I went to South Africa in 1984 on a three-month holiday but ended up staying 10 years and making my life there.
As a Sydneysider, when I first landed I found South Africa incredibly confronting, with its entrenched discrimination and segregation. Apartheid was then still very much in place, with the Group Areas Act forcibly separating black from white Africans. I had never imagined a place where black people and white people would be expected to use different toilets. That was just so different to the egalitarian society I was used to as an Australian.
South Africa felt to me like a frontier town. In the mid-1980s it was a very dangerous place.
My female friends carried guns in their handbags. Three people I knew well were brutally murdered. And hardly a day would go by without someone from my circle being touched by an act of violence. Mostly that violence was the product of the yawning gap between those that had wealth and power and those that did not.
But the wild side of South Africa also gave it a special energy and vibrancy, and as a white person there I was able to live an exciting and exotic life. I found the people deeply interesting and unlike the Australia that I knew, the politics were more heated and more engaging. And always in the background was Nelson Mandela, who we all knew as Madiba, sitting quietly in his prison cell, waiting for release.
By 1989, I was married, was contemplating starting a family and pondered the idea of returning to Australia. In the end I made a conscious decision to stay in South Africa because I could see the writing on the wall: that Mandela’s release was close and I wanted to be in South Africa when that happened. I had fallen in love with an adopted country which was afflicted by injustice and inequality and I wanted to see that change.
I think many of us expected this man Madiba to emerge from his 27 years of imprisonment embittered and angry. In reality he was everything but that. For white people living in South Africa he was an awe-inspiring, mesmerising statesman who preached and personified forgiveness, reconciliation and peaceful progress.
I remember a conversation I had with a black African friend when Mandela was released. He said to me: “All my prayers will be answered now.” “Why will your prayers be answered?” I asked. He told me: “Everything I want and need, Madiba will provide.”
Mandela inspired all of us in that way. He brought all of us, black and white, optimism and hope. When he was released, we all thought everything was finally going to be OK, and that at last we’d work out how to run this exciting, brutal, wonderful country.
None of the changes we hoped for happened overnight, and Mandela himself denied his messiah status. But in the end he didn’t disappoint anyone. Apartheid was dismantled and South Africa became a democracy.
South Africa is still a violent, dangerous society and I eventually chose to leave because of that, but it is much the better for Madiba. He brought calm, sense, respect and fairness to a place that was fundamentally divided. No white African had the power to deliver that message for change and without him the change could not have happened.
By Virginia Edwards