Recently, a friend said that she would be interested in hearing about growing up in South Africa. It’s quite difficult for me to know where to begin so this post is really just a personal post – a mini autobiography of sorts – to organise my thoughts. It probably won’t be very autism related or relevant to many people, but growing up in South Africa during the time that I did provided me with experiences that have played a pivotal role in shaping many of my values.

So, where to begin?

I think I need to focus on my school experiences, because those are where the most tangible changes occurred for me.

I spent the first 6 years of school in segregated – whites only – schools. We only learned white history which had a distinct focus on Afrikaans white history. Unfortunately, because we only focused on one tiny part of the country’s history, it meant that there was some repetition year after year:Van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company, the arrival of the 1820 settlers, the Second Anglo-Boer War (never the first for reasons still unknown to me). There were a few notable exceptions to this white washing of history: The Battle of Blood River was taught as an example of black brutality on the Afrikaners. It was probably more complicated than that, but that is the way in which we were indoctrinated.

And, then things changed…

Schools became desegregated. My final year of primary school saw a few Black children join our school. One girl, Zazi, became a classmate of mine. She seemed shy and reserved which is understandable now, but her arrival at school also took a little focus off me. Teachers were now less concerned with the awkward girl who hardly spoke, because their focus was on Zazi, a person more obviously marked by difference than I was. I don’t remember ever speaking to Zazi, which wasn’t unusual for me because I didn’t speak to most people, but I remember her being there.

High school was very different. The high school that I went to was completely desegregated. It was completely multicultural. It was easier for me to fit in because there were so many different people there. But, most interestingly for me, high school was where my world expanded. Syllabi had been rewritten. Instead of focusing on the usual white history, we were now learning a whole new history – a history which included events that were significant for the many other cultures living in South Africa. Our English syllabus also changed significantly. We weren’t only focusing on white South African literature, or the old English classics; we were learning poetry from the struggle such as City Johannesburg and In Detention. Multiracial bands, such as Johnny Clegg’s, were allowed to play in public again. Most importantly, I was able to interact with a diverse group of peers. We shared our personal histories, and I developed an appreciation for exactly how easy my life had been until then. Despite never fitting in among my peers and my failings in the eyes of my parents, my life was easy by comparison.

I remember my parents’ tangible fear leading up to the first democratic election. There were many whispered conversations, and talk about possible civil war. I couldn’t understand the basis of their fear. But, I realise now that my parents didn’t have the same opportunity that I did – they didn’t have the opportunity to experience the beauty of a multicultural environment.

Their fears were later proved unfounded. The period following the first elections was simply amazing to experience. It’s hard to put into words what it was like to be a teenager at that time. One memory that stands out in particular for me is the day when one of our English teachers asked us to debate whether it would be preferable to continue living in the Rainbow Nation which was attempting to ensure that all races and cultures could continue to co-exist but with equal status, or whether we could try and promote a cultural melting pot of sorts. Looking back, I realise that she was incredibly progressive in her thinking, and it is incredible that she managed to work for the old education department for the length of time she had. I chose Rainbow Nation. Some of my classmates chose cultural melting pot. I wonder whether they would have chosen differently if they realised that cultural melting pot meant that their own culture would change.

I think those experiences are what make me so irritated when someone insists that they don’t see colour. I see colour because it is impossible not to, and by acknowledging that I do see colour, I am able to learn so much more about the things that are important to people who are different to me. Because I had always felt so different from the people around me, and I felt my difference was somehow wrong, meeting people who are obviously different to me was comforting. I was able to develop the belief that different means different, not less, not wrong, just different – a different is valuable, because valuing difference means that we get to explore the world from perspectives that we never could have on our own.

As an interesting footnote to this story of changes, something never changed – Riaan Cruywagen, who was the first newsreader of the first television broadcast in the 70s, and he continued to read the news for 37 years, only retiring after I left South Africa. He literally never changed. He was cool, calm, and collected (except for one notable exception). His style of dress never changed, and his hairstyle never changed (he wore a wig as far as I can tell). His precise Afrikaans would always signal that night had begun, and he provided one point of stability in a country undergoing enormous change.