While training TV journalists at the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Johannesburg, my colleague Marie and I were offered a weekend loan of a friend’s cottage a few hours drive away.
We could hardly wait.
While there, we planned to visit another friend at his farm.
There, we’d see something extraordinary.
Just before leaving work that Friday, I ran into a journalist I knew.
“Don’t go, Cynthia” she warned. “A lot of hardcore racists live in that area.”
It was the mid-1990’s and Mandela’s ANC had won the election, putting a public end to apartheid. But Marie and I were Canadians who didn’t know the country well.
And now, someone who did was urging me to cancel the trip.
Not Marie. Just me.
The difference in our skin colour had never been an issue between us. Not in Canada and not in South Africa.
We shared a small apartment near the SABC building in Johannesburg. We shopped, cooked, ate supper, laughed, missed our families, planned the next day’s work together. Though I was the leader on this project, Marie and I were friends and equals, colleagues at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where we both held prominent leadership roles.
Of course we were aware of race – we were in South Africa, after all.
“I was so proud of you today,” Marie had told me after our first day at work at the SABC.
I’d been thinking the same thing — about her. About how privileged I was to have this wise, thoughtful, brilliant woman as my partner on this ground-breaking project.
“It was great to be there and to see the impact you had on everyone,” she said.
South African journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven had told me on a phone call to my home in Canada one night:
“We’re glad you’re sending your team, Cynthia. But you also need to come here yourself. It’s important to us.”
“You’re a woman. And you’re Black. And you’re in charge of all this.”
Not wanting South Africa’s racial divisions to hang between Marie and me, I did a very foolish thing that weekend.
In a place where race was everything, I said nothing about the warning.
I did not want it to disrupt this trip.
Driving along lonely roads, we consulted our map occasionally, but I was too quiet, lost in fearful thoughts that I didn’t share.
I should have, of course.
My silence was an elephant sitting in the car between us.
The trip was already disrupted.
Dedicated to my friend and former training partner Marie. Working with you and our S. African colleagues at a crucial time in the country’s history ranks as one of the great privileges of my life.