South Africa! South Africa! Where are you?An immigrant’s meditation on the Rainbow. 

by | Apr 21, 2015

 “You are a f***ing Goffle!” (a pejorative racist slur in Zimbabwe in the 80’s)

We love to tell children the old lie “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words will never harm you, however those five words lead me down a dark road that left me wanting to die. I was 15 at a boarding school in Zimbabwe I had grown up in a country at war in which fathers, brothers, uncles had been killed and had killed on one side or another. Suddenly with those words my world and my identity was changed. It is a moment that is forever burned into my memory. Until that time I had friends and status but as happens in many schools there was one popular kid who set the tone for everyone else and on that fateful day he turned around and in an instant reclassified me. With his pronouncement my whole school life changed. I was instantly “out of favour” a fact that literally smacked me in the face when the boy who had been my best friend since junior school walked up to me later in the day and without prelude or explanation punched me in the face. Shocked I asked him “What was that for?” without saying a word he hit me again, turned his back on me and rejoined the “in” crowd who watched and laughed at a distance. For the next two years I was barely spoken to by my peers at school. My former friends spurned me and the kids who were not part of that crowd largely distanced themselves from me, as they were afraid to be associated with me. I tried to become as invisible as possible during that time, because if I was noticed it normally was the prelude to humiliation or abuse. I felt completely powerless so I retreated into my own world of depression, fear, pain and shame. Why was I ashamed? Well you see I had a dark secret that I was afraid to tell anyone. Literally a dark secret. My great grandfather came from Indonesia, which means I am not totally “white”. In a racially defined culture I was white but not white enough for those around me. I hated that part of me that was plunging me into this pain, that part of me that caused others to reject me, scorn me and at times hit me. I wished I could change my genes, my ancestors and my slightly darker skin tone. I was ashamed of my skin colour. I hated me. 

The pressure inside of me grew until I saw no escape from my pain other than death and began to plan my own death. Thankfully my older brother noticed my depression one day and finding out the cause had a brief chat with my peers in which he promised them a great deal of their own pain if they did not back off on me and my situation eased, and I did not carry out my exit strategy.

Recently I have thought a great deal about that time in my life as I watch national and international events. It seems that once again racism is fighting pfor the soul of this once rainbow nation. The recent #Rhodesmustfall headlines and the knock on demonstrations that saw not only the statue of Rhodes attacked but others including somewhat bizarrely the statue of Mahatma Gandhi were followed days later by renewed Xenophobia attacks and the demonisation, dispossession, abuse and even killing of foreign nationals have resulted in a flurry of debate once again about our national character and identity. I find myself wrestling once again with the issues of race, origins, skin colour, identity on both a personal and corporate level. These are some of my musings. I share them not to give answers but merely to share in this national conversation and perhaps to raise a few important questions.


1)ingredients are more important than Labels.

When deciding what to buy in your local grocery store it is wise to read the list of ingredients and not just the label on the front of the box. Labels are often very deceptive. The box Labelled Superior may or may not be the best product on the shelf. It is the same way in life. My whole teenaged world was dramatically shattered by a label. A racist label. Injustice, oppression and the disempowering of others often begins with the assigning of labels to others. I stopped being “Desmond” to my peers once the label “Goffle was attached to my life. We are all somewhat prone to assigning and even accepting labels. In South Africa we have a long history of labels. “White, Black, Coloured, Asian, Indian, etc”. These words in and of themselves are not necessarily wrong or hurtful, they seem to be merely descriptive until we realise that in assigning and accepting these labels we took our first step away from that marvellous gift that each of us has been given the gift of being a unique a special creation of a loving God, the gift of being an individual human being with the potential and gifting to make a difference in the world. We loose something of our individuality and become part of a collective. The moment we stop seeing people unique individuals and as merely part of a collective we take a step away from our own humanity. I stop seeing people and see only a “white” or a “black”, a “foreigner” an “Ethiopian” a “Kwerekwere” a “Mlungu” or as I was called a “Goffle”  It is no longer necessary to study the “ingredients” or in Martin Luther King’s words “the contents of a man’s character” in the individual person because I stop at the label.  If I looked past the label I may find virtue, kindness, humanity, love, goodness, generosity in this person, possibly I would see their need for compassion, protection, understanding, friendship in their lives in the same measure as I have in mine. In some measure as I read and listen to some of those who are standing against the Xenophobia in South Africa I see the same faulty logic. I hear the protest ” We are all African” and all I see is another slightly more encompassing label. What does that mean? Some have said can you not recognise yourself in the black face of the immigrant you are chasing and it leads me to ask what if you can’t recognise yourself in my face? My face may be paler than yours, or darker but am I not African enough for you? It’s ironic that when I was 15 I wasn’t seen to be white enough to belong now some of my friends make me feel I am not black enough to belong to this continent. I think of the Asian community once a thriving part of Idi Amin’s Uganda who literally had to pack their bags and leave. Was that acceptable because they were not African enough? What of the Zimbabweans who in the last decade lost their farms because they were too white to ever be considered Zimbabwean or African. Many fine families in Zimbabwe who had worked and sown their lives into their farms, who had built up enterprises that not only built the country’s economy, but brought employment, housing, schools, and often health care and hope to their communities saw all they worked for disappear because in the climate that was deliberately created by the national leadership it was no longer necessary to examine the contents of a persons character all that was necessary was to read the label and thus to condemn them to a collective judgement. The result was the whole country lost. It wasn’t just white farmers who lost their homes, livelihoods, and lives. The resultant violence destroyed the very fabric of the nation and as a result many families had to flee to find a new life in South Africa, Europe, and the ends of the earth. Now they are the ones who find themselves regarded as foreigners, outsiders and as easy targets for others who are angry, jealous, and frustrated. We all lose when we assign and accept labels. Look past the label, see the man, the woman the child in front of you. Tomorrow it could be you under the microscope. Xenophobia, racism, injustice and violence begin when we assign and accept labels. It is the beginning of a painful and destructive road which disempowers and dehumanises all who travel on it, victims and oppressors alike.


2) I cannot change history, but I can make it.

In my pain I tried to change who I was. I lived for many years in outright denial. I just did not acknowledge my Indonesian ancestors. I just tried to cut that part of me, out of my thinking and my identity.  Thankfully I became a christian and I grew to understand God’s great love for me, all of me,and that he had woven together all the strands of who I would be. Now I rejoice in my genetic inheritances. I have discovered that some my ancestors come from Indonesia, some Holland, some England, some Ireland, and way back from France and all of them enrich me and make me me. I never chose them, I cannot change them and I won’t deny them. I am sure that each of them (like me and you) had their virtues and their vices. I have no control over that and as much as I would like to hide or polish my ancestry-it is what it is.

However, I am here now and my name is Nigel and I can choose who I will be. I can choose to live with joy, faith, grace, honour and love and in doing so perhaps I can change the future. I cannot change my ancestors but by the grace of God perhaps I can influence and impact my children and my descendants and leave the world a little richer, a little more just, perhaps more beautiful. If I will live looking into your face and see the face of your creator reflected there and treat you accordingly you might just see in my face the love that God wants to pour into your life.

Our nation has this same choice, we have a rich and full history. Our national DNA is drawn from Africa, Europe, Asia and the four corners of the globe every day more people are born and others arrive who whether we like it or not they will be part of our collective future. In our history we have both triumphs and disasters. There are shining moments of inspiration, courage, beauty, humanity and we also have had our dark times and seasons of shame, selfishness, injustice, failure, wickedness and sin but our past has made us who we are. We cannot change the past, we cannot change our roots but WE are here on the soil of South Africa now, and it is we who will shape the future nature and character of our nation. Will our children “rise up and call us blessed” or will they look back at a generation who refused to learn from the failures of our fathers and try to heal the wounds we inflicted, and rebuild what we broke? None of us can control where we came from, but all of us can determine where we are going.


3) We all need forgiveness and humility.

We do well to remember that the Bible tells us “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Everyone’s personal and family story is a blend of the good and bad, of wonder, courage, outrage and horror and shame. If we want to trace it back we will ultimately get back to the ancestor that we all share the first man Adam. The great tragedy of Adam was not just that he rebelled against God and disobeyed and thereby corrupted all of his descendants but he traded an identity on God’s love for him and exchanged it for an identity that was based on his performance as he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Since that day the children of Adam have had a tendency to try know themselves by eating from that cursed tree and the resultant broken identity lead to every sin and murder in history. However when God came to find the broken man and woman in hiding in Eden he did not cry out with a label, Sinner, Rebel, idiot where are you? He came calling his name “Adam! Adam! where are you?” and he called him back to the tree of life, to faith and to the love of the God in whose image he is made. It was and is only in the presence of the living God that we know ourselves truly. He calls out our names all the way through history, he called our names at Golgotha where he nailed all our sins, failures, mistakes, and iniquity to the cross and with his own blood made a way for us to begin anew with a truer identity and a heavenly purpose and destiny. He called our names as he rose from the dead and sent us out to every nation in the world to call all men back to a life of love.

South Africa! South Africa! Where are you? 

My hope and prayer for South Africa is that we can rise above the temptation to label each other and instead seek each other out in the presence of God. In the garden of Eden God was calling out Adam’s name not because he had lost him, nor even because Adam had lost God-rather Adam had lost himself. God was calling Adam back to his own identity, Adam means “man”, in returning to God’s presence Adam found himself, and his own humanity once again. God calls each of us back into relationship with himself so that once again we can find ourselves and each other. So that we can once again be people made in the image of God not a collection of labelled products sitting on the shelf of history.








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