The Rainbow Nation

A few decades ago, we lived in the province of Kwazulu Natal,a lush and tropical part of South Africa. Many of our friends still live there; one couple was stopped a while back by a (black) man they did not recognise. He however knew they were friends of my mother. They did not recognise him because he had been a teenager when they last met, and now looked very different in his late thirties. A large and proud Zulu man, with very dark skin and close-cropped peppercorn hair, he cut an imposing figure.

This man, Charles, called my mother here in the Western Cape, and when she went to KZN for a holiday she contacted him and they met up. He told her his story. She relayed it to me, and now I am passing it on to you.

Charles is a Zulu from KZN, and when he was young he lived with his mother in a shack in a township. She was working but there was not enough money with her small wages, so when he started high school he looked for some kind of job to help put bread on the table. It was at this stage that he started working for us as a garden boy.

After many pleasant years in the area, we moved away and lost contact with Charles. He finished high school (an achievement in itself given the turbulent circumstances of the times), and started work at a manufacturing concern as a labourer. This company had an adult-education facility running, and Charles chose to do a B.Com Law. Management explained to him that it was extremely difficult, and advised him to rather do a supervisor’s course, something that he could pass and that would help him to advance on the factory floor and earn a better wage. He insisted on doing the B.Com, convinced that he could pass it. They let him follow his choice, and he did obtain this qualification, showing it with pride to the management team.

The company was pleased for him and his future lay with them. They gave him opportunities which he took and made the most of, and he is now a senior manager driving a new BMW 5 series, and very successful, especially for a boy from the townships. He is also a devoted father and lay minister. Although he no longer lives in a shack, he still stays in the township, being very active in the community and not wanting to appear to desert them.

Charles told my mother about something that he always remembers. When he was 15, my parents went overseas on a holiday and we went to stay with our grandparents. Charles was asked to look after the house during our absence. Now in those days apartheid was still very much alive in South Africa and society was filled with racial barriers, so it was highly unusual to have a black man in your house at your request. Even Charles’ mother asked him,
“How can they ask you that, they don’t even know you?”

We knew him enough to trust him, and we were right to, he took good care of the house and our precious dogs, crosses between Labradors and Border Collies. He told my mother how he always remembered that, and it enabled him to have the courage to face each new challenge of his career. He could get up in front of ominous boards of directors at a meeting and speak his mind with assurance, even when he was young and without authority. The trust that we had shown in him, and the respect we had always treated him with, had led him to realise that he was worthy of such treatment because he was a person who merited it. This gave him confidence that stood by him the rest of his life, and helped him make his way.

This is a story that powerfully symbolises the New South Africa, and I have thought a lot about it since my mother related it to me after her return from KZN.

The first thing that struck me was how important our actions are, even those that seem to have little meaning. All of our actions should be a manifestation of our principles and values, none of our actions lack consequence. These actions can have tremendous significance in our lives or the lives of others, and the only way to never regret our moves is to make sure that our motives are always true, and that we act accordingly.

I also thought about the nature of our society in South Africa at the moment.

South Africa has a unique history, and thus things have a different and strange context here. When I was born, blacks were not allowed into the cities unless they had a pass to work for the white man. I can remember as a child that many of the beaches were for whites only, and only in my last year of high school was it opened up to non-whites.

Racial differences were cemented in law and society. Then, it changed. The whites realised in degrees that it was unsustainable and just plain wrong, and we changed our laws and our society, and in less than 10 years a miracle has happened here, and it is still happening. It was the first time in human history that there was such a shift of power without it being taken violently and bloodily, with those in power voluntarily passing it over.

Now in South Africa, there is a large difference between the different races and cultures, not like in London, for example, where everyone is English and the same, just different colours. Over here people have different colours, different languages, different cultures, different food, different clothes, different ways of living. But what we have in common is that we are all South African, and we celebrate this diversity, because it is this that makes us the country that we are. That is why we call ourselves the “Rainbow Nation”; our diversity is a beautiful illustration of one of the essential characteristics of Nature, which is the multiplicity of expressions that Life uses to express itself.

We were the only country in the world to go up in tourism after September 11, because we are the country with no enemies, for everybody feels welcome here. All races and religions are accepted equally, there are no oppressed minorities. Our multi-cultural society is what makes us South African. We are not a homogenous society, but we are becoming a close and interconnected society filled with a special strength and pride.

Don’t mistake me as saying it is perfect, you still get crackpot right-wingers and other milder forms of animosity and mistrust. However, the positive changes, if you open your eyes to them, drown out the laggards totally. I remember when our country had its first open vote, seeing 80 year old black men queue for days to cast their vote, the first time in their lives that they could vote in their own country, and crying with the joy of it. Many of our elder citizens were abused in some way in their lives, and all were oppressed, and it would be understandable if they regarded white folk with hate and anger and spite. But they don’t. I have found most people in our society to be caring and respectful, and while I know that this is partly a reflection of my attitude towards all that I encounter, it amazes me that millions of people were able to forgive the past and move on as brothers and sisters together. Regarding this, our country will be eternally grateful to Mr. Mandela. After spending 27 years in prison, he was released and become our president and showed everyone what true forgiveness was, and his love for his country and fellow South Africans inspired all his fellow citizens to follow his example.

Our country has it problems, but I love it and so do most of us. It has a wild African strength and the blue sky is high overhead and the sun shines brightly down on us. We also have the best and warmest people in the world. Come and visit us and experience it for yourself!

[Jay Henning is the author of A Man Called Stan, published by iUniverse Inc in 2003. Get it on or]

December 18th, 2003 by