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Last Updated: Monday, 28 February, 2005, 15:10 GMT
Letter: Identity in South Africa
Veronique Tadjo
By Veronique Tadjo
Johannesburg-based writer and novelist

Nearly two years ago, the story of Happy Sindane hit the headlines in South Africa. Happy claimed he was a white boy who had been abducted when he was a toddler by a black woman.

The Johannesburg-based writer and novelist Veronique Tadjo considers what the case of Happy Sindane says about identity in South Africa today.

Happy Sindane
Happy Sindane highlighted the importance of race in South Africa
Almost two years ago Happy Sindane entered a South African police station on the outskirts of Pretoria.

He stood in front of the officer on duty and declared that he was a white boy, that he had been abducted as a toddler by the black maid who used to work in his parents' house.

For the last 12 years or so, he had lived in a black township and been treated like a slave, until he managed to escape.

In a matter of hours, Happy Sindane's story made the headlines of national and foreign newspapers.

A white boy reappearing after having been lost for years, Happy's plight had caught the collective imagination of the country.

His face suddenly became familiar to us.

Comb test

When I saw Happy's portrait for the first time, it immediately struck me that he was a child of mixed blood parentage and not plain white.

For me it was something obvious. In fact, it looked so obvious I asked myself why nobody seemed to have noticed it.

Even though his hair looked straight and he was light skinned, I could not help seeing his African features.

Confronted by this general blindness, I told myself that I must have missed something.

How was it possible that a nation whose life had been dominated by race for so long under the apartheid system could not see that the boy was not white?

In many instances, to be of mixed blood origin is to have the wrong skin colour
It is true that during apartheid, there was the famous "test of the comb".

When somebody's origin was in doubt, a comb with fine teeth would be used to comb his or her hair.

If the comb ran through it easily, then that person could be classified as white.

Sometimes, in the same family, a child would be declared white while his brother or sister was not.

As if to reinforce Happy's claim, four white Afrikaner couples, who had each lost a child more than a decade ago, affirmed publicly that the boy was their long-lost son.

Today, the test of the comb is no longer used to determine racial identity - DNA blood tests are far more scientific, and Happy was obliged to undergo several of them.

When the results finally came, they revealed that Happy was not white.

He had been born from a Xhosa woman and her white employer of German nationality. His claim to have been the kidnapped son of a white couple fell apart.

Abandoned

Ten years after the end of apartheid, this boy, who had barely even known life under the oppressive regime, wanted only one thing - to integrate into the white world.

For anyone who thought that the end of apartheid automatically meant that white dominance was over, it was a big disappointment.

But Happy's story is also that of an abandoned child, a fact which has not been stressed enough in my opinion.

He was rejected by his father even before he was born and all efforts to track the man down have failed.

As for his mother, raising a child like Happy in a black impoverished community cannot have been easy.

She parted from him when he was a toddler. Sent from one place after the other, Happy ended up with the Sindane family.

Something nobody seemed to have picked up either was the high probability that Happy felt alienated because he was so different.

Raised in a small Ndebele township, a few hundred miles from Johannesburg, it is not too difficult to imagine that there was a certain amount of bullying and discrimination in his life.

I remember an incident when I was an adolescent. I was having an argument with a friend of mine when the discussion got more and more heated.

At a loss for words, my friend suddenly cried out: "Anyway, you are not even a complete African."

It shocked me that it was her final argument, her secret weapon.

Limbo

Being from a French mother and an African father, my identity was shattered for a while and I deeply felt the precarious position of a mixed blood person.

I asked myself: "Who am I?"

In many instances, to be of mixed blood origin is to have the wrong skin colour.

Without the support of his mother or his father, Happy failed to forge a well-defined sense of identity for himself. He became like a leaf, blown around by the wind.

At the same time, Happy was well aware that whites seemed to lead a much better life than the majority of blacks.

School girls in South Africa
A number of mixed-race children are alienated by both communities
Not feeling fulfilled in his community, he started thinking about leaving.

He finally came to the conclusion that all his problems would be solved if he could be accepted in the white man's world.

Sadly, Happy cried out for help but wasn't heard.

And this is very much what a fair number of mixed-blood children go through when they can't find answers to the question of knowing to which community they belong.

To temper the media frenzy around him, the South African Department of Social Affairs decided to withdraw the boy from the limelight by placing him under the protection of the state in a youth centre.

However, Happy's predicament did not end there.

In the following months, he made several attempts to escape from the centre.

Drunk

He would be found not far from the building in a drunken state.

Then came the accident that almost killed him. One evening in April last year he was so drunk that he lost consciousness on a main road.

Two cars ran into him, one after the other. He was left with a fractured skull, several broken ribs, and a shattered kneecap, while his lungs and his liver were perforated.

I only drink when I want to forget my past. It haunts me no matter how much I try to forget
Happy Sindane
It was a miracle that Happy survived. His face was damaged and he had to undergo extensive plastic surgery.

When he finally came out of the hospital, he asked to go back to the Sindane family. He did not want to stay in the centre anymore.

In an interview in The Star newspaper two months ago, Happy confessed that his biggest wish was to build his own house and to marry a white woman.

"White women respect and support their partners," he said.

"I know it sounds weird for someone who grew up in the dusty township to marry a white woman, but I don't think anyone can choose my wife for me."

He also wants to train to become an electrician and to have his own business.

Not afraid of contradicting himself, Happy added that he intended to go through Ndebele initiation rites so he can become "a true man" and learn to think in a more rational way.

Both worlds

"I only drink when I want to forget my past," he told the newspaper. "It haunts me no matter how much I try to forget."

The truth is, Happy would like to be recognised by the black and white communities.

He has understood that, since he cannot become white, if he marries a white woman she would introduce him to the white world and to the Western way of life.

At the same time, his wish to belong to Ndebele culture shows that he values its traditions and beliefs and that he wants to be fully integrated.

His decision to go back to the Sindane family proves that he has finally realised that they were the ones who gave him support and offered some stability in his life.

At times, I want to go and see Happy to tell him that everything will be all right and that he will find some peace of mind in the end.

But I know all too well that his future and that of many other mixed blood children like him, will be filled with uncertainty and contradictions until the day race relations become more harmonious.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.

Veronique Tadjo was born in Paris and grew up in Ivory Coast. She was a lecturer at Abidjan University until 1993 when she became a full time writer and artist. She has written two collections of poems and five novels.



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