Twenty years on from the end of Apartheid in South Africa, Sr Martine Pillay recounts the day she cast her vote in Middle Abbey St and how life has changed since
Sr Martine Pillay, a Dominican Sister based in South Africa recalls meeting a man on a plane who explained to her that he lived in fear of others because he lived separately from those around him. She has never forgotten that man. 1994 was a year full of promise in South Africa because it brought an end to this divide. People had lived in ignorance of one another for too long. The end of the apartheid regime meant that children could now go to the schools of their parents’ choice. They could go to the cinema and travel on any bus they wished.
With this, came the opportunity to vote and Sr Martine Pillay who was based in Ireland at the time cast her vote in the South African elections at a polling station at the ATGWU district office in Dublin’s Middle Abbey St, where many anti-apartheid demonstrations had been previously held. She describes voting as a feeling of being baptised and cleansed. On this day, about fifteen Irish Sisters who had been based in South Africa at some point also voted, for them it was a symbolic act in support of a non-racial democracy. They were pictured on the front page of the Irish Times.
But how much has changed in South Africa over this period? During Apartheid, jobs were reserved for white people. Sr Martine explains, “it was always a white person managing a black person working.” After returning from Ireland to South Africa in 1999, the first thing she observed, was a white person cleaning the plane. However, other change has been much more gradual to take hold and that “is the change of attitude and heart”. For so long, people had internalised what apartheid was teaching and they began to believe it. “The change of attitude is still at a very slow pace. While blacks and whites can now live in the same areas, many people still have to grapple with the untruths created by Apartheid.”
The biggest division now in South Africa is the divide between rich and poor, whether black or white. After 1994, people began to migrate into urban areas but they didn’t have the means to build houses. The housing situation remains dire. There is a continued lack of suitable housing due to worsening unemployment. In some of the remaining Dominican schools now, teachers and older children are involved in “Habitat for Humanity” an organisation which supports volunteers to build homes for the very poor. This initiative also builds awareness amongst children.
Sr Martine explains that with the ending of Apartheid, new injustices have emerged. Poor black people have now been joined by a growing number of impoverished white people. “These are the group who are now forgotten within South African society,” she says.
There is also evident nepotism across the public service, with many people employed because of their connections but who lack the basic qualifications and experience to do the job. A glaring example of this was the man who did the signing for the Deaf at Nelson Mandella’s funeral. This caused huge embarrassment to South Africa. Overall, the situation is causing unease. People are not receiving an adequate level of public services and Sr Martine believes that this will cause increased instability in the country.
This has also crept into the third level education system. Education has become a problem area for the government, not only have they had to make education available to all, but they have also had to break down apartheid in education. The introduction of quotas in Universities has caused its own problems, resulting in students gaining access into third level, again without adequate qualifications.
A huge change in South Africa has also been the opening of borders to other Africans. Many of these people are entrepreneurs who have set up small businesses to survive. This however has caused a certain level of jealousy amongst native South Africans and has resulted in friction between different groups.
The Cabra Dominicans have a strong legacy in South Africa, having committed their lives to setting up hundreds of schools and educating thousands of children. Last year was the celebration of 150 years in the region. While many of the Sisters are now retired, their legacy is strong with the Dominican ethos evident across these schools. The Sisters are ensuring now that they continue to make their presence felt in the education field, having secured vacant convent buildings and land for education purposes and also by making bursaries available for teachers. They are also involved in the area of child safeguarding by holding w orkshops for the staff and governing bodies.
Other Sisters are involved in the alleviation of the effects of HIV and Aids by raising funds for child headed households. Others are involved in work in the parish and in preparing families for baptism and communion. The older Sisters are committed to prayer, keeping them aware of what is happening in the outside world is important so they can pray to alleviate the hardships, especially with the current situation in Iraq.
Martine herself knew she wanted to become a nun from an early age, converting to Catholicism when she was 14. The rest of her family followed suit. Sr Martine taught all her life apart from when she served on the region council in South Africa. She was also the first non-Irish person on the general Council.
Like all other regions, the Sisters are experiencing decreasing numbers in South Africa. However Martine believes that God is perhaps calling for another way of serving the needs in society. Sr Martine says that living in a convent is different now. She says that her life as a Sister has resulted in her living with the most fantastic women that she would never have met had she not become a nun.