UN day to end racism revives memories for some

On the eve of the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, South African born Thembela Kepe, 46, joined the faculty and students at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus to screen the documentary film, “Color Me.”

For Kepe, a U of T  professor of geography and international development, the film’s narrative on race did more than just explore the circumstances faced by African-Canadian youth, the film dredged up memories from his own upbringing in South Africa during apartheid.

Kepe grew up in a small town in the Eastern Cape province where he says his childhood was shaped by the many horrific episodes of apartheid.

“Sadly, many of the major historical events that occurred near my home had to do with death and trauma as a result of apartheid,” Kepe said.

One such occurrence was the Sharpville slaying of 69 anti-apartheid demonstrators by police on Mar. 21, 1985; that massacre helped to inspire the UN to set aside a day to mark all racially motivated crimes.

“In South Africa there were washrooms I couldn’t use because I was black,” Kepe said. “Somebody would say ‘you can’t board this train.’ There were coaches for black people where I grew up.”

Kepe says his experiences are what drove him to become a teacher and an anti-apartheid activist. He moved to Canada in 1990 and his life here has been far better than his upbringing in South Africa, where he was not allowed to vote until he was 28.

As a father of two Kepe has opted to take efforts within his home to protect his daughters, born in Canada, from the shock of prejudice.

“I have children now who have grown up in Canada and one of the things that I try to teach them is know who you are — know that you’re black,” said Kepe. “You might say you are colour blind and that you don’t see colour but there are people who do and they might act accordingly.”