Author: Why I Reopened Old Wounds
A memoir by a Catholic author about growing up under apartheid has been a surprise bestseller in South Africa this year. Günther Simmermacher interviewed Beryl Crosher-Segers.
What was supposed to be a family memoir about growing up in a coloured township under apartheid has become a bestseller in South Africa. Beryl Crosher-Segers, a Catholic from Cape Town who now lives in Sydney, Australia, published her book A Darker Shade of Pale in April, which The Southern Cross has reviewed. Since then she has been widely interviewed by Australian and South African media.
A Darker Shade of Pale charts her experience of growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s in Steenberg, a Cape Town township which served as a dumping ground for coloured people who had been forcibly removed from areas that had been declared white.
Your book has received a lot of possible attention in South Africa. Did you expect it to do so well?
When I wrote A Darker Shade of Pale the idea was to record our family history.
We have four generations in Australia; the matriarch of our family, my mother Sarah, is 87. Our children and grandchildren are mostly Australian-born or arrived here as young children. They remember very little about South Africa. My plan was to give them this resource to explain why we left South Africa.
During the writing process I shared snippets on social media and soon gained expat followers from around the world. Most could identify with my stories or wanted to know more. I realised then that our story is also the story of so many other families who bore the brunt of apartheid South Africa; the early years when legislation was introduced and strictly policed.
I knew then that my book would be well received because many could identify with my stories. However, the level of interest did surprise me.
How is it doing in other markets?
My first indication of the success of my book was via online store Amazon. A Darker Shade of Pale has been listed as a bestseller in a number of categories for both kindle and print for several weeks.
Media interest both in South Africa and Australia have also contributed to the success of the book.
In Australia it has been of particular interest to around the centenary celebration of Nelson Mandela. It’s been four months since my book’s release and I am eagerly awaiting the US publisher’s first report.
One of the moving passages in the book is where you explain how, after emigrating to Australia, you felt that the flag of your new home was one you could stand behind, in ways that you obviously couldn’t behind the apartheid-era flag.
I embraced the new flag from the moment I saw it. Anything other than the apartheid flag would have satisfied me.
What does the current South African flag mean to you?
It was a moving moment, during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 to see a stadium filled with South Africans of all races, united, draped in the new flag.
I felt a tinge of sadness at missing out on that moment but more so that my father missed out. He instilled in us an early disdain for the flag and the anthem.
I have travelled around the world, and spotting a South African flag or hearing the anthem is always special. South Africa will always be a part of me.
Revisiting painful memories while you were writing the book must have opened many old wounds. Did you experience anger or bitterness as you relived these memories?
Many times during the writing process I had to walk away and leave it for a few days. Some of the memories were painful, particularly those where I was vilified for being coloured.
I felt an immense sadness for my older sister who missed out on the career of her choice because of the colour of her skin. In 1969, her heart was set on being a radiographer. Later, she was struck down with cancer and ironically during the last few years of her life, she responded positively to radium treatment which kept her alive for another 15 years.
For many of us, those missed opportunities live inside of us and surface at different times during our lives.
How does forgiveness work in your circumstances, as somebody who left their home because of apartheid but wasn’t here in 1994 to bury the racist system?
That is one of the issues I feel strongly about. We watched and read from afar as the Truth & Reconciliation Commission dealt with some of the pain of the past.
I am not convinced that true reconciliation is possible in our lifetime unless there is open dialogue and genuine acknowledgement that apartheid was evil and supported by the majority of white South Africans.
I certainly don’t live with the past in my daily life. However, I am conscious of the wealth that white South Africans were able to acquire under the brutal reign of the National Party. This astonishing disparity in wealth among South Africans is still evident today in and outside of South Africa.
In Australia and no doubt elsewhere in the world, there are South African expats who believe that hardship only started in 1994.
I can never forget the extent of the abuse of our human rights and how it changed the course of our lives.
You were a very active Catholic in Cape Town and have remained one in Sydney. In South Africa, did you experience apartheid in the Church?
While I was conscious of segregation in the church communities, I knew that the Church played an active role in the dismantling of apartheid.
In my book I detail some of the ways some priests in the 1970s tried to use the church to bridge the gap, which may seem futile now. I was actively involved in the Young Christian Workers movement and these multiracial events brought us together, albeit for a couple of hours.
But this did little to bring young people together as friends because of the strict Group Areas Act legislation.
One incident that I recall during my time at St Anne’s [in Steenberg] was when the Constantia parish, which ran an annual fair, invited our parish to participate in the event to raise much needed funds.
The task of erecting the fence was given to our parish. I viewed the disparity between those parishioners and us as so huge, with no way of ever bridging that gap. The likelihood of friendships or any invitations to attend Holy Mass at the parish was not forthcoming. We were seen and made to feel like the labourers, yet we were all children of God.
There was some light at the end of the tunnel when Sasha, our daughter, was able to attend St Anne’s school in Southfield in the early 1980s, before we left for Australia. While some parents removed their children to protest against this decision, the majority were accepting and it was heartening to see the bonds between the children.
How does the experience of being a Catholic in South Africa differ from being a Catholic in Australia?
The Church in South Africa, particularly at the parish of St Anne’s in Steenberg, had a vibrancy about it—something that I missed when I came to Australia.
In St Anne’s parish there was so much hardship and need in the community, and the majority of the parishioners were actively involved in activities. I taught catechism at St Anne’s and St Mary’s [in Retreat], but due to work commitments during the week, I was unable to do so.
[In Sydney] I felt lost in the first couple of years and searched for ways that I could get involved in parish activities.
Here we have Catholic schools in each suburb and that alleviates the need for weekend catechism classes.The difference here is that catechism is taught during school hours and catechists go to public schools during those hours. Here confirmation is held at the end of primary school years.
Here the schools take over the responsibilities that we parishioners offered the children at St Anne’s.
And what is your parish like?
We are part of a large parish with seating for approximately 1000 parishioners. When we first arrived about 30 years ago, the parishioners were predominantly of Italian background. We’ve seen this change over the years to a multicultural parish. We are one of three South African families in our parish.
We found it difficult in the beginning when as new parishioners we did not feel that sense of belonging. Having come from a community where everyone knew us, and then to find ourselves lost in a large parish, was tough.
Through our children attending Catholic schools and participating in youth and other activities we started feeling part of the community.
How has your faith influenced your life?
As a practising Catholic I live my life being part of a community. These days I live my life attending Mass and sharing in Communion with other Catholics.
I love being at Mass with other people and sharing in that powerful moment when we all share in the Body and Blood of Christ. No matter where in the world I travel, the Mass is where we all gather.
I am guided by the Gospels and the way it has taught me to be open, tolerant and accepting of others. My faith keeps me going through difficult times and I am grateful that I have the Church and community to draw on during those times.
Through the hardship in South Africa, prayers formed an important part of life and for me it still does.
Sydney has a large contingent of the South African diaspora. You regularly stage events for which you bring over entertainers from South Africa. How did that start?
During a major event in Sydney in 2002, I was given the task of assisting a choir from Gugulethu in Cape Town to come and perform in the Sydney Opera House. I failed to raise the necessary funds and decided then to work on bringing previously disadvantaged entertainers from Cape Town to Australia.
For the next 16 years I toured various artists in Australia and New Zealand. Because it was financially risky I stuck to artists who would be a sure to attract an audience. I selected familiar names and entertainers who could bring us some of the music from yesteryear.
This has proved to be highly successful but it limited my capacity to expand because of the risky financial outlay.
Do SA expats in Sydney stick together, or is there a racial divide?
Sydney is much larger than Cape Town. The metropolitan stretches an hour’s drive from the city centre. Some areas have a higher population of South Africans, dependent on wealth.
There is still a clear divide as to which South Africans can afford to live in affluent areas of Sydney.
The racial divide is difficult to close. Our reasons for leaving South Africa are different and there is still a lot of pain. We left to get away from apartheid and those who voted for it. I hold more respect for those who left South Africa because of apartheid when life was good for them.
Your debut book has been very well received. What’s next?
I am finally living my dream — 50 years later. There is no stopping me now from producing more books.
In my next book I explore the settling in process and how my past impacted my future and how I overcame that.
I hope that somewhere in Cape Town, a young girl who looks like me who has a dream to write will fulfil it much sooner than I did. I hope she overcomes her fears and picks up her pen to write.