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The race of life

By Melanie Bala

The day dawned bright and clear and with a little apprehension I set off for Newtown to attend a Qiniso Dialogues session hosted by the Mail & Guardian and Gordon Institute of Business Science. On seeing a few familiar faces (my fellow Twitterati) I did what people normally do and hung out with the people I know.

But we were soon told to connect with someone we didn’t know. I introduced myself to a shy, young man called Themba. He is 19 years old, has two younger siblings and a father who is around but not around, if you know what I mean. His mother passed away in 2006 and as a result he and his siblings stay with his grandmother in Alexandra. We spoke about family and his work with an NGO that skills youth in Alex. Just before lunch we were told we would race to lunch and that we had to line up in a straight line. The jokers in the group readied themselves, crouched and waited for “the gun” to go off.

But this was a race of a different kind.

We would not all set off at once. Instead we were asked a series of questions. The reply was how you interpreted the question, there was no wrong or right.

If your reply was yes, you had to take two steps forward.

If your reply was no, you had to take two steps back.

Simple. Right?

Let’s begin:

Did you grow up with both of your parents in one house?
Did you eat three meals a day?
Did you grow up with access to water? Electricity? A computer? The internet?
Did you ever go on holiday?
Did you finish your schooling?
Today, is your financial future secure?
Have you benefited from apartheid?

And so on and so on.

About three questions in, I jokingly said to the person next me “this is going to get awkward”.

At the end, about 25 questions later, we were told to stand still and have a good look around us. I was near the front, there were about three to four people ahead of me.

I turned around and the first person I saw was Themba, right at the very back of the group.

My eyes started burning, a lump formed in my throat, my head hurt and the tears came. The only three words I could find to describe how I felt was: it’s not fair.

I know that’s not very profound but it’s true.

As a result of systemic suppression, today, 17 years after apartheid has ended, many young people like Themba (who was two when apartheid ended and who by now should have reaped the rewards of a free South Africa) are still feeling the effects through the restrictions imposed on their parents and the failure of the new South Africa to give them a fighting chance.

We need more understanding. Understanding of where people come from, where they still are in their lives, the struggles they face every day and the odds they’ve overcome to get where they are.

I walked away realising how blessed I am, in spite of apartheid. My parents were able to provide me with a superb education, a home, a childhood and that in turn gave me a head start when I began my career.

If you’re looking for “the answer” to our problems in this last paragraph, you won’t find it. I don’t have it.

I just wish every single South African could participate in “the race of life”. There is no more graphic exercise than this to illustrate what apartheid did to this country. And maybe “seeing it” people will understand, truly understand what the majority of the people in this country have gone through.

And as a result, hopefully, have more empathy, because you can never have too much empathy.

Melanie Bala has been a broadcaster for almost two decades, currently a radio news anchor between 6am-9am on Metro FM. She’s passionate about her family, iPad and South Africa.

Nominate yourself or someone you know to be part of the dialogues.

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  • My moment of truth
  • Qiniso Dialogues: Will you join us?