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Un/Settled

Sydelle Willow Smith | South Africa

Organization: Sunshine Cinema

Antique store, Hermanus, December 2017

Un/Settled is a project that explores white South African histories, privileges, and reflections on identity. Every nation has a past and must confront it in order to see the present clearly, and to imagine a different future. I grew up just as Apartheid came to an end. Ever since starting primary school, I have been told that I am a child of the rainbow nation. The end of Apartheid was signalled by a great gesture of forgiveness and hope, one that must have seemed at the time, to transcend the decades of violent oppression. Many white people seem to have taken the release of Nelson Mandela, and the platforms for redemption and healing under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as absolution. It was not absolution. As South Africa struggles to come to terms with persistent social and racial inequality, the project seeks to urge participants and audiences to examine their historical and future roles within a landscape marked by deep social scars.

Text written in collaboration with Olivia Walton

I am a  Jewish South African. My forefathers arrived in the Free State in the 1800s fleeing the pogroms in Lithuania. My great grandfather was able to secure land, and open a trading store in Harrismith. He fought for the Boers in the Anglo Boer War and was a prisoner of war in then Ceylon (Sri Lanka). My grandmother and her siblings grew up in Harrismith for some time before relocating to Johannesburg where my mother was born. My father was adopted and does not have a relationship with his foster family. His biological mother was Jewish, and he was born in Borneo where his Australian father was working for Shell. In the early 1990s, we lived out in the farm areas in the North of Johannesburg. My mother did some work at a rural school where I was enrolled. I was the only white child in a school of hundreds. Everyday at lunchtime my class, comprised of about 50 black children of my age, would get served lunch. Lunch consisted of big plastic bottles filled with milky sugary tea and big thick white plain  bread sandwiches. My mother packed me my own lunch in my own lunchbox. One day I remember opening my lunch box to discover that my sandwich had been half eaten. I still remember the shape of the teeth marks and the feeling of burning up with shame that I had a better lunch than everyone else, and someone had taken the time to point this out to me. My mother took me out of the school after  a few months and put me in another pre-school. One day at the new school a black girl came to sit next to me at the drawing table and I lashed out at her because she had snot coming out of her nose and I told her I didn’t want her to sit with me because she was dirty.  I remember feeling incredibly embarrassed as I felt I had done something racist. Fast forward 25 years and I was trolled on social media for documenting the removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT during the Fees Must Fall protests by black artists and activists. They told me it was not my story to tell and I was blocking their narrative. I remember feeling hurt, rejected and left out. Looking back on these events that pinpoint aspects of my own racial prejudices, I am reminded that guilt is not constructive unless it enables the one who feels it to identify something done wrong and to act differently next time, or to correct the wrong. Every white South African carries a thread of settler history. South Africa has the biggest population of white people in post colonial Africa. Migration is a part of what it means to be human. Making home, leaving marks on the landscape, and building ones archive of memory - are threads one carries throughout ones life as ways to hold onto a sense of self. How you carry the stories of your forefathers (both the good and the bad) shapes parts of your present. I am trying to understand how people embody that migratory history. Some voices completely reject the links between present economic divides and Colonialism and Apartheid. Wilful blindness acts as a coping mechanism, maintaining enclaves that carry a false sense of security. While others feel very uncomfortable in the skin they are in due to the shame and weight of the continuing affects of institutionalised racism. This project is a personal journey of listening, and engaging, fellow white South Africans across age, economic, and gender lines about their diverse conceptions of belonging. With this work I am seeking to understand how I am to live in this place - with humility.

 

sydellewillowsmith@gmail.com

+27794772997

@sydellewillowsmith

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