My African Dream

Article by:
Rich Levy, EO Chicago
Rich Levy
EO Chicago

Rich Levy, a member of EO Chicago, is the founding President and CEO of Salad Spinners Corp. He is currently the Mentor Program Champion of his chapter and has served in the past as Chapter President and Education Chair. Rich is also Chair of the EO South African Expedition.

It’s a hot summer day in 1985. My brothers and I are loitering our new BMXs around the upscale neighborhood of suburban Johannesburg in apartheid’s South Africa. Our live-in gardener, Wilson, is relaxing on the immaculately manicured lawn in front of our house with three of his friends, also migrant workers who live in the servant’s quarters of the neighboring homes.

Suddenly, a police van, painted in the signature bright yellow of the South African Police, pulls up to the curb. Two young police officers emerge from the van and begin to question the African men. My brothers and I watch the interaction with a distant curiosity. "Why are they hassling our garden boy?" I ask my older brother Greg.

"Waar is jou pass Kaffir?" the men demand in the colonial Dutch dialect called Afrikaans. They are requesting that the Africans produce their government issued identification that grants them the dubious distinction to be gainfully employed in an area designated as "white" and, moreover, "residential."

My brothers and I watch with a helpless intrigue as the four grown Native African men try to justify what gives them the cheeky audacity to be relaxing on a lawn in P.W. Botha’s South Africa — that one of them mowed that morning — to policemen who are half their age.

I had always been aware of apartheid, though never this explicitly. Like the silent hum of an air conditioner, apartheid had been one of those things the grownups talked about during tea and dinner parties, often causing the friendly conversation to become heated. It was why there was always trouble in the townships of Alexandra and Soweto. It was our system of law in South Africa. And, on a more selfish level, it was the reason we South Africans couldn’t send Zola Budd and the rest of our Olympic team to Los Angeles in 1984.

I grew up in a sheltered, segregated environment. Despite my liberal, white family’s best wishes, I was the product of the architects of apartheid. The only African children I knew were the servant’s kids we played soccer with in the garden, but those friendships ended on the kitchen back door-step. Never would we have

The apartheid system was supposed to be "separate but equal." It was adopted in 1948 and based ideologically on the divisive laws of Jim Crow in the Southern states of the United States. Its justification was that if the "greatest" free nation in the world could segregate their citizens, why couldn’t South Africa — especially if we needed to keep the communists out and maintain a stable global gold price?

At the age of 13, my perception of the world changed significantly when my dad announced that we were moving across the world to a place called Chicago. There, for the first time, I lived in a truly multi-racial, pluralistic, free society— the kind I had only seen on American TV shows like "Diff’rent Strokes," "The A-Team" and the "Cosby Show" that filtered through the South Africa Broadcast Company’s censors. I remember how cool it was to make an African-American friend, someone who was a well-educated peer from a family just like mine. Most importantly, I met a kid just like me who was as much interested in me as I was him.

After my family lived in the United States for two years — in February 1991 — F.W. de Klerk, the newly elected President of South Africa, announced that the government of South Africa would begin dismantling the apartheid regime. They would un-ban the African National Congress (ANC) and take steps to release all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela.

I, along with the rest of white South Africa, held our collective breaths while, after 27 long, arduous years in prison, Nelson R. Mandela emerged as a statesman, not a terrorist. He called for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation of all South Africans and the formation of a new "Rainbow Nation."

Today, the Republic of South Africa is the incarnation of a dream of men and women of many races who bravely stood up to tyranny and oppression in its cruelest forms. The future of South Africa is bright in spite of its many challenges: crime, AIDS, unemployment and housing.

In the South Africa of the new millennium, most people subscribe to the powerful concept of "Ubuntu," the African maxim that states, "What I do to my neighbor, I do to myself." I often marvel at the new South Africa and think to myself how grossly different the country is today in spite of the best pessimists’ wary predictions. I can only assign due credit to the sheer willingness of the people of South Africa to follow the model of their

first truly democratically elected leader, Nelson Mandela, and his ability to inspire and bring out the best in ordinary South Africans. They are a testament to the power of a dream.

It is because of this marvelous and peaceful evolution that I am able to live the dream of hosting the EO South African Expedition. The first Expedition, in July 2006, was one of the most positive and uplifting experiences of my life. I saw my own country as I had never seen it before. We met politicians and political prisoners, encountered wildlife from Africa’s big five to great white sharks, and were inspired by the optimistic innocence of those children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

As Chair, I got to make the emotional closing comments of the academy, in a dried-out riverbed in the middle of the African bush. With our bellies full of the finest South African gourmet food and wine, and after we all participated in a djembe drum circle that filled our hearts with the ancient mystical power that is the African continent, I was fortunate enough to say these words and actually mean them: "This is what is must look like when your dreams come true."


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