How I Nearly Became a Terrorist

How I Nearly Became a Terrorist

My political radicalism was a by-product of growing up in South Africa—of the liberalism of my mother and the communist leanings of my father. South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s was a strange and terrible place. Young white people like me lived in a world of privilege, wealth, and advantage. The extent of our advantage was most evident in the disadvantage of the non-white South African people (Black Africans, Coloureds, and Indians), who vastly outnumbered and surrounded us in every aspect of our daily lives. Our homes had servants who lived in servant quarters in the backyards. Some homes had one servant, some had three and four. Few white homes had none. Servants prepared our food, made our beds each morning, polished our shoes each day, and tended our parents’ gardens. In affluent homes, they served us our meals, and we could, as teenagers returned from school, call to one or another of the servants to bring our lunch or a cup of tea.

We could chastise our servants if our shirts were not washed and ironed when we needed them; we could complain to them if we didn’t like the sandwiches they had prepared for our school lunches. The fact that the servants were all older and more experienced in life than we were didn’t matter. We were white and they were black: that was what mattered. This domestic picture shows, of course, only the more benign side of white South African life at that time. The malign side was the cruelty and violence by which apartheid was sustained.

Even as small children, some of us knew that there was something wrong with this picture. Perhaps all of us knew it, but some chose to suppress it. At the age of three or four I asked my mother, “Why are the black people all poor and the white people all rich?” I don’t remember saying it, and I certainly don’t remember what she replied. But she told me that I said it. It wasn’t profound or sensitive; it was in those circumstances the most ordinary question in the world, and I’m sure millions of black and white children asked their mothers the same question. But that something fundamental was wrong with South Africa I knew from an early age. And I believed that the thing that was wrong needed to be corrected.

My family lifestyle was typical of that of liberal, decent, well-meaning people. My parents were relatively well-off even by white standards. We had three servants, who lived in rooms in the back of our house—rooms that by law were not permitted to be physically joined to the main house (but they were near enough that the servants were within calling distance). My mother and father were kind to their servants: they paid them somewhat better than did their friends and neighbors; they treated them with respect and felt some kind of obligation to look after them. This attitude was widely called liberal guilt, and probably to some extent was just that. I know that the same could probably be said for some slave owners in the nineteenth ...