You could hear it many times, but the story never gets old. You cannot talk about the history of South Africa without mentioning the dark days of apartheid. And what you find out once you get talking to anyone 25 and over in South Africa, is that everyone has a different story to tell about the same subject.
On a trip to the food vendor stalls while catching a first-round match between Denmark and the Netherlands at a fan park in Soweto, I met Chris Retsos, who now runs a Greek food vending stand called Taki’s. But in 1984 he was a new enlistee into the South African Army charged with preserving white minority rule, which was facing opposition from various black groups.
As the child of Greek parents, Retsos was raised by his grandmother, unaware of the disparity between South Africa’s whites and blacks until he honored a mandatory call to join the military at 17. He told me at the time he never had any problems with blacks, which I’m inclined to believe based on how easily he relates to everyone he works with. However, believing he was doing his duty to his country, Retsos said he became chauffeur to the many soldiers who killed, brutalized and arrested blacks opposed to apartheid.
Today marks Youth Day in South Africa, a national holiday in honor students like Hector Pieterson, one of the youngest killed June 16, 1976, during the Soweto uprising. Retsos, now 43, tells me that he wasn’t one of those sent to monitor the protest, but he remembers the story vividly. Pieterson, a 12-year-old who accompanied his sister on the protest, was gunned down. Mbuyisa Makhubu, an older student who carried Pieterson through the streets, was gunned down as well.
It’s hard to imagine the horror black South Africans faced. But it’s also hard to imagine the guilt that washes over Retsos as he remembers doing things in the name of his country. As I listened to him describe how a sjambok, a rubberlike whip that cracks your skin on first touch, I started to think back to my native Nigeria’s own history with its colonial masters Britain. Just like the Dutch did with South Africa, the English swooped in on my forefathers’ ignorance and claimed Nigeria’s rich natural resources. Through history books I know Nigerians were not subjected to the torture of the South Africans; nor were we forced to abandon our mother tongue.
Eight years ago, Retsos relocated to Greece, but still returns occasionally. He says he harbors no shame in telling his story because it will always remain a part of his life. He considers himself lucky to have only been a driver, and not an enforcer. He talks about a friend who was deployed to the country’s border where many blacks were, who wakes up every day with nightmares. He thinks about his three children — two girls and a boy — who thankfully never have to experience what he did. And he vehemently proclaims he will never allow his son to fight any war. Visiting his son in prison is a much better option that risking his death for senseless wars, he tells me. Mostly, Retsos thinks about how Nelson Mandela could forgive those who murdered and terrorized his family, comrades and community so easily; a decision he admits he would never have made if given the choice.
Since I arrived in South Africa, I’ve continuously pointed out all the reasons this country is better than Nigeria. What I never stopped to think about was how lucky I am to have been born in Nigeria and not here. At 26, I would’ve been a child in the final years of apartheid; maybe one of those whose skin was cracked by the likes of Retsos. But then I look at this man, full of joy and a likable persona, as he talks and laughs easily with his black workers, and I realize that I, too, might be able to forgive a man who did nothing more than what he was ordered.
Signing out from South Africa with love!