Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Mixed-Race Family Looks to Brighter Future in S. Africa

Years of bitter discrimination fail to blunt hope for reform

THE De Beers, who have survived the humiliation of eviction under apartheid laws, have begun to imagine that their grandchildren may grow up in a shared society. ``I have hope - but not expectations - about the future,'' says Peter de Beer, a slight, energetic man who has refused to compromise on his principles.

But he fears that what he considers to be the unrealistic expectations harbored by militant black youth could thwart the creation of a just and democratic society.

About these ads

``We will need a lot of love in the new South Africa,'' says Mr. de Beer. ``We have lost a lot of love in the past and - if that can be brought back - I see a lot of hope.''

The De Beers are counted among South Africa's 3 million inhabitants of mixed race, known here as the ``coloreds,'' a term they reject. They owe their origins to intermarriage between Dutch settlers and 17th century slaves from West and East Africa, India, and what is now Malaysia. Their rich, idiomatic language and love of rhythmic music has helped to define the culture of the Cape.

They are caught in the middle of a power struggle between an anxious white minority and a restive black majority. Their large presence in Cape Town - they outnumber whites and blacks combined - acts as a kind of buffer that makes this the least racially tense city in South Africa.

Although the ``coloreds'' broadly share the culture and language of white Afrikaners, they have been subjected to the same repression and humiliation under apartheid as the black majority. The National Party moved in 1956 to manipulate the Constitution (by packing the Senate and the Appeal Court) to deprive people of mixed race of the right to vote. That sowed a legacy of bitterness and persuaded most ``coloreds'' to identify with the black liberation struggle.

De Beer and his wife sympathize with the black cause, but have not joined the African National Congress (ANC) as many people of mixed race have done. But he says that is still an option.

A legacy of discrimination

Pamela de Beer's anger is closer to the surface than Peter's. ``As `coloreds,' we are in the middle,'' she says. ``The younger blacks want to turn things against the whites. They don't want to forget. Just as the Jews will never let the world forget about the Nazis, so they [black radicals] will never let the world forget what was done to them under apartheid.''

About these ads

Their daughters Natalie and Heidi are both married and live nearby with their husbands and children. The grandchildren have given Peter de Beer a second wind.

He has always been very much his own person, striving for a balance between his own needs and service to the community. For the past 15 years, he has been a volunteer counselor for the National Institute of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders, and he currently serves in the organization's Cape Town leadership. For the past five years he has also run a store where recently released prisoners can get free clothing. Helping them readjust to society has advanced Peter's quest for fulfillment.

``I enjoyed that because I consider myself to be a people's person,'' he says. ``I had very humble beginnings. I know what poverty is, and I wanted to give something back to the community.''

De Beer has owned two second-hand automobiles in his life and recently acquired a used company car that he will keep for his retirement.

As the manager of the mailing department in the head office of a major retail chain in Cape Town, he still has reservations about the slow pace of promotion during his career. His daughters work at the same offices - one as a distributor and one as a merchandise assistant.

In the past year, De Beer has begun to reap the rewards of a lifetime of hard work. He and Pamela went on their first vacation to a resort in 30 years of marriage. Now they are planning a second one.

``I have settled down,'' says De Beer, recalling how angry and defensive he was in his middle years. ``I don't get so emotional about things now.''

He spent much of his earlier years in active politics with the multiracial Progressive Party.

``It was dangerous to be in politics in those days,'' he says.

When the government outlawed multiracial parties in 1968, the Progressives decided to continue without their black and mixed-race members. It was a milestone in De Beer's own chronicle of disillusionment.

``Policies were changed to suit the white electorate,'' he says.

Resisting radical solutions

De Beer later boycotted attempts by the ruling National Party to create a separate ``colored'' parliament. As a sports administrator, De Beer campaigned for multiracial sporting events, but was cast out by radicals for his moderate views.

``I was lobbied out because I was not militant enough,'' he says. ``Black athletes who competed with whites in those days were seen as sellouts.''

When the government introduced parallel houses of parliament for the ``coloreds'' and Asians in 1983, a more sophisticated attempt at coopting those groups, De Beer was disappointed when whites he respected tried to persuade him to take part.

The De Beers have been encouraged by President Frederik de Klerk's reforms. Mr. De Klerk's landmark February 1990 speech was the first time that the De Beers had switched on the television to hear a speech by a South African head of state.

``He has built up some credit with us,'' conceded De Beer. ``By announcing [Feb. 1] that he will repeal race classification during this parliamentary session, he has proved to us that he is for real.''

De Beer says that the hurt and humiliation of apartheid will not easily go away. ``I am still reluctant to go to desegregated facilities for fear that I should be confronted and told I should not be there,'' he says.

The forced removal of some 40,000 people from the mixed-race heartland of District 6, adjoining Cape Town, began in 1966. It took 13 years of demolitions to make the area ``white'' and has left wounds that have not yet healed. Peter never lived in the ``district'' but he spent a large part of his teenage years there. The people of District 6 were moved to bleak housing estates on the windswept sandy wastes known as the Cape Flats. Today those areas are hothouses of social decay that have given Cape Town one of the highest murder rates of any city in the world.

De Beer's most vivid and unpleasant memory was that of government officials arriving at his small subsidized home in Diepriver 16 years ago and announcing that the neighborhood had been declared ``For White Occupation Only.''

``At first we pretended it was not real,'' he says.

De Beer recalls that he was corresponding with a network of foreign pen pals at the time. ``My letters to them became laced with the pain we were going through,'' he said. ``I stopped all correspondence, because I did not want to burden them with my problems.''

``Now that we appear to be on the road to normality, I am thinking of picking up where I left off 15 years ago.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.