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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: Voices of South Africa: Growing Up in A Troubled Land

Back in the 1980's I was asked by my publisher if I would go to South Africa and write about what it was like to be a young person growing up under the iron fist of apartheid. I jumped at the chance, without the remotest idea of what I was getting into--or how I was going to do it.

Almost from the very beginning, I got lucky. I happened to meet a man from South Africa when I was at the travel agent's office; he introduced me to his wife, and the two of them came up with a short list of contacts, friends who might be helpful when I got there. Then a friend told me about a fellow who was repairing her roof who was a South African; I met him, and he put me in touch with his mother. By the time I took off for Johannesburg in the summer of 1985, the country was seething with anger, and I had a list of people to call when I got there.

From the beginning, I thought it was a beautiful country living under a horrible system. I wasn't permitted to stay with a black family, but a black Anglican priest got me into his township and took me to his church. I visited lots of schools, both black and white. I met a lot of kids. I met Archbishop Tutu.

I took the train from Jo'burg to Cape Town, visited Stellenbosch, rented a car and drove along the coat through Port Elizabeth to Durban, staying with families along the way. My white hosts tried to explain why the system was the way it was. They were kind. I was polite.

After a few weeks I flew home again and tried to make sense of what I'd seen and heard. Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner at Robben Island. I wasn't optimistic that he'd ever be free, or that apartheid would ever end. But I wrote the book.

I've never been so glad to be WRONG.
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