‘Culture is not set in stone’

Thola and Vanda Antamu share their stories of love, family and cross-cultural adoption.

When Vanda Antamu held her baby daughter in her arms for the first time, she marvelled at what she described as her baby’s very old soul.

“Her eyes seemed to look deeply, for such a young, sick baby. I bent down to pick her up out of her cot one day, and she lifted her head and her forehead bumped against mine and … there was instant bonding,” she says.

The Sunnydale resident and that baby girl – who is now a 24-year-old woman – are sharing their story in the hope of exposing fellow South Africans to a reality that belongs to the South African nation.

It is a story of love, and family. It’s a story of adoption. It’s the story of a black baby finding a home and her family – with white parents.

Vanda says the biggest misconception around cross-cultural adoption is that culture is genetic. “It’s not. Culture is an acquired/learned set of values and ways of being in the world. The former idea is profoundly racist and in my not so humble opinion, based on old superstitions,” she says. “Culture is not set in stone.”

Thola agrees. “We are so stuck in our old understandings of what culture and colour represent. We are telling our story, to open up a space for learning,” Thola says.

The mother and daughter have taken to stages across the peninsula, and recently spoke to a full house at The Hive, in Muizenberg.

Their next conversation will be in Khayelitsha, where they will speak about their experiences.

When Thola came into their lives, cross-racial adoption was still illegal. “My husband and I tried to exploit a legal loophole of the former “homeland”, KwaZulu. That was turned down, and we went to Legal Resources for assistance and were gearing up for a court case, when the South African law changed… and suddenly we were legal,” Vanda says.

The community they were working in were very supportive.

“A saddening response from teenagers in the area was the incredulity that white people could love a black baby,” Vanda says.

Some folk were not so accepting. “We were kicked out of a ‘family’ restaurant in Empangeni when Thola was nine months old. And, in 1995, when we first arrived in Cape Town, there were episodes of outright racism. However, these were few. Most people were interested, some very supportive,” Vanda says.

These days she has noticed many more cross-racial/cross-cultural adoptions, mixed couples, mixed groups of children hanging out than there were then.

“We seldom experience overt rejection/racism these days. The issue now lies more with stereotyping: people responding to who they think we are,” Vanda says.

When meeting Vanda and Thola, many assume they are “madam” and domestic worker.

Vanda trained community rehab workers and physiotherapy assistants from the deep rural areas of KwaZulu to the big urban areas.

“The trainees were all Zulu, yet the urban people felt culturally closer to me than they did to the rural people. That already indicates that culture is not a fixed thing. We attended weddings and funerals in the area where we were working. There were often long discussions in the middle of a ceremony about how matters should proceed. Culture is not set in stone (or inherited with the genes for melatonin),” she says.

Thola says: “Society, in my experience, is a young child that has experienced severe trauma. It does not take well to change and does not trust easily. I notice
that people who are not exposed to diverse spaces struggle to ac-
cept change and therefore struggle to compute and accept what I am and who I have chosen to be-

She adds: “It is important for me to point out that this lack of diversity or the inability to willingly accept change is not bound to a racial, cultural or age group.”

Thola, who is a performance artist, has also found it challenging to deal with people’s expectations around language.

“Everyone in our country expects me to be able to speak their language. Even outside of our borders, I am expected to speak languages that I have never heard before. As a young girl, I was often made to feel like I was lacking and this feeling made it difficult for me to want to learn languages other than my own. The expectation restricted me rather than motivated me,” she says.

“As an adult, I realise that I no longer owe anyone, any explanations.”

Vanda says it seemed fairly obvious for her to tell the external adoption story, and for Thola to tell the internal story of how it felt for her. “The story seemed to grow organically in a workshop format. People’s questions and com-
ments have honed it as we’ve gone along.”

Thola says: “Telling our own stories came very naturally. I have learnt that people want more from the world, more from each other. The only way that we can heal is to not shy away from, or fear the ‘more’.”

Vanda’s advice to would-be adoptive parents is considered. “Be very aware of your community’s values, consider how you will deal with them for your child’s (and family’s) sake. Be aware of your own beliefs, your child will question you, your family, your friends. Think about your answers. Join groups, read books – and then go for it!”

Thola’s adds: “We are society, we are the monsters that we fear. Be conscious about how you place yourself in the world. I would say this to any parent, not just parents looking to adopt.”

Why? “Because adoption is not complex,” she says. “South Africa, actually world history, is complex. Adoption is family, and family is beautiful when there is love.”

Their next appearance will be at Cafe Isvivana, 8 Mzala Street, Ekuphumleni, Khayelitsha, on Saturday March 25, at 10am .