Growing Up Under Apartheid

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Nolitha and Chandasara discuss “growing up under apartheid”
& their June 16 – 19 retreat at Dharmagiri. Details of the retreat are below.

How would you articulate the essence of the impact of growing up within the Apartheid system? And what stays with you now?


Reflecting on this question what stands out is a feeling of confusion and fear I felt as a child. I grew up in a Catholic community, mixed racially. The church had 3 separate sitting nolithasections, one for White, Coloured and Black people. There were two separate schools, one for Coloured kids and another for Black kids. Teachers for the Coloured kids were White and Black for us. What stood out about this for me as a child was the other side had better amenities, (Coloured kids had a playground with swings, jungle gym and more, we only had a netball and soccer field). I never asked why? All I know is that as kids we were always envious of White and Coloured kids, they had all different kinds of privileges we did not have. I remember my younger brother who became an activist saying he would like to be White.

I have carried fear for White males for the longest time in my life, this comes from growing up with white police brutality. The worse thing for a child is seeing your parents harassed by white policeman for no good reason , this was common experience when we were travelling from the former homelands (Transkei) to SA. You could feel the fear in the car as we approached the border gate. Nobody would say anything about this. You were always treated with contempt by white people. This had a negative impact on my self-esteem, I associated whiteness with good and blackness with not good. Self-esteem is an ongoing personal journey for me. As an adult now I have an opportunity to develop friendship across race. This has been helpful in having an identity that goes beyond race to also being just human. The ongoing personal work I do allows me not to hold so tightly to what I call self. More and more I am experiencing self as a process rather than a fixed entity with one fixed identity.


One impact was a heightened awareness of racial identity and its social implications – that if you were white, you were generally treated respectfully by authorities and had access to more and better quality resources and conversely, if you were black, you were generally treated with contempt and had access far fewer and poorer quality resources. This naturally led to subtle psychological effects of unconsciously assumed privileges and higher social standing among whites and something of the opposite among blacks – achandasara questioning of self-worth and a sense of victimization, rejection and exclusion. We were all subjected to a kind of racial indoctrination and however we may now consciously reject such ideas, when you have been conditioned in this way, it is not so easy to free yourself of their effects, however deeply you may desire to do so.

A second impact was confusion about why this was as it was because there were so many contradictions in the society. Although South Africa was a self-proclaimed Christian and democratic society, the society was not based on the Christian teachings of love and sharing, but rather on fear, separation, prejudice, and greed – and the government was not democratic. Behaviour in relations between people of different races was often very distorted – ranging from many whites at times being overly arrogant, hostile and harsh towards blacks and many blacks at times being overly submissive and passive and sometimes silently collected like a threatening storm towards whites. As a child, I found this all very confusing and painful.

A third impact for myself, of growing up under Apartheid as a white person, was a deep questioning of my own identity as a result of belonging to a “settler” population whose sense of belonging was somewhat uncertain. Although I was born here and knew no other country as my own, there was a sense of white people having had to fight historically to establish a kind of nationhood here. This was not something automatic and therefore did not feel particularly secure. At the same time, the right to citizenship in the European countries of origin had lapsed so that there can be a sense of not really belonging anywhere on the planet. This is quite a subtle effect and not necessarily very conscious just as one can take very for granted a sense of rooted belonging to a place where one’s family has lived for many, many generations.

Chandasara & Nolitha

Why do you think this retreat is important and what do you hope this retreat will be able to offer participants?

This retreat is important because the personal or psychological effects of apartheid have not really been so much addressed yet. While the legal foundations for democratic political institutions have been established and there is greater social, geographic and economic integration, and some of the more extreme trauma of Apartheid was aired through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the more subtle effects of apartheid on us as South Africans and on our daily relationships with each other hasn’t really been addressed – and we are therefore not necessarily aware of the effects of our conditionings and behaviours on each other.

So we are hoping that in this retreat we can begin to glimpse each others’ experiences of our conditioning in relation to our racial identities through simply sharing stories about our experiences in relation to race as children, as adolescents, and as adults and begin to explore the impact of the telling of these stories on each other so that we can become more aware of each others’ pain, fear, sorrow, hopes, aspirations, desires. We hope that this might provide a doorway into each others’ subjective worlds so that we can begin to have a deeper dialogue about our relationships with one another and how we can ease the pain we cause each other through the history of our conditioning. In this way, we hope to open up new ways of relating that take us beyond these conditioned identities.

Who might this retreat be suitable for?

Anyone who is interested in finding ways to move beyond this conditioning and freeing themselves of it. For people of all races who have an interest in exploring the question of identity from the lens of race. We hope in so doing individuals can find compassion for what still needs to heal in this experience of growing up in a divided society.

Will it be relevant to the younger generation?

Certainly. Although the younger generation who are growing up in a post-Apartheid society are not affected in the same way as those of us who grew up under Apartheid, the legacy of Apartheid remains evident everywhere in the society. This is not meant to diminish in any way all the effort and energy that has been and is being put into changing the society, but it is acknowledging that the effects of Apartheid and in fact the racial segregationist policies that preceded Apartheid have had and continue to have a profound effect on all of us and that we need to talk more openly about this particularly as it affects our daily personal relationships with each other.

How will you approach the retreat, what kind of processes, practices, spaces do you want to offer?

The focus of this retreat will be on sharing our perceptions and experiences in relation to race from different stages of our lives. We have called this storytelling because it will probably involve sharing memories of various incidents in our lives. We will then provide some space for a dialogue around these sharings and the dialogue will be contained within a meditative context so that we can really speak our truth and listen attentively to each other. We will also provide a safe space, to hear all voices, and for exploring new stories and new expanded identities. There will also be some space for sharing poems or other writing that expresses something of the impact that racism has had on us in our experience and our lives.


Beyond Identity: Exploring Race & Culture in S.Africa – June 16 – 19

Cost: R550 single, R500 – R450 shared per night + dana for teachers                                      Partial and Full Bursaries Available

Retreat Description – What was it like for you growing up in South Africa as Black or White, Coloured or Indian and when did you first experience yourself in terms of this identity? How did you perceive yourself and others of your own race, and how did you perceive people of different races? How did you feel about your life as a person of your own race? What did you think about the lives of other people of different races?

Are we ready for this dialogue? Can we share our perceptions and experiences related to our racial identities on a personal level? Can we go beneath the political, economic and ideological debates to explore and share the underlying personal experiences? Can this lead us towards greater understanding and help us to cultivate empathy in our relationships with each other?

We would like to offer this 3-day retreat as an opportunity to explore and share our own, and others, personal struggles, and experiences in relation to how our history and social conditioning defined us in terms of racial identities, and to provide an opportunity for cultivating empathy for individual and collective healing.

Using meditative dialogue as a means of providing a safe containing space for this exploration, this retreat will provide a structured format for dialogue based on the principles of mutual respect, mutual compassion, and a willingness to listen deeply and share truthfully. This form of dialogue is based on Insight Dialogue which is a structured and facilitated form that supports deepening awareness and change of habitual patterns of responding to and interacting with others.

Nolitha TsengiweCatholic by upbringing, has always been, even as a child, curious about “what truth is.” Her search for answers led her to become a practicing Buddhist. She is a Psychologist in private practice and an Executive Coach. In both roles, her primary task is to create a holding space for people who are also in search of truth as a doorway to freedom. Nolitha is a mother of a 15-year-old son, Singatha who is her teacher on how to be in the “here and now”. She is a facilitator in Biodanza ( Dance ) which is food for both heart and body, and a graduate of the Community Dharma Leader Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Centre, CA, USA.

Chandasaraspent her early adult life in political exile and later worked as a political analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg. Chandasara trained as a Buddhist nun in the Forest School from 2003 to 2011 and after she left, completed an Honours degree in Psychology while residing at Emoyeni retreat centre. Since childhood, she has been deeply interested in all life and nature, intuitive sensitivity, spontaneity, play, creativity, and freedom. She currently resides at Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre where she enjoys exploring and sharing with others in the process of freeing ourselves.

“In this moment of meditation practice, you have the opportunity to observe yourself as you begin to speak. What self is speaking? At what point do you inhabit the role of “me”? What is it like to be that “me”? As you listen, are you listening through a filter of conditioning? Is that a self? I invite you to take the time in your practice to speak from silence and to listen deeply. What remains when you step out of roles, even for an instant?”
― Gregory Kramer, Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom