After Isaac and Joan Ngwenya moved into their home in Pietermaritzburg in 1993, a boy rode a bicycle past their driveway and shouted an epithet: “Hey, you kaffir!”
They were the first inter-racial family to move into a neighbourhood that just two years earlier had been reserved for whites under South Africa’s violently segregationist apartheid laws.
“I phoned his mother: ‘Listen, your son called me a kaffir.’ The woman didn’t know what to say, talking to a black man,” Isaac Ngwenya said.
A few hours later, the boy’s father came to their home. They didn’t know what to expect.
“Sir, I work as a mechanic. I have black and white people [in my shop], and this is not the teaching of my family,” the man said, Ngwenya recalled.
“And then from there you start to feel confident in some of the white people.”
Theirs was an exceptional story from the apartheid era, when South Africa’s white-minority government used a tangle of legislation to classify every citizen by race — a category that determined where people could live, what they could study, where they could work and whom they could marry.
The repeal of the last laws took effect 20 years ago, a milestone on the road to the first all-race elections won by Nelson Mandela in 1994.
Ngwenya circumvented the apartheid system, thanks to the determination of his mother, a farm worker in KwaZulu-Natal province, who saw that the Bantu education given to black South Africans would never lift her children from poverty.
“They were saying a Bantu child is not smart enough for that. If you teach a Bantu child mathematics, it cannot use it. It is like a dog,” he said.
“That was the doctrine that we had to emancipate ourselves from.”
His mother sent him to nearby Swaziland to live with relatives and receive a better education.
His own efforts won him a scholarship to the University of Calgary in Canada, where he earned an engineering degree and met Joan, who was studying medicine.
They married, and she followed him back to Swaziland where he was offered a job and they started a family.
Bestiality of the system
Across the border in South Africa, families like theirs were impossible. Isaac would have been classified as black, Joan as white, and their children as coloured.
The notorious Immorality Act equated sex with someone of a different hue with bestiality, and was strictly enforced.
Couples suspected of breaking the rules could land in prison, their underwear and bedsheets confiscated and combed for pubic hairs, which were then used in court as evidence.
The Ngwenyas did sometimes drive through South Africa to go on safari in Kruger National Park, trying not to stop along the way.
“Once when we were leaving to go back to Swaziland, the [car] lights started going out. We had to get a hotel in Barberton, but we couldn’t stay there,” said Joan Ngwenya (57).
“They said, ‘No, if we put you in here, no one will stay in our hotel’,” added Isaac (54).
Finally one hotel took pity on them and their young daughter Jabu. That was 1985, and they were the first inter-racial family to stay there, they said.
“My daughter was playing with everybody in the morning, and the Afrikaner [guests] there were shocked. The English families couldn’t even look at us,” Isaac said.
Still a long way to go
After the apartheid laws were repealed, they made the leap across the border and bought their home in Pietermaritzburg.
None of his relatives who had stayed in South Africa had progressed past second grade.
His own children were enrolled in formerly white schools that took them on to university studies, and he landed on a management track that took him to the parastatal logistics firm Transnet.
“Black people in management were not there. There were all these white people saying, ‘You shouldn’t be here with us’,” he said.
“When 1994 came of course, it was a huge thing. We were having expectations that we would be accepted as equals. But no. To today, you can feel it.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes. Right now if you ask me if the things of apartheid are gone, I would say they will take a long time to go. But we are experiencing them less.” — AFP