Apartheid in South Africa – My Experience as a White South African


Apartheid in South Africa


My Experiences as a White South African

The death of Nelson Mandela – my hero and the world’s icon – brings to the surface the deep shame I have carried with me for all of my adult life. I was once a typical white South African – privileged and spoiled – who learned by example to treat with disregard the needs and feelings of black people.

Having spent 29 years living under the Apartheid regime before immigrating to Canada almost 40 years ago, it is with pain and penetrating regret that I reflect upon my experience and transgressions.

In a country once filled with turmoil and hatred, Nelson Mandela’s voice was silenced by 27 years spent as a political prisoner. His historic walk to freedom culminated in his rise to become South African’s first black President, from where he would lead the country into a brighter future, and to the end of Apartheid. The year was 1994.

During the last months of Mandela’s life, as he lay gravely ill, his voice was once again silenced – this time by the tubes keeping his lungs clear of fluid.

But the words of Nelson Mandela will never be silenced, as his courage, dignity and determination earned him a place in international history.

What is Apartheid?

Apartheid – an Afrikaans word meaning ‘separateness’.  – was the  name given to the policies that were designed to uphold white supremacy by legislating racial segregation in South Africa – a country in which the  black population greatly exceeded that of white South Africans.  The Apartheid laws were discriminatory to extreme.

Learning Discrimination        

Our typically South African household employed two servants whose salaries  were shamefully low – as was the practice at the time. One of these individuals was a ‘coloured’ (mixed race) lady named Nancy Sampson, who spent 22 years of her life taking care of our family with the utmost love and devotion before she passed away in her 50’s.  My story revolves around Nancy, because I believe that the memories I have of my relationship with her epitomize what later fuelled my hatred of Apartheid

Apartheid in South Africa

In my family there was never any discussion about the meaning or impact of racial discrimination in South Africa.  Apartheid was neither discussed nor questioned. This was your garden-variety white South African family of yester-year. As a child  or teenager I did not possess the insight to remove the ‘blinkers’ from my eyes. Only when I was in my 20’s did  I begin to awake from the slumber so ingeniously instilled in my family and me by the  Apartheid regime.

I try hard not to think how many times, during my teenage years, Nancy asked me to stop what I was doing for a moment, in order to help her with something.  But how could I have helped?  I was far too busy luxuriating in the pleasures reserved for white South Africans.  The South Africa in which I grew up did not teach me to look beyond my own self-serving needs when interacting with ‘non-white’ people. I would never have dared to refuse to help a white adult!

Apartheid in South Africa

A picture speaks a thousand words.

Despite the fact that Nancy was like a mother to me,  

I have only one photograph of her.  I am mortified.

Living Quarters of South African Domestic Workers

I cringe when I think about the ten-foot-square room in which my beloved Nancy (like millions of other servants) spent so much of her life  – a tiny, dark, cluttered room with no bathroom …  a room which served as her bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room  … a room located in the back yard of our lovely home (you know?  the one with the swimming pool on the half-acre property?).

The vivid picture of these appalling living quarters remains indelibly imprinted in my mind’s eye, and leaves me feeling heart sore and ashamed.

Entertaining spouses in this tiny, hopelessly inadequate room was frequently a recipe for disaster.  No household was immune, for example, to the frequent midnight police invasion of the servants quarters in order to catch a spouse spending a night with his wife – and arrested him (often brutally)  because he did not carry his ‘pass’ (I recoil at the very use of that word).


Miraculously, in my early twenties, I began to emerge from my unconscious stupour, as I began to see and feel, at the very deepest level, the horrors perpetrated in the name of ‘Apartheid laws’ – from the self indulgent carelessness I had displayed, to the blatant cruelty with which the black people in South Africa were treated on a daily basis.

Like most non-white South Africans with live-in positions, Nancy had a home to which she returned on her days off (of which there were so few, as was typical at that time). One day I offered to give her a ride, since it was raining.  When we were almost there she asked me to drop her off a little distance away.  Not wanting her to have to walk in the rain, I ignored her request – but quickly regretted this when I realized that I had taken away what little dignity she could salvage, for her home was a small, corrugated iron shanty inhabited by who-knows-how-many of her family members.

I remember how, in earlier years, Nancy used to tell me (if I took the time to listen) that they were ‘waiting for a “council house’  – whatever that meant. How would I know? I never stopped to ask! Of course, they never got this ‘council house’.

Why, oh why didn’t I hear the plea behind that piece of information? Why didn’t I listen? Why didn’t I try to help?

Apartheid in South Africa

In Alan Paton’s famous classic – ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ – there is a scene which tears at my heartstrings. Paton writes about an encounter between an elderly black gentleman trying to find his missing son in the big city of Johannesburg – and a white man whom he approaches with a question. The white man responds with the authoritarian contempt so typical of the white-to-black communication of those days, while the elderly black gentleman maintains the polite subservience equally typical of older black men in those times. I can still touch on the painful feelings I experienced reading the book.

Yet, by my actions and inactions, was I any different? When I look back now at the selfishness I displayed towards Nancy,  I wonder if she –  like the older man in ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ –  had any idea just how thoughtless and unkind my behaviour was. Or was she conditioned – by the South Africa of those days – to expect and unquestioningly accept discourtesy?

By acknowledging my earlier failure to challenge the glaring injustices of Apartheid laws, and in sharing my personal transgressions, I try to soothe my own inner wounds of sorrow and regret. Whereas I have learned to forgive myself, the memories, when brought to the surface, still retain the power to elicit feelings of shame.

I was relieved beyond measure when my former husband and I finally made the decision to  leave South Africa. I was 29 years old.

Apartheid in South Africa

It is now almost 40 years since I left South Africa -a country forever changed because of one remarkable man.  Like most ex-South Africans, I carry with me a deep love for the culture of South Africa.  My home is adorned with beautiful African sculpture and art,  and my insides melt when I hear African music,  or watch African style dancing. There is a part of me that will always be South African, and with that comes sadness about the person I once was (See video below – Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “Homeless”)

I know that for our family, leaving South Africa was the right decision. My biggest reward came in a strange package many years later.  My daughter, who was attending graduate school in Buffalo, New York, talked frequently about her close friend and fellow student, Sharon.  I met Sharon for the first time at their graduation ceremony.  Sharon is a black woman.  Her colour was of such irrelevance to my daughter that she had never even thought to mention it to me!

My children are indeed ‘colour blind – and I will never, ever take this for granted.

May Nelson Mandela rest in peace.

(see About Adele Gould)

“Homeless” – Ladysmith Black Mambazo

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