Dr June Bam Hutchison was born in South Africa’s Cape Town and declares herself as South African, African, and now also British. When she was born, however, she was categorised as “coloured” and soon came to realise there were many different categories — that is, races, degrees of races — and that people were (mis)treated differently depending on the colour (or lack of colour) of their skin. She learned about racism first hand.
Dr Hutchison’s semi-biographical book Peeping Through The Reeds is about growing up in apartheid South Africa.
At an event at St John’s Wood Library last week, sponsored by Black History Walks, the audience indeed consisted of some born-and-bred South Africans, others who had ties to the country, but also those who knew about this country only in general terms, myself included. We were all moved: those who remembered apartheid, its immense injustice and dehumanisation, which ultimately was the reason they had left the country, as well as those who tried to imagine living in this brutal system.
The author told us those parts of the book that were autobiographical. She told them with a smile because the smile is part of the story: it represents the recognisable humour among South Africans (must have sustained them!) but also the time when her front teeth, which were healthy, were taken out. She was only twelve years old and she desperately did not want to have her teeth taken out but the dentist, a white man, did not ask her what she wanted and he did not give an explanation why her teeth were taken out. He did not have to, he assumed or followed what he thought was his right and duty—that some people who are not white must have their healthy teeth taken out.
Dr Hutchison wrote this book after she moved to London eight years ago. The book became a catharsis of what she herself, and many others, had gone through growing up in apartheid South Africa. There were many questions after the talk, so the event became a conversation, with a glass of wine and some excellent treats brought by one of the members of the audience.