He pointed out a railway line in the distance with a dusty and barren scrap of land beyond it and told us “That’s the border with Bophuthatswana, that’s where black terrorists hide out and wait for an opportunity to kill us. For each night you’re here your group will be responsible for keeping watch over a sector of the campsite so that we can be warned if they come!”
At this time in Pretoria every white grade seven child attended Veld School, a brainwashing programme dressed up as a wilderness experience, and this was our week. Over the next few nights I took my turn sitting in the dark watching and waiting for the black man to come out of the dark to kill us. I think I remember that at a cognitive level I realized it wasn’t likely but as I sat in the bush, the dark sky blazing with stars spread above me, my skin tingled with fear. And one night they came. Emerging out of the dark with guns firing, and we ran for cover to hide ourselves as we’d been coached. It was only afterwards that we discovered that, in reality, it had been the Veld school staff firing blanks, embedding that primal fear deeper into our lives.
Over the next decade my understanding of South Africa changed significantly as I became conscious of the evil of Apartheid, and as I formed friendships and relationships with black South Africans for the first time. Finding opportunities to laugh and eat, pray and talk together, discarding slowly the restrictions placed on us by the laws. But one day on campus I was walking over lunchtime and heard the sound of toyi-toying students. Suddenly, inexplicably I was once again the 12-year-old boy waiting for the black people to come and kill me. The hair on my neck rose and out of that Veld school-induced fear, I turned and ran in the opposite direction.
This moment exposed the deeper, more primal belief system that was (or is) part and parcel of the apartheid system. Veld school happened for every white Grade 7 and Grade 10 child in my province making it far more than the individual experience of a single child. In this and in a thousand other ways, apartheid shaped our thinking, beliefs, and attitudes about how the world works and what our place is in it. Apartheid shaped what was considered normal and rational.
Apartheid was not simply a set of laws, it was a spirit of the age, a set of beliefs and attitudes intentionally bedded down via all sectors of society in the individual and collective minds of people. These became codified into laws, organisational structures and processes, systems that aimed to protect and sustain the underlying narrative, consciously and unconsciously. The laws of Apartheid were merely symptoms of the deep-seeded, diseased root of white supremacy.
The dawn of the new South Africa in 1994 focused on addressing many of these laws, structures, and processes but largely failed to consistently expose and shift the underlying lies and spirit which would actually break the chains of oppression. Without significant change in these less visible, almost unconscious beliefs and attitudes, any new laws, structures and processes continue to be created from the same deceptive foundations.
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” Romans 12
Religion has often focused on external behavior and sin management. And yet scripture regularly recognises that real change must be deeper than that. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 asks God to search his heart and reveal its ways to him. Paul writes in the book of Romans that we should be transformed by the renewing of the mind. Many change practitioners recognise that deep, sustainable change requires that we look beyond behaviours and structures into the underlying patterns of behavior which in turn reveal the foundational beliefs, values and attitudes that drive everything else. If we don’t do this, then we simply move the furniture around without achieving significant real change.
As I reflect on my place in this world as a white South African male who is seeking to live a life faithful to Jesus, this is part of the work I need to do. To be asking God to reveal my heart and reveal the offensive ways within me. The ways in which I have been formed and shaped to see the world in particular ways based not on the eternal truth of God but on deliberately formed and shaped deception. I need to give time in prayer and reflection to hear and recognise, paying particular attention when I notice the deep-seated fear or anger emerging, and then to pursue the renewing of my mind rather than conforming to this world. And then, I need to start acting and changing the world in response to this.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8
I yearn to live a life shaped not by the evil and heretical belief system of white supremacy, but by eternal truth and the liberating good news of Jesus. I want to run a race worthy of the calling I have received, to proclaim good news, freedom for captives and release from oppression. I want to declare that another, more truthful narrative is possible. Even for this man who is no longer a 12-year-old boy.
By Craig Stewart