PRETORIA – Toryna Lewis, who says she was a racist under South Africa’s oppressive apartheid system, wept as she described the sea change she and other whites underwent during the unifying leadership of Nelson Mandela.
“Nelson Mandela was a very remarkable man, he changed our country,” the 53-year-old told AFP at the seat of government in Pretoria, having come to pay her respects to the country’s first black president, who died last Thursday.
“I was a racist,” she admitted, drawing on a cigarette and clutching a miniature South African flag outside the Union Buildings, where Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 and where his body will lie in state until Friday.
“I didn’t know any different. And I didn’t know any black people, apart from our domestic worker.”
The apartheid system, which drew in church, state and the education system, was extremely efficient at keeping people of different races apart — physically and psychologically.
They lived in segregated areas, performed different types of jobs and had a completely separate education.
“It was the way we were raised. You didn’t think to do anything else. It was a mentality thing,” said Lewis, who was given time off her job as a government logistics officer to attend Wednesday’s memorial events in the capital city.
“But my thinking and everything has changed. Nowadays, I will go to my colleagues who are black and invite them for a drink after work. Twenty years ago, I would never have thought that possible.
“Recently, we went on an office team-building exercise. I chose to share sleeping quarters with the black ladies rather than the white ones — I knew with them I could have fun and laugh.”
The change came gradually, she said, “but it came naturally.”
Yet, the road wasn’t always smooth.
“It was an adjustment, the mixing thing,” Lewis said. “Because we were used to having blacks on one side, whites on one side, and Indians in yet another.
“Suddenly we were all mixing, also in the workforce.”
A lot of stereotypes had to be broken down, said Lewis — recounting lies she had been told as a child of how blacks had different family and other values.
Lewis said she had often been asked by blacks whether she had supported apartheid.
“I tell them I wasn’t pro it. When Nelson Mandela was caught and tried I was a child.”
She credited the man known as the father of the South African nation with forging much of the mentality change in whites, tears rolling down her cheeks as she described him as “a very nice person”.
“He got angry when blacks wanted to oppress,” she said. “He never sought revenge for all those years he spent in prison. He was an inspiration.”
And she said she was often surprised that many black South Africans were able to forgive the injustices of the past.
“Actually, they are like Nelson Mandela, they don’t hold any grudges.”
Lewis marvelled at the different reality her children and grandchild are experiencing in today’s South Africa, and said she wished it could always have been this way.
“Their reality is that everybody is the same, everybody is equal.”
Apartheid not only oppressed blacks but also did an injustice to whites and the country as a whole, said Lewis.
“We should have been living in this country together from the beginning, from day one.
“Then we wouldn’t have had to go through all these mind-set changes. We would all have been on par.”
Having shed the racist label, how would she describe herself today?
“I am just typically like any South African. We have all changed.”