In honor of Black History Month, 2017 I want to showcase Jean Fisher’s story. Jean Fisher is the first nonwhite voter in London in South Africa’s monumental elections that shattered the legacy of apartheid.
May we all fight for what we believe in and never give up. & may we all be more like the moon, in arguments, just shine, let the other person freak out – Phaedra Parks, Real Housewives of Atlanta.
writer: Lea Wiviott photographer: Maria Evanglista
Inside the living room, the sun’s illumination mingles with the lavender aroma filtering through the air. Through her sliding glass double doors, past the rusty patio chair, and to the right of the matching off-white metal table, she sits, drinking her tea and looking onto a grassy field over the peaceful waves of Richardson Bay.
“It is a splendid view, isn’t it?” Her pearly teach expand into a smile, “I feel very lucky to be here.” Luck, however, is only part of the equation that brought her out of legalized segregation and poverty in a colored suburb of Durban, South Africa. Now, she resides in California and consults her Ayurveda patients in her home.
At first Jean Fisher, now fifty-two, has trouble recalling her previous life. Spirituality in the form of meditation and yoga uplifts her 5’2″ frame to continue reaching her potential. “You have to work to believe things will get better,” she explains. “Then, by manifesting those thoughts into realty, you will accomplish your dreams.”
From her radiant nature, one may not grasp the destitute of her life under apartheid, or legalized segregation.
After a while, Fisher’s memories under the institutionalized degrading practices come to her. “Growing up everything was segregated, from the beaches to the schools to our neighborhoods.”
If she wanted to walk home past 9pm even if from work, and no officer would issue a “Dompass,”(to limit nonwhite’s whereabouts and allow for what Fisher calls “a white man’s paradise”) then jail time was a common punishments.
Systemized in 1948, the hierarchy of apartness tarnished black, colored, and Indian families — who were ninety percent of South Africa’s population, through providing no ladder to earn higher statuses.
Despite having little money and being one of four children in a single mother colored household, with no access to proper education, the incurable optimist says she always felt unstoppable because of her twin brother, who was constantly at her side.
“It all started when we turned sixteen,” she says. “We were so excited because that is the age when you apply for your Book of Life (one’s own reference book that defines identities and therefore districts). So we went, identified ourselves as “Colored” because we are half Indian, half Zulu, born February 11, 1957 and all that stuff, and turned it in… waited… and waited.”
Her voice deepening, she recalls the day when the reply arrived from Pretoria, the capital, “We tore it open and could not believe what we saw: ‘Jean Iyannon: Colored’ and ‘Johnny Iyannon: Indian.”
Those three words legally forced her twin brother out of his childhood familiarities and into separate Indian schools that enforced different from their formerly shared (colored) lessons and cultural values.
“I wanted to fight it,” Fisher says. “But my mother wouldn’t let me; she was too afraid to lose us both to the Indian districts.”
Living under apartheid legally outlawed nonwhites from dating whites, but as a twenty-one-year-old jewelry salesperson of Durban’s Hyperama Mall, Fisher suddenly found herself in love.
“He was beautiful,” she says of the British butcher that passed her in the corridor on his way to the cantine. “and he would stop by the shop and ask a bit about the jewelry; that’s how we started to talk.”
As a high school graduate, Fisher understood that apartheid jeopardized her aspirations, but would not let it endanger romance. Instead, the pair was forced into secrecy.
“It was just too dangerous,” Fisher admits. When asked what would have happened if she was caught, her carefree tone hardens: “I really don’t even want to think about that. They would have put me in jail, thrown away the key, and let him go because he’s white. That was common practice, but I never let myself think that way.”
As others around them mysteriously vanished, the couple’s fears peaked. Fisher posed as a maid: in a cap, pinned hair, and cream smock, to keep others from suspecting her interracial relationship, but even that was risky. Escaping became survival.
One year passed before the lovers packed their belongings: clothes and passports. They then embarked on the six – hour drive, through two checkpoints, and across valleys plowed by black farmers until they reached their new home west of the Drakensburg Mountains in Masseru, Lesotho. Fisher worked with USAID there, and says that her life was great because institutionalized segregation did not exist and her relationship could have more autonomy, which led to marriage.
As the sun is setting, there is a pause. Exuding the air between her lips, Fisher slashes the rare tranquility. “There is another thing,” she says, before confessing of her month later travesty.
“I’d wanted to see my family, that’s it,” she says of her attempt at renewing her South African passport. “But in South Africa the inaccurate generalization was that anyone living in Lesotho was part of the then oppositional party, African National Congress, since their headquarters were in Maseru too. So even though I wasn’t part of ANC, my residence, my skin color, and being South African around ANC activists and raids led the passport processors to hit me.”
Her cool and collective composure shakes as she recalls the moment the pots arrived from South Africa that proved her secret fears were correct. “Nonexistent. There is no record of you as South African. You are not permitted to enter this country.”
“But I am South African,” the newlywed remembers pleading in her appeal, even detailing her family, hometown and schools — unsuccessfully.
“Even though it was an awful and common thing, I never let myself think that stuff is going to happen,” she says, “and so it was a really big blow.”
Fisher turned to spirituality. “I became a born-again Christian,” she says, recalling the missionaries’ life-changing knock at her door. “My thoughts are still shaped by them.”
Acquiring British citizenship through her British husband was her only option. She admits to having uneasiness about this — she was still attached to hime, and because she could not hold dual citizenships, acquiring British citizenship would mean forfeiting South African citizenship.
“But I had no choice,” the pragmatist says. “I was stuck.”
Six months later, Fisher’s British passport arrived. “Then I could go in person to Bloomfonteine, the South African passport processing headquarters, and straighten out the mess,” she says, her voice gaining excitement. “And I did, and so it worked out for the best because I was able to hold two passports, which is extremely rare as a South African.”
London is not only the city of life, but a place that nonwhite South Africans under apartheid seldom were freed into; for the ambitious thirty-five-year-old, it became her next venture. “It ws a new beginning,” recalls Fisher, who had been divorced over the course of those years. “A friend even arranged my living arrangement in London in exchange for house sitting until I got on my feet.” This was where the opportunist says she gained formerly inaccessible academics and financial security. “Working on Fleet Street where you have all the business men and women in their three-piece suits and fancy hats and briefcases, you really feel like you are on top of the world. And I was part of that world,” she explains.
Only three years into her stay, from the newspapers, television, and her mother, Fisher heard the news that South Africa would hold free elections. Although abroad, she fantasized immensely about destroying apartheid and she always prayed for its demise.
Fisher’s visions came true hours after she awoke one snowy Wednesday morning. She applied a simple amount of makeup to her face, brusher her curly brown hair, and threw on her ‘really posh’ three-piece suit. Saying a little prayer, she grabbed her briefcase and embarked on the fifteen-minute speed walk to the Jubilee station. Although these rituals were characteristic of a typical morning, they were being exercised in the spirit of an epoch.
“That was the day I was representing my country, so I really wanted to look good,” Fisher elucidates. “Healing had finally come about for my people in South Africa. There area a lot of people who have prayed and worked for the struggle, people who never give up hope. And I just felt very proud to be voting for the first time.”
After a twenty-five minute tube ride, she passed the 149-year-old fountain in-between the stone steps of the Trafalgar Square South African Embassy, which up until the day before would have been filled with protesters against apartheid. Excitement filled the air. But as she stared at the backs of the two white men walking out from the polls, it all felt surreal. The flock or reporters rushed up t her and surrounded her. “That’s when I realized I was the first colored voter,” she confesses.
“I feel great and proud to be representing my country,” she recalls saying into the news cameras. “We must unite if the country is to reach its potentials.”
“Even months later, my mom’s phone would not stop ringing.” Fisher chuckles. “I guess they showed those clips of me over and over and people from my village just couldn’t believe it was all really happening.”
She continues: “I was a poor black woman leaving South Africa with only a suitcase in hand and I put myself through University, got a job at a top corporation – enough cash to purchase my own Westhampton apartment, and I was able to gain my country freedom in casting that first black vote. I always believed I could do it, and it has turned out a pretty remarkable story.”
One year later, the free spirit pierced barriers again by throwing herself into California’s uninhibited way of life.
Fister gained individual freedom before that April 27, 1994 legendary vote, but her situation remains rare. Even with improved freedom, black rights, electoral systems, and basics (like sanitation), South Africans are still wrestling oppression. Nearly six million South Africans suffer the world’s largest AIDS epidemic, and twenty million battle poverty. In a recovering economy that is increasingly hurting from the global recession, lack of access to aid, education, and medicine are impeding the progress necessary for South Africans to follow in Fisher’s footsteps.
Reversing the social order constructed around whites, for instance, has over-empowered blacks to the point of marginalizing colored and Indians, experts say, which need re-examining.
According to Fisher, the reason her Zulu mother earned ownership of her childhood home under the new constitution is because the Indian landlord, like many non-blacks, was forced into a rural area.
Even after serving twenty0seven years in prison for “sabatoge,” or organizing against apartheid, unifying and giving voice remains the goal of the “father of South Africa.” Nelson Mandela’s devotion to unifying the ravaged country is exhibited through acts like commending South Africa’s mainly white national rugby team, the Springboks.
Similarly, Fisher takes immense pride in inspiring everyone back home to nurture each other into achieving their dreams from still struggling Wentworth locals to the legendary Mandela family, whom she visited in Soweto, Johannesburg.
In addition to always responding positively to adversity, Fisher says: “The most powerful and important thing is to remember that united we stand and divided we fall; and for our country and world to remain strong, that is what we must do.”
contact: LeaWiviott@gmail.com Lea Wiviott studies magazines and political science. Outside class she loves designing interiors, talking with people, reading and writing features that better society, and watching documentaries after visiting beaches with her boyfriend.
Article originally published in April/May 2009 in [X]Press Magazine, what Society of Professional Journalists has called the best student-run magazine.