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The award-winning journalist on growing up in apartheid South Africa, one-night stands and being left out of World Cups.

Your new book, Under Our Skin, is about life as a child in South Africa. What made you first start questioning what was going on around you?
As a child, I was naive and thought apartheid was normal, but it was only things like sport that made me ask difficult questions – like why the outside world didn’t like us – and suddenly I was snapped out of this innocent bubble, thinking we lived in the best country in the world. I started to work out that something was amiss.

How did sport become symbolic to what was happening in the country?
I was a little boy and I loved sport. The boycotts started to bite, which meant white South African teams could not compete in things such as World Cups, Olympics and cricket tours. There would be a big build-up and then it would be cancelled. I’d be so disappointed and ask my dad why. He would tell me the outside world didn’t have a good opinion of us. I would, in my naivety, say no black person likes cricket, so why would they be bothered. As I grew up, the boycotts became total and there were virtually no sports. We couldn’t have something as normal as sport because we lived in an abnormal society.

Is there one incident in particular which made you start to think differently?
In 1976, I was 15, we heard that the nearby township of Soweto was ablaze and the kids were at war with the army. It hit me that kids my age were being shot. That was quite a seismic event, when I worked out the South African government was willing to kill children my age.

You eventually left South Africa and your family to escape national service. Why were you so against it?
The constant theme of my adolescence was this big shudder of the army – that made me ask more complicated questions. Why should I serve the South African Defence Force? My parents wouldn’t accept my decision not to serve. The options were to go to jail or leave. I wasn’t brave enough to go to jail, so I told them I was going to leave. It took them six years to accept it.

When was the next time you returned?
Eight years later. The early Nineties opened up that apartheid would end and I could go back I could see changes were happening. Nelson Mandela was out of jail, that was a huge thing, there was such optimism. Obviously it was more complicated, it wasn’t that idealistic, and South Africa had more challenges to face.

Growing up, you thought your parents accepted apartheid. But when you returned to SA, your dad surprised you...
My dad had a big job in an electricity company. I remember feeling angry about what was happening in SA, and my father was just a logical engineer. He would say, ‘Yes, things are bad, but let’s look at the positive’. When I left, although I loved him, I did feel he was part of the system. Unbeknown to me, soon after, he went into Soweto to meet with black, political, underground leaders and find out if there was a way he could electrify black South Africa. It was a huge step, and he had to do it without anyone knowing about it. He helped bring electricity to South Africa and later all over Africa.

How did you keep out of the army?
One way was to be a university student. So I did a BA, a BA Hons and a Masters – then I knew my time was up. I then worked as a teacher in Soweto. I was the only white teacher in the township. On my first day, I had I feared I would be murdered, but everyone was really accepting. I learnt a hell of a lot being there for 18 months. The students were aged between 14 and 18, but some were in their 20s, having been jailed for some time. It was such an eye opener to meet people who had suffered enormously.

It was there you got the inspiration for the title of your new book ...
I met a black woman in Soweto who said to me, ‘Cut us open and, under our skin, we’re all the same’. And I felt this so passionately. Towards the end of my time teaching, soldiers were coming into Soweto. That reaffirmed that I couldn’t go back to the area in a uniform.

Your mum was unhappy with some of the revealing parts of the novel ...
She’s 84 and knows most things about me. But when I was a teacher, I had a one-night stand with a lovely black woman. We were both 22, but in those days you could go to jail. There was a moment before we disappeared upstairs that we acknowledged there could be consequences. It showed what a disturbing place SA was – a black and a white South African couldn’t fall in love or have sex. I also lost my virginity at 15 to a 22-year-old Afrikaans girl on a family holiday. I sneaked out of the hotel and got lucky!

Under Our Skin published by Simon & Schuster, £20 
Web: simonandschuster.co.uk


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Interview: Award-winning journalist Dan McRae on growing up in apartheid era South Africa
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