Why did I not know who Peter Kerchhoff was?

The mosaic of Peter Kerchoff at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg (thanks to their Facebook page).

The mosaic of Peter Kerchhoff at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg (thanks to their Facebook page).

I don’t remember how old I was when all the old street names came tumbling down, and the new, shiny street names were hammered up in their places. Or, more correctly, hung over the old ones, so that people could get used to it for a while, and still find their way.

I just remember people were grumbling. Everyone grumbled. The new names were long, and sometimes unpronounceable, and why would they change something nice and easy like “Chapel” for the long “Peter Kerchhoff”. Or “Chota Motala” and “Langalibalele” for things like “Old Greytown” or “Longmarket”. People were worried with the name changes happening all over South Africa that the old and familiar history they knew and loved–where they knew who the heroes were and who the villains were–was all being wiped out, and all that was left was a confusing jumble of unpronounceable syllables.

Even recently, when I was still home, I heard someone moan about the way the government had come in and inconsiderately changed all the names.

And then one day I learned who Peter Kerchhoff actually was, and it was like I had found a piece of my story and my place in South Africa. 

Peter Kerchhoff was a white guy. He quit his job as chief chemist for an aluminum company to turn his little back room (with his wife) into the headquarters of PACSA, (Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness). He had four kids. He had a nice life. But his Christian convictions compelled him to do something about the injustice around him. PACSA mostly campaigned and spread information about the injustice under apartheid (such as the forced removals), and today they continue to be actively involved in researching and spreading reports related to social justice issues. Kerchhoff was detained in the 1980’s, but was released. After 1994, Kerchhoff was famous for saying, ““It’s not the new South Africa, it’s the real South Africa.” And keeping the organization focused on serving those who are most marginalized in our society.

There’s a mosaic of Kerchhoff as the good Samaritan in the Anglican Cathedral in downtown Pietermartizburg.

Chapel street is home to many churches- An old Baptist, a massive Pentecostal, a Methodist. And when renaming it, our mostly black, secular government decided to name it after a white Christian guy.

When I discovered that, I started googling these people. Who the heck is Chota Motala? Oh, you know, a doctor who was pretty cool, stowed away on a ship to India to learn medicine, then came back and practiced in Pietermaritzburg as one of the first black doctors, and also advocated to end apartheid.Alan Paton, the prize-winning author and former professor at UKZN is the name of the street going past the university.

For some reason, the story of the re-naming of streets had always been presented to me as some kind of tragic debacle. Like just another thing the government had done after 1994, and confused everyone, and it was just so arbitrary. Maybe it’s just me who got that impression (maybe it was my teachers at school, who knows).

But I wish I had gone on this adventure when I was in fifth grade. Maybe they do that in school now. I hope they do. Maybe they have a unit called, “Street names and local heroes of our rainbow nation”, where they get on a school bus, and drive down all these streets and hear the stories of these heroes of every color who sacrificed and campaigned to make our country better. Because when we gave up our old heroes, our Rhodes, and our Queen Victorias and our P. W. Bothas, we weren’t sacrificing everything there ever was about our identity. We got to trade them in for better heroes. 

So, in case there’s anyone else out there like me who was super confused about that whole renaming thing: Our streets are named after AWESOME people.

Where were you on June 16th? (Youth Day reflections part 1)

I realized something today. 50% of South Africa’s population is under the age of 19. 70% is under the age of 35. Anyway you slice this, the majority of people in South Africa have not lived through apartheid. And most of the people who did live through apartheid are my parent’s age or older. They were teenagers during the late 70’s and 80’s.

I was thinking of this, because I attended a book launch last week for Glenn Moss’s new book “The New Radicals, a generational memoir” at my university campus. I read the book in about 3 days. Moss was a white guy who was part of the new student protests happening at (basically white) university campuses across South Africa in the 70s. This was the Steve Biko generation, when Black Consciousness challenged the liberal ideas of gradual change and paternalistic multi-cultural organizations. Moss ended up being detained without trial for months, and then finally tried along with some other NUSAS leaders. Reading his recounting of the time challenged some of my assumptions about those years.

It challenged the story that I’ve been told my whole life by teachers and the parents of friends:

“We just didn’t know.”

I believed that story. When you see the lengths the government went to repress information, the propaganda that was being spread, the insulated channels of knowledge transmission, the tight segregation that kept people from actually ever knowing someone of a different race–I can believe it. I understand.

I believe it because it still happens: there are people in my community now that genuinely don’t know how 80% of South Africans live. There are people who make sincere comments like, “I hate travelling to Capetown by car, because we have to go through those really run-down poor, black areas.” (Um, forgetting that’s like, you know, the whole of South Africa). But it’s sincere. I can’t really blame them. Their life has been lived in a bubble. Can you be held accountable for what you literally don’t know?


And then I read about the campaigns in the 70’s going on at Wits university. About the alternative student newspaper being circulated with reports about living conditions in townships and “homelands”. I read about demonstrations and anti-apartheid lectures with hundreds and even thousands of students. I read about a Wits medical student being killed in detention (while he was being interrogated before being tried with anything), and the front page news story this created, and the massive protest it sparked. I read about the sit-ins by university students at the Anglo-American mining headquarters in outcry against the shooting of over a dozen miners, and the poor wages of workers. I read about pamphlets, about first-year student welcome speeches, about campaigns to educate people on the history that had been repressed.

And I think–maybe this author is inflating the reach of their activities—but these things did not happen in a corner.

One the one hand, this information is liberating. I want to hear more stories like this. Not because I want everyone to think that it was the white student activists who were willing to be detained without trial, or who were assassinated by the security police, or who went and joined the MK freedom fighters who were the ones that liberated this country. Because they didn’t. They were a small, small minority.

But I’ve got to live in this skin, in this country. And I want to know that there were some folks who looked like me, who didn’t just go along with the system. I want to be okay living in this skin and saying, “Yes, I’m a white South African, but I’m not just part of a group that oppressed and ignored and exploited all through history. I’m part of a group that had some people who fought for justice as well.” I don’t want to have to disown my skin (I can’t, really, even as much as I may want to), so I want to redeem it.

On the other hand, this information is crushing. Because I can’t just believe the story, “We didn’t know” anymore.

Where were you?

A famous image of Hector Pieterson shot down by security police in the 1976 Soweto student protests

A famous image of Hector Pieterson shot down by security police in the 1976 Soweto student protests

You might have been ignorant. You might not have known. But you didn’t know because you didn’t want to know. You didn’t know because you purposefully avoided lectures by “radical” weirdos, you didn’t pick up any pamphlet handed out, you blocked your ears to protest songs, you turned your eyes away when you drove past townships, you dismissed anything that was different as evil. You didn’t know because you chose not to know.

But I want to hear that story, too. I want to hear it, because that’s also part of redeeming this white skin I’ve got to live with. I don’t’ want just hear about pranks in university, or the crazy Sargent you had when you were called up for armed forces training, with anything political conveniently screened out. I always thought apartheid never came up because you didn’t really “feel” it, because you were so isolated. But maybe you weren’t so isolated. Or maybe you created your own isolation.

I want to hear my friends parents say, “Yes, I was a student and I heard about these protests, but I was self-centered. I was more interested in flirting with the cute guy in my Maths lectures and saving up money for my Capetown holiday, and trying to pass my exams than taking the time to figure out what everyone was making a fuss about.

And I was afraid. I didn’t know what the end of apartheid would bring. I thought maybe the country would end in chaos, so I didn’t take the radical student’s arguments seriously. On June 16th, 1976, when Soweto highschool students were shot down in the streets, when Wits students went to protest and join them, I sat in my room and worked on homework. I didn’t understand what was going on around me.

And I didn’t stand up against the injustice.

But I should have.

And you should.

Even though I didn’t stand up to injustice then, our family is going to be known for doing that now. We’re going to keep our minds and ears open. We’re going to make space in our lives to be uncomfortable, to learn things we might not want to know, to listen to what life is like for people that society doesn’t privilege, because of the way they look, or their income level, or their sexual orientation, or their living conditions, or their language.”

Please, please, tell me that story. I need that story, too.

I don’t want to sound judgmental (but I also think judgment is not an all-bad thing). One day we’ll all be judged, if not by our children then by God himself. I know one day my kids will ask me where I was on a certain day in history. Maybe they’ll ask why I wasn’t out protesting the Marikana shootings, or handing out food at the platinum mine strike, or petitioning government to pressurize Uganda to change their anti-gay laws, or something that looking back will seem so obviously unjust to them.

And I hope, I hope, I’ll have the courage to say, “Yes, I didn’t do anything and I was wrong, and we’re going to be different.”

I don’t want to fall into the trap of structuring my life so that I don’t have to know.

And I want the courage of a previous generation.

Not just the courage of the students that took to the streets of Soweto to protest apartheid.

Not just the courage of the white university students who left the status-quo.

But also the courage of those who sat quietly and didn’t do anything at the time, but acknowledge their blindness and are living different lives because of it today.

So, where were you June 16th, 1976? Do you have a story to share?


Reason for Hope

This video is from an advertising campaign put out by a South African Bank. I think its really inspiring to hear our young people speak out against some of the problems we are facing in our country, and call people to action. (The ANC didn’t like it, which you can read about here). One of the issues facing South African youth today is a lack of hope. Many have been “born free” (post-apartheid), and yet there is still so much unemployment, violence and corruption, many feel the government has failed our country.

LesMis_rables_2446250bI’ve been thinking about the foundation for our hope, lately. I just watched the movie version of the musical Les Miserables (yes, it only came out in SA a few weeks ago), and that musical always makes me cry. I don’t cry because the music is so amazing (which it is). I don’t cry when in the movie children are shot and killed fighting for their freedom, or when innocent people are forced into prostitution because they don’t have another way to make any money. I always cry at the very last song, because that is the song which I believe sums up the movie’s message: In this present darkness, we can fight against the sadness and misery around us with small acts of grace towards each other.

Like the protagonist, Jean Valjean, we can consistently look out for the poor, the widow, the orphan around us, and simply and quietly dispense grace wherever we go. The reason why is found in the words of the last song. Unlike the political revolutionaries in the movie, who “beat their plowshares into swords, and their pruning hooks into spears” (Joel 3:10) in order to bring freedom, Jean Valjean was willing to risk his life performing small acts of grace, because his life had been transformed by grace, and he knew a day was coming when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Micah 4:3).

The words of the final song say: “And remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person Is to see the face of God. Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night? It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light. For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies, even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord. They will walk behind the ploughshare; they will put away the sword. The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.” 

Sometimes life is frustrating. I want to see immediate changes to the suffering and brokenness around me. But my hope of heaven, where one day everything will finally be made right, is what gives the daily encouragement to keep fighting for change here on earth.

We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, which come from your confident hope of what God has reserved for you in heaven. (Colossians 3:4-5)


  • For Anna Johanson, our newest short-termer from Denmark, who is starting to teach art classes in Sweetwaters schools this week!
  • For the 44 APU students who will be visiting on Tuesday to learn about iThemba.
  • That I will be able to continue to get rest as I recover from my sickness.