years I spent in that troubled and beautiful country of contradictions have become increasingly faded with the passing of time.

But listening to the inspirational words of South Africa’s winning Rugby World Cup captain, Siya Kilosi, last Saturday - as he appealed for his nation to at last come together in pursuit of a better future for all South Africans - I was reminded of one childhood trip which is often recalled in vivid techni-colour despite the passing of almost four decades.

South African World Cup winning captain, Siya Kilosi
South African World Cup winning captain, Siya Kilosi

The year is 1981 and my brother and I are, once again, ignoring increasingly annoyed calls to the dinner table despite the unforgiving deadline of the setting sun as it casts its orange glow over our home in a suburb of Newcastle, one of the South Africa’s industrial powerhouse cities in Natal province.

“You can’t tell us what to do. You are just a kaffir,” I finally explode as our black house maid, Ruth, approaches angrily, demanding we come into the house at once.

Kaffir. Yet another label. This one routed in Arabic culture, but which under the colonial South African sun had become the most insulting and racist description you could direct towards a black person in South Africa.

A label I had learned amidst the sea of white only faces on the school playground and heard in the wind amid the Afrikaans, English, Irish and US accents as we played endless games of bare footed rugby or searched for snakes and scorpions and other adventure in the long grass and under bakingly hot rocks.

This insult, however, had been spoken - unbeknownst to me - within earshot of my mother who emerged from behind Ruth with ferocious intent, wooden spoon in hand.

My reddened ear and smarting backside still resonate clearly as does the memory of Ruth’s disappointed face.

Hours later it is my heavy set, but gentle to the bone, father who on returning from work leads me to Ruth so I can apologise. The mumbled words are long forgotten but the sense of shame still endures.

Ruth was our ‘ousie’ - as live in house maids or nannies were known in South Africa. An arrangement which was then, and remains, the norm in most white households.

The author pictured as a toddler being carried in traditional fashion by the family's 'ousie' (or nanny) in South Africa
The author pictured as a toddler being carried in traditional fashion by the family's 'ousie' (or nanny) in South Africa

Ruth was a typically warm and proud Zulu woman who had been employed by my parents shortly after our arrival in Newcastle three years before.

I felt a similar shame the following Sunday as I stood in akward silence in the shadow of Newcastle’s Catholic Church as the story of my outburst is relayed by Ruth and my parents to a clearly disappointed Irish missionary priest who oversaw weekly multi-racial Sunday services.

My brother and I received little warning of the trip which was planned that day and over breakfast the following weekend we are told we will be travelling with the priest to visit Ruth’s homeland, in what was then known as the Kwa-Zulu bantustan.

Kwa-Zulu is at the heart of the famous pre colonial Zulu kingdom but under apartheid was one of the so called ten ‘semi-independent’ black homelands developed to facilitate the separateness of races, a founding principle of apartheid.

Up until their abolishment in 1994, these homelands, despite any claims of autonomy, relied almost entirely on the white South African economy.

As a result, millions of black South Africans left them in daily convoys of battered white hiace vans and millions more, under a Pass system introduced by the British, were allowed to live in one of the many ‘migrant’ townships which bordered cities and towns across South Africa.

Ruth was one of these ‘workers’ and was allowed to live with us under the Pass system.

The author, on left, pictured on St Patrick's Day in the late 1970's a few years before his road trip to KwaZulu. Picture here with his cousin, Frank O'Hagan, whose family were on a visit to South Africa
The author, on left, pictured on St Patrick's Day in the late 1970's a few years before his road trip to KwaZulu. Picture here with his cousin, Frank O'Hagan, whose family were on a visit to South Africa

So it was, armed with little more than red faces, we clambered into the black shirted chain smoking priest’s pick up van and set out on our adventure.

Within an hour and thanks to the priest’s disarming good humour the red faces were soon gone, as were the tarmac roads.

As we bounced our way across Kwa Zulu’s blood red dirt roads, heavily potholed by the torrential summer African rains, I remember first being struck by the absence of other cars and then the intermittent collections (kraals) of very basic circular white washed homes (indlus) which seemed to accompany every herd of goats or cattle we passed.

The world renowned Drakensberg Mountains, now within touching distance for the first time in my life, acted as our backdrop for the day but it is not the mind-blowing scenery or even the bare breasted Zulu woman who we regularly passed on the road, which continue to reflect most brightly from this techni-coloured childhood memory.

The world reknowned Drakensberg Mountains which border KwaZulu
The world reknowned Drakensberg Mountains which border KwaZulu

It is the warmth of the welcome as a large middle aged woman, wrapped in traditional blankets, ushers us towards the white-washed circular indlu at which we have stopped.

It is the weather beaten and well travelled face of the elderly man who is enjoying the sun and slowly pulling on a clay pipe at the door of the indlu. He nods knowingly as my brother and I enter his home.

It is the coolness of the hut and the incredible smoothness of the polished mud and cow dung floor against my bare feet.

It is the wood fire and smoke which snakes upwards and around a three legged cast-iron pot to escape via the middle of the beautifully thatched roof.

It is the faded Saturday Night Fever t-shirt worn by a young boy who I am introduced to. Mandla, the only name I recall, is the woman’s grand-son, and is also 10.

It is the flavourless corn meal, known as mealiepap, which emerges from the pot. Flavourless until it comes alive with the addition of a spicy vegetable mixture which to this day remains a regrettable mystery.

It is the laughter outside when the growing collection of neighbours, primarily woman, run their fingers through my blonde hair.

Zulu maidens dancing. Picture: Getty
Zulu maidens dancing. Picture: Getty

Little else remains of that day except for the tired silence of our return and the warm embrace of my parents as we we arrive home with the day long having given way to night.

At breakfast the next day, Ruth shows me a picture of Mandla and explains he is her son, the woman her mother and the elderly man her grandfather.

Something within me, and certainly between us, changed forever in that moment. The label, ‘kaffir’, assumed a whole new context and needless to say never escaped my lips again.

Within a year of that trip to KwaZulu we had left South Africa and after a brief stay in England returned to my parents native city of Derry in 1982.

Post hunger strike Derry was a much troubled place and demonstrated its grief and tears in a greyness which seemed to hang over everything and everyone as it endured one of the most brutal periods of the northern troubles.

It was to be an entirely new set of labels - ‘Fenian’, ‘Taig’, ‘Jaffa’ and ‘Prod’ - based this time not on race but on religion and age old cultural allegiances, which were to act as the back-drop of my teenage and young adult life.

The funeral of hunger striker Bobby Sands
The funeral of hunger striker Bobby Sands

Those experiences are for another day but over 20 years of relative, if not complete, peace have now passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and South Africa is a much changed country since that memorable trip to Kwa-Zulu.

Despite the passing of these years, however, both nations continue to suffer the scars of their recent histories with continued social division, marginalisation and growing income inequality and violence at the heart of their societies.

As a journalist I have read widely, listened intently and discussed at great length the varied social, political, ethnic, religious and economic explanations put forward to explain why these divisions and tensions continue to simmer just below the surface in both societies and what needs to be done to finally lance those wounds.

It was only with Siya Kilosi’s words - and those of his coach Rassie Ersamus - after their side’s memorable victory over England that I came to realise the true significance of that trip to Kwa-Zulu.

It was, I realised, the day on which I had been given a template through which the societal failings which lead to division and violence - namely inequality and intolerance - could ultimately be filtered and understood.

It was the day I began to understand that irrespective of the political, social, cultural or religious ideologies which frame you, eradicating societal division and its subsequent and varied ramifications can only truly begin with an acceptance of our shared humanity and a rejection of all those who, for whatever vested reasons, will not accept it as the only real and true starting point in the journey to true social justice.

Perhaps that is what Ruth, my parents and that priest hoped for as they planned the journey to Kwa-Zulu on that sunny Saturday afternoon.

It was certainly what underpinned the hopes of all those who queued to make their electoral mark for the first time in South Africa in 1994 and was unquestionably an underlying aspiration of the majority on both sides of the Irish border who endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in a citizens referendum in 1998.

It was also undoubtedly what Siya Kilosi and Rassie Erasmus had in mind last Saturday in Yokohama as they spoke to South Africans, black and white, and in their own inspirational way appealed for them to work together towards a positive and shared future unencumbered by the age old tired labels and divisions which have gone before.

Hopefully it is a message that will finally resonate across both societies as South Africa and Northern Ireland face into what will be seminal periods in their histories.

Personal Insights: From South Africa to Northern Ireland it is time to shed age old divisions and labels

This column was written to launch a new digital initiative on irishexaminer.com called Personal Insights. As part of the Personal Insights initiative we are asking readers and creative writing groups and enthusiasts to share personal essays chronicling an experience which has impacted their lives and any learnings from that life experience they would like to share with a wider audience. The essays should be sent to the author of this piece and executive editor for news and digital, Dolan O’Hagan, at dolan.ohagan@examiner.ie for consideration. All submissions should be given the subject line ‘Personal Insights submission’ and include any related imagery and a contact telephone number. Only submissions which meet the Irish Examiner’s strict ethical and legal guidelines will be considered for publication. The Irish Examiner reserves the right to edit submissions in line with those guidelines and before publication direct contact will be made with the person who has submitted the content. No payment will be made for submissions and our decision as regards publication is final.

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