A Brief History of Pain in South Africa
I’ve learned that pain in the body is cyclical. Once a muscle pulls, it doesn’t feel pain in isolation, all the muscles and tissues around the pull work together and spasm in order to tighten the area to immobilize movement.
Once that pain cycle starts to send messages to the brain, pain and stiffness increases throughout the body. The injured lower back shoots pain into the hips, then from the hips to the knees and upwards to the neck. The neck sends pain into the shoulders and down the arms. Everything is connected, and pain creates a feedback loop that never ends. So it is with our community. Pain has immobilized our community; it is in the grip of a cyclical pain loop that never ends. How did our community come to this place?
Colonialism and empirical notions that took the world by storm in the 17th century also came to South Africa in the form of Dutch trade and farming. The Dutch colonies in the Cape area eventually spread north, and as in all cases around the world, indigenous peoples suffered.
Dutch colonialism eventually came into conflict with British aspirations and great wars broke out on all sides. The British eventually succumbed to the Dutch and a white nationalistic government was formed.
Early in the 20th century, along with other nationalistic tendencies across Europe, an idea came from the Dutch Reformed Church that all races should be separate but equal. However, there was a caveat concerning equality, God had ordained the white race to rule all others. This idea eventually gave birth to apartheid rule in South Africa.
The architecture of the system placed black people in township locations. This design meant that white people were never confronted by the poverty of their maids and garden boys. If black people traveled outside of designated locations allowed them through a ‘pass’ system, they would be arrested and jailed.
This oppressive system was supported by the Dutch Reformed Church, Western governments, and Christians worldwide, because the Nationalists Party in power said they were fighting the evils of communism.
All this came crashing down with a watershed moment in 1976. A student uprising took place that started in the Johannesburg township called Soweto. Primary and high school students stood face to face with police in riot gear, protesting forced learning in a language they didn’t understand, Afrikaans. This was the language of their oppressors.
After much violence and civil unrest in the 80’s, the world eventually came to support black independence. Nelson Mandela, a prominent political leader in the black movement of the African National Congress (ANC), was released from prison after 28 years of hard labor, and became the first democratically elected President. 1994 was the end of colonialism, the end of Apartheid, and the start of a government elected by the people with a very liberal and equitable constitution, which gave much hope to people previously abused by minority white rule.
Just as Nelson Mandela was trying to navigate the process of transitioning power peacefully, a disease was quietly taking root in South Africa. HIV found an opportunity in South Africa, exploiting an already broken people by finding a web of relationships to travel through. The way HIV exploited the socioeconomic conditions in South Africa is important to understanding the current issues we face as a ministry working to help children.
The Spread of HIV, A Broken Education, and Loss of Hope
Research has shown that HIV spread rapidly in South Africa through webs of relationships. These webs of relationships were largely a result of 300 years of oppressive colonial rule, followed by 50 years of abusive apartheid power. The traditional social fabric of African culture had been crushed.
Black mothers spent entire months away from their own children while raising the children of white women. Women who worked as maids for white families would often live in on-site quarters within the compound of wealthy white families. This meant seeing their own children only one weekend a month. Fathers spent months away from home on contract to mine companies. The exploitation of cheap labor meant that large multinational mine companies never offered full time employment, only temporary jobs, to avoid paying long term benefits.
This combination, which largely still holds true today, meant that children in poor rural communities grew up seeing their mothers once a month and their fathers once a year. The children stayed home under the care of their grandmothers, aunts or uncles. The above social conditions became the perfect storm for the rapid spread of HIV.
While husbands were away on contract to the mines, it was common for poor women who lived near the mines, to have transactional relationships with mine workers. Men would then return to their own wives in their rural villages and unknowingly bring HIV with them. Men would return to the mines while their wives became sick and eventually left their children orphaned and into the permanent care of extended family. This cycle happened so frequently that the traditional African safety net of extended family became stretched to the breaking point.
Orphaned children grew up feeling unloved, as the burden they put on extended family became apparent to them. Young girls who had been orphaned, would often look for affection from older men. Young girls became infected with HIV as a result of these types of transactional relationships. Statistically, the HIV rate among young teenage girls is three times that of their male counterparts.
A broken African culture, created by the abusive nature of white power systems, resulted in a web of relationships that HIV traveled through very rapidly. The result of this ‘perfect storm’ was that HIV infected about 35% of the adult population in South Africa.
In the past, education was provided South Africans only to prepare them to be maids and garden workers. Education was primarily in a language medium that was incomprehensible for the average student. When freedom came to South Africans in 1994, those teachers who were now given the task of passing on knowledge to learners, were themselves minimally educated. For rural children in South Africa, the education system of today hasn’t improved a great deal.
50% of all students who start grade one, don’t make it to grade nine. Then 35% of those who do make it to grade twelve, do not pass. Of the 65% who do pass, the bar for passing is so low, that they do not actually qualify to go on to higher education.
Economic conditions for the rural poor of South Africa are stagnant. With massive corruption in both the public and private sectors, job opportunities are only available to the well connected. The youth who do pass grade twelve enter a world of perpetual limbo. Caught between a lack of real job qualifications, but unable to qualify for higher education, they end up sitting at home. Having been a burden to their extended family for many years, they don’t have parental support and encouragement as they face the big question, “What do I do now?”
Become an advocate for these children.
This brings us to the vision we have for our ministry in rural South Africa…TEACHING HOPE!
Inspired to take action? There are many meaningful ways to help!