Day 1, Thursday 22 September 2016
It was very hard for me to leave Johannesburg, and the current struggles in South Africa around free higher education. Most of my day was spent reading, thinking and responding to the struggles raging on university campuses across the country and spilling out into the streets. Alongside all of this… I was up like many others at 5.30am to get my child ready for school or get to work. I no longer listen to the radio when I am driving her to the school bus. I realised that she listens and is affected by what she hears. I took her to a meeting at Wits [University of the Witwatersrand] yesterday afternoon and she began to panic when she saw the riot police on campus. As concerned academics and students sat on the university library lawns she played with her soccer ball. She kept coming over and asking me if we could leave. I wanted to take her away. To protect her from this unfolding scene. She asked me why the police helicopter was flying around and around. I decided to take her home and miss the important discussion. Once back in the car she said, “I don’t like the police, they make me scared with their guns and I’m worried that they are going to arrest you and take you away.”
I was overwhelmed in that moment and had to fight back my tears. The first time I remember feeling scared of the police and afraid that they would take my parents away was when the security branch of the apartheid regime busted into my house and arrested my dad. I was five. I was always weary of the police as a result. Here was my 7 year old, reminding me of what many children in South Africa, in my time and hers, have experienced and seen police do.
Now that I was the parent, the adult who understands a little bit and works against some of the childhood traumas I experienced growing up under apartheid, was I going to expose my child to this? Like the majority of children in South Africa, she was being exposed to the struggles for a more just system. I thought of all the children privy to the daily protests and evictions. Was I going to hide it all from her? I also thought of the way my partner, who was born in 1976 like me but grew up 5kms away on the white side of the railway tracks, has spent more than half of her life trying to unlearn and work against what could be understood as the violence of being duped by family, friends and society into thinking everything was okay in South Africa. I thought of the news of an 18 year old girl shot by her boyfriend yesterday in the neighbourhood where my dad lives, where my 5 year old sister is growing up.
And then I thought about the video I had watched the day before. It had a trigger warning but was about Palestinian children, and since I was going in a few days on a solidarity mission to Gaza, I felt I should see it. I was not prepared — how can anyone be — to see three separate incidents of Jewish settlers executing children. Shooting them and then circling them and screaming “die you dogs” while they bled to death in the street with adults watching and cameras rolling. Those children, their parents don’t have much choice.
In South Africa, while we no longer have the apartheid laws that separate our lives as explicitly as they do in Israel-Palestine, there are many parents who can’t protect their children from the violence that is everywhere. When I was in the USA with my daughter a few years ago, friends took us to a restaurant, and were worried that my then four year old daughter who is black would behave as confidently in a public space as she was doing. They advised me out of concern for her that in the USA a black child who wanted to survive needed to learn to respond to authority subserviently so they could avoid harm. I was glad in that moment not to be raising my daughter in the USA, and felt appreciative of the progress that has been made in South Africa.
The contradictions and inequalities in South Africa remain extreme, but I know that when I get on a plane tonight, I start my journey to one of the most violent and oppressed places on the planet. My phone keeps ringing for media comments on the question of whether free higher education is possible. I agree to squeeze in a trip to the SABC offices to record an interview to be aired on the evening news when I will be in the air. I don’t have a TV at home but catch a glimpse of the news at the studio. It is being reported that a few hundred people have died in the Mediterranean Sea trying to flee to a better life in Europe. In a few days I will be on that beautiful and ghastly, ghostly sea where so many thousands have died, have been left to die, have been killed. I rush home to pack.
I must pack only things that I am okay not to return with. I must pack things that won’t come back. I have packed many times. Travelled many times. But never have I packed not to bring back. Never have I packed with the possibility of not coming back. Apparently freedom flotillas heading for the Gaza Strip get attacked. Well, to put it bluntly, humanitarian and solidarity flotillas are mostly attacked. In 2010, one of the vessels was attacked by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and nine people on board were killed (another died of his wounds later). In other years, boats were rammed, one capsized. I remember the terrible news of a few days ago that Barack Obama has just signed another multi-billion dollar package with Israel for arms over the next ten years. Does this mean that my partner’s family, my family and friends, who live in the USA may have some of their taxes go towards maintaining and growing the IDF that is likely to stop us from bringing a message of solidarity and hope to the Palestinians in Gaza?
And what about the children in the IDF? I hear from many who have experienced a military checkpoint or been on a flotilla mission that the IDF soldiers are young. Some are just out of school. What kind of compassion can I have for these young people? What will I feel when I come face to face with them? When they demean and ridicule those who try to support or show solidarity with their “enemy”? I have read some accounts of young Israelis refusing national military service. They do not escape the violence and the trauma of being so young and yet carrying a gun and a hatred around to maintain an occupation of a people. Their own defence force breaks them for disobeying and resisting. No one leaves this conflict unscathed.
I say goodbye to my partner and my child, my family which is trying hard not to simply remain comfortable and safe while others don’t have the possibility to be. For us, even as we have choice, the possibility to not hear and not see the injustices next door or far away, is not an option. I remember this commitment as I board the first of three planes, a train, and hopefully a boat to take a message of solidarity from South Africa to the Palestinians, especially the women and children, in occupied Gaza.