Robby Whitelaw: South Africa Is So Much Nicer Now | KCET
Robby Whitelaw: South Africa Is So Much Nicer Now
Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?
"I'm a South African. And you know, South Africa is not a place that's always been about Nelson Mandela -- a happy place like that.
"Everyone thinks about the World Cup and Mandela. There was a time only twenty years ago when there was a government in place there that was all about apartheid.
"For example, you would have a toilet for whites, a toilet for blacks. And blacks mustn't go in the whites' toilet. If a white wants to go in the blacks' toilet, that's to his own discretion. The other way around is against the law, basically.
"And of course it wasn't only toilets. You'd have white buses and black buses. And black people weren't allowed to eat in restaurants. This was not a very cozy, nice country back then.
"Growing up as a white person there, I guess I don't know whether to say whether I was lucky or unlucky. I mean, certainly I was lucky that I didn't grow up as a black person there, because that was a very uncomfortable life.
"But I would say that I was unlucky being a white person growing up in this brainwashed society that taught and forced this concept of apartheid on you as a child. So now when you grow up and you've been saturated with that your whole life, it's hard to shake.
"In 1976 I was called up to go into the army. I didn't want to go, believe me. As a matter of fact, I didn't go at first. I was hiding away at a friends place and my stepdad had to come and find me.
"I went and sure enough it was kind of a little brainwashing there, as most soldiers get. I went off to Angola and fought there. I spend two years in the army, came out, and then every year I and every other white South African was required to go back to the army to do a 'camp.'
"This could be either a three-week camp or a three-month camp, depending on which match you drew, basically. You would have to leave home. And your employer had his hands tied, pretty much. He had to let you go, there was nothing he could do.
"I did a number of camps -- maybe a half-dozen. The most disturbing camp was only three-weeks. We had to go and guard an area in a black township.
"It was then that I realized that, you know, we're here guarding our own people. These are people that service us and bring our children up. And here we are sitting with guns. It just felt wrong.
"There also had been a huge revolution on June 16, 1976. It's when all the black people united and had a huge protest and a lot of protesters got shot. That's one of the main things about apartheid that made it to the world stage and everybody then started looking at South Africa as being a bad guy.
"It then took a number of years of heavy sanctions against South Africa to have an effect -- but in the meantime, I was still living there. There were very few jobs. I'd be expecting to go to a job interview at ten o'clock and there's like a room full of fifty people.
"And to the guy next to you, you're like, 'Hey how's it going, I'm here for this job interview at ten o'clock.' And he's going, 'I'm here for the same one.' And you're going, 'All these people, too?' Yeah.
"Well I've got a cheap suit on and that guy's got a fancy suit on - immediately you can see that the chances are not going to be very great on getting the job. This kind of set me up for working on my own, working for myself. That was pretty much the only way out.
"I played in a band in South Africa. We were called Tribe After Tribe. We played some gigs over there and they were kind of political. Some of the guys got beaten up and this and that.
"One time we went out to a place and there was a gang of about fifteen guys. These guys ended up jumping my friend, who did nothing to instigate anything. I ended up trying to protect my friend. These guys just jumped on me. I had guys kicking and jumping on my face.
"The cops appeared a couple of minutes later. There were three of us and fifteen of these guys, and the cops took their side. They basically didn't even listen to us. And we realized that these guys are actually part of the cops, right? They are vigilantes.
"Because we were like long-haired, rock-n-roller guys, they laid into us. And also because they knew the band was very famous over there. At the time we were involved with Amnesty International. So, yeah, we were outspoken publicly against apartheid. We did stand with the black people of South Africa.
"I'll tell you something else. There was this one guy -- he was this extreme right-wing, white extremist who wanted to kill all the black people, basically.
"He had a big following of people over there. We just couldn't believe that people like this could have a platform - never mind have a following!
"This guy, one day, he gave a speech or a meeting at the Johannesburg City Hall -- which is pretty big -- and he packed it. My friends and I went there. We snuck in with eggs. And while he was on stage we just started lobbing him with eggs. And then we just ran for our lives, literally.
"One of us actually got caught and badly beaten up. That's where we were. We were on that side. So those people didn't really look too kindly on us.
"After the concert beating, I realized, man, I've got to get out of here. The band got an offer over here in los Angeles and so we came. I ended up taking political asylum over here.
"After what had happened to me and after having to stand there with my rifle pointed against my own people just because of the color of their skin -- that was enough. I didn't want to partake in that anymore. And I think the United States was forgiving for that and allowed me to come and stay here, which was amazing.
"I was definitely not going to go and fight another camp to risk my life fighting a war that made no sense. And getting beaten up by my own people -- just for what? What kind of deal is that?
"So I ended up over here with the band. We got a record deal and we just started working really hard on the music. We went touring around the country several times.
"Eventually I broke away from the band. I met my partner Rey many years later. We've started this little juice business. We specialize in juicing sugarcane and we're pretty much the only people who do it this way in Los Angeles.
"I've been in L.A. for twenty-five years, and I don't feel like it's my home. I don't know where my home is.
"I was born in Zimbabwe -- actually, Rhodesia at the time. I was born in a place called Bulawayo. Then we moved to Salisbury. My dad was in the newspaper industry so he was always getting transferred to a bigger newspaper as he grew in the business.
"So we went from Bulawayo to Salisbury. Then trouble started brewing in Rhodesia back then. Farmers started losing their lives and my dad said he's got to get out of there.
"We moved to South Africa when I was about four-years-old. We went to Durbin. They we moved to Johannesburg. Then to Cape Town. From Cape Town back to Durbin. And then from Durbin back to Johannesburg. And that's where I was when I left.
"I led a life where I never had anything stable. I went to twelve schools - pretty much every year I was going to a different school. I as never able to form a friendship or anything like that.
"But on the positive side to that, I really learned a life of detachment, basically. I'm kind of a gypsy out there. I've noticed just recently several people having a lot of trouble, and getting emotional, because they were attached to something and something went away. It is very, very hard for them to deal with. Whereas for me, things are impermanent. Things are going to go. So you just kind of move on. I think that's a positive thing.
"Of course it's a negative thing if you want to look at it, too. Because I'm not really able to put my roots any place and feel rooted.
"You asked why I say I'm from South Africa? Like I said, I moved there when I was four. And I don't really like to say that I'm from Zimbabwe. And saying, 'I'm from Rhodesia,' that's not the right thing to say either. Because Rhodesia was another white colonial place in Africa.
"So I'm not too proud to be from there, either. Although the country itself and the people there are amazing. We won't talk about Mugabe. But the general population? Such beautiful people, really.
"You want to know about the first time I arrived in L.A.? It was the longest plane trip I've ever taken. I had to catch a plane from Johannesburg and then it went to somewhere in north Africa. And then from there it went to Frankfurt, Germany. And then from there it flew here. The journey itself, Including all the stopovers, was thirty-something hours.
"So yes it was very physically taxing. Nah, it wasn't all that! It was sitting in an airplane seat most of that time. And I was so excited because I had never been outside of Africa.
"One astounding thing that I discovered when I got here was that nobody knew about South Africa. I got this one job here when I first arrived re-finishing bathtubs. A couple of times they sent me down into Compton.
"The one time I went there I was like a little scared because I pulled into the parking lot of -- what do you call those kind of government buildings? Projects? So you got all these buildings all over the place and it's all the same.
"Anyway, I pull into the parking lot and there must have been a whole bunch of big, gang-y looking black guys there. And I was like, well, I've been in places where there are thousands of black people and I'm the only white person. So I'm just gonna get out and do my thing.
"I walked straight up to these guys and I was like, 'Excuse me, guys. Do you know where this apartment is?' And they were like, 'Oh, hi, yeah, it's over there. Where you from?' I'm like, 'I'm from South Africa.' They are like, 'Where's that? Like in Africa?'
"Nobody knows it. I had a necklace of a silver Africa around my neck. People would say stupid things to me like, 'What is that, a country?' It was amazing to find out that people know very little about Africa and almost nothing about South Africa at the time, even though there was all those boycotts going on.
"But today it's very different. A lot of people even know South African accents now, whereas back then it was, 'Are you from Australia? Are you from England? New Zealand?'
"People in South Africa nowadays are a little more like the people here. It is amazing. Going back there after twenty-five years you'll find that it's completely different. The people that were once right-wing fascist extremists are now kind of relaxed and accepting of a lot more than they used to be -- let's put it that way.
"I think that's got to do with the fact that a lot of people from overseas travel there now and so they have to deal with all different kinds of people from all the place. Which is very similar to what we deal with here in Los Angeles -- it's a very very multicultural place.
"Eventually you just kind of see people as people and not so much as, 'Look there's a that person and there's a that person and there's a that person.' You don't say, 'We better stay to ourselves.' It's kind of similar to over here now back over there."
-- Robby Whitelaw
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
**The headline on this story has changed. The original headline read, "Robby Whitelaw: South Africa Was Not A Nice Country Back Then."
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