Living Beyond Racial Bounds; South African Teen Shows a Way Past Apartheid

Special Report: Mendela’s Children 

South Africa 

The Baltimore Sun
December 25, 2007

By Scott Calvert, Sun foreign reporter
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa –At first glance, Isabella Mosime’s story could not possibly say all that much about the future of South Africa. After all, she is a black teenager who was raised by a white family, an anomaly in this race-obsessed country.

Look more closely, though, and Bella exemplifies something potentially significant. Because she has a foot in both the black and white worlds, this loud and bubbly 19-year-old can move nimbly back and forth, smudging those lines in the process.

She recently planned a vacation with a mostly white set of friends and her black boyfriend from Soweto, the big township near Johannesburg. She mixes distinctly white suburban sensibilities – meat comes wrapped in plastic, thank you, not from a backyard slaughter – with an unbridled passion for urban hip-hop dancing.

And she does it all more or less unconsciously.

"I don’t see color," she said. "I actually don’t care what you look like. I can still talk to you because you have a brain and can have a conversation." Race, she said, "doesn’t affect me, honestly."

Which is not to say she transcends race exactly. It’s that she really mixes it up with South Africa’s "rainbow nation" of blacks, whites, multiracial "coloreds" and those of Indian descent. And it is that kind of interaction that social observers say will be needed to forge bonds of nationhood across the cavernous color divide. Affirmative action and other legislated steps will go only so far.

Bella and her contemporaries, who grew up after anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, can get to know one another in ways unheard of 30 years ago. Their parents, white or black, were kept apart, which reinforced the hostility and distrust intended by apartheid’s apparatus of separation.

"For me, Bella is a symbol of things to come," said her adoptive mother, Isabella Strong, who trains companies on diversity. "She can navigate both worlds and be comfortable in both. I think it’s just wonderful."

Bella is luckier than many young people. Not only has she come of age in a racially progressive home, but she spent the last four years at Parktown Girls High School, a richly diverse environment by South African standards. About half its 1,000 students are white, while 20 percent are black and 20 percent of Indian descent. The rest are colored or non-Indian Asians. Some come from wealthy homes, others from Soweto or less-affluent white areas.

Few children in this land of 47 million people have such regular and intimate exposure to those who are different from themselves. South Africa’s 80 percent black majority remains heavily concentrated in homogenous rural villages and townships or in urban districts ranging from largely stable Soweto to Dickensian shack cities.

Many whites, meanwhile, build ever higher walls, literally and psychologically, around their homes and lives – or they emigrate. Indians and other groups tend to cluster as well, a remnant of apartheid laws that segregated the races as much as possible.

To be sure, things are changing. Integration is on the upswing as arrivals to the swelling middle class move into once all-white neighborhoods. People from all walks of life work side by side rather than under the old master-servant dichotomy. Friendships are being formed.

For Bella and the rest of the Mandela’s Children generation at Parktown Girls, a public institution that costs $2,000 a year to attend, school and the wider social scene offer an unrivaled social laboratory. And the students know they are breaking ground.

"Two of my friends are dating boys from different races," said Tarryn Chapman, one of Bella’s close white friends from school. "To our parents, that’s totally unacceptable, because they were brought up in this whole apartheid thing. To us, it’s normal. We actually associate ourselves with different races."

Yet, nobody is naive enough to think that race no longer matters, despite all the gauzy talk one hears in this country about harmony and understanding.

"I think we are expected to be the perfect nation, but we’re not," said 16-year-old Khumo Khumalo, a 10th-grader at Parktown Girls who lived in Soweto as a young girl and shares Bella’s love for hip-hop dancing. "That’s because we’ve had so much to deal with. Slowly, day by day, we’re going to get there, because we have so many young people who want to bridge the gap between the races. I have a lot of hope."

Bella sometimes exudes pessimism, as if the country is not meeting her high expectations.

"We have come a long way – interaction is happening between everybody and every race," she said. "But I think there is not enough understanding. I think we still have a long way to go."

Bella was born in 1988, just over a year before Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years of confinement and six before he became president in 1994. She entered a world still delineated along racial lines, one where white people openly looked askance at the sight of her, a black baby, in a white woman’s arms.

That she ended up with a white family stemmed from the employment arrangements that typified, and still do to an extent, black-white relations in South Africa. Bella’s great-grandmother, Lena, was a housekeeper for Isabella Strong’s mother. Later, Lena’s daughter Dora went to work for Isabella after she married. When Dora’s daughter Miriam bore a child at 16, Isabella and Dora agreed that the child should live with the Strongs.

That was Bella, originally named Girly by her birth mother, whom Bella still sees but is not close to. Dora lived on the property, and soon Bella came to see herself as having two mothers – Dora and Isabella, themselves close friends. She called both Mom. Dora died four years ago, and beforehand, Isabella had promised always to take care of Bella.

Bella has had white and black phases. Around age 6, she was convinced that she was white, her chocolate-colored skin notwithstanding. Her parents and brothers were white; why not her? Toward the end of primary school she made more black friends and felt he
r identity shift.

High school saw all of that jumble together. She danced with white and black girls on the prestige team. (She intends to study dance at the Pretoria Technikon.) She discussed apartheid in Ms. Druzd’s history class with pupils from every point on the racial spectrum. Outside of class, she explored new worlds, venturing freely into Soweto from her tree-lined street in Parkview.

It has not always been easy. While she says that she does not see color, in some respects she feels it more acutely because of her background. Her white friends sometimes say she acts "ghetto." Her black friends have called her a "coconut," as in white on the inside, partly because she does not speak Zulu or any African language fluently – an extreme rarity. Like teens the world over, students form cliques, and race is a common denominator.

Last year, when a white Parktown student called a black student kaffir – an epithet akin to the N-word – Bella joined black students in protest and sang anti-apartheid freedom songs. Like others, she was angered by the comment and disappointed in school officials, who said the girl had apologized and would not be punished.

But this is the same Bella who says that young blacks are too quick to invoke skin color as an excuse for poor performance or lack of advancement. Too many use affirmative action as a crutch, in her view. She dislikes it when blacks play the race card too readily.

Tarryn got into a scrap with a group of black students one day over apartheid. They were saying that South Africa’s version of American Idol was racist because most of the contestants were white. When Tarryn said apartheid was in the past and that they should "get over it," the black students labeled her as racist and angrily confronted her.

Bella saw what was happening and stepped in to help. Tarryn remembers her saying, "Guys, just leave her alone."

Usually, Bella goes where she wants on the social landscape, undeterred by much of anything. That was the case a few months ago when the 12th-graders had their farewell assembly. Bella glided through the sea of blue jumpers and white blouses, filming friends with her video camera and posing for pictures with a wide smile.

There were white friends and black friends, Indian friends and colored friends. At one point, the scene uncannily resembled one of those Benetton ads, only here it was the united colors of South Africa.


For more on the special report, Mendela’s Children, a series on the post apartheid generation, click here.





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