A long, long time ago, some travellers from a northern country sailed into a bay to seek shelter on their journey around the world. They were weary from months at sea, hoping for fresh water, fruit, and vegetables, or even some kind of meat would be wonderful. They found all this, and more, in the bay. There were also people who didn’t look like them, dress like them, or speak the same language and, certainly, they supposed, could not know the same God that they did, but they managed to communicate and trade with them. They presumed that they must be primitive or not very clever, judging from the way they accepted tobacco and trinkets for the bounty of fresh produce. The men from the north rested and then continued on their way in their quest for treasure, but marked this place that had given them shelter.

When they returned to their home country many, many months later, they were weighed down with treasures and stories of the sights they had seen. Their leaders rewarded them well and urged them to set sail again. It was decided that they would go back and claim the places they had seen for themselves before one of their neighbours did, no matter that people were living there, or that they already had a country of their own. They wanted more of everything — more land, more spices and silks, more gold and jewels; they wanted to be bigger, better, richer than their neighbours. Soon it became a race to see who could be the best and it didn’t matter who got in the way. There were also others who were determined to “save” the souls of the primitive creatures they had encountered and it became a race for God, too.

The next time that their ships sailed into the bay, they claimed the land as theirs in the name of their king and God. They created borders of thorn trees to keep out the natives who had roamed freely, and shot at them if they tried to cross over. They forced the natives to do their bidding, and used the women violently to satisfy their lust. The longer they stayed, the more land they claimed. When they needed labour to farm, and to build their houses and forts, they stole people from other lands and forced them to work in their homes and till their soil. Even though they believed that they were more intelligent, more civilised, and more righteous, this didn’t stop them from treating the men and women cruelly.

Very soon the people from the north, the people who they had forced to come to the bay, and the people who had always been there, mixed their language and their rituals, their food and their music, and children were born. While the people from the north still owned the land and made the laws, it was clear that a mixed group of people — some free, some enslaved — had been created. But when the people from the north saw that they were being outnumbered by this new group they tried to go back to how it was before. But it was very hard to separate back into their original groupings. They couldn’t “unmix” their blood ties, clean up the language, or remove the spice from the food or the music. Even so, they made laws to try to curb the growth of this new group and to distance themselves from people who didn’t look like them. In order to enforce the divisions, they assigned labels to people according to the colour of their skin, the sleekness of their hair, and the sharpness of their noses. They tried to deny that there had ever been any mixing on their part…but no matter how hard they tried, they were now forever linked with each other.

Many wars were fought, many people were killed and tortured, and denied their rights to equal citizenship, in this quest for purity. Hundreds of years later, the fighting continues, borders are strengthened to keep people out and responsibility is still denied.

. . .

This parable happened in South Africa almost four hundred years ago, and different versions of it were repeated in countless other countries around the world. The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, France… can be substituted for the northern country in my story. Europeans conquered and colonised the rest of the world, enslaved nations, and behaved abominably while doing so.

The history of the modern world is as simple as my parable. South Africa’s history is similar to that of almost every other place in the world. I wondered how I could explain it to my children’s children. Didn’t we learn in kindergarten not to fight, not to take what wasn’t ours, and to be kind to our neighbours? And if we make a mess, we clean it up? Perhaps future generations who will have much more to lose will finally learn these lessons.

Tags: apartheid colonialism racism slavery
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I was born and raised in Cape Town during apartheid. My writing focuses on the aftermath of slavery and apartheid.