Meet Maja Dežulović who was born and raised in South Africa. She is Black South African on her mother’s side and Croatian on her father’s. She was born just before the abolishment period of Apartheid (1990 to 1994).
Apartheid literally means apart hood, meaning the state of being apart. Under Apartheid (1948-1994) not only was it unlawful for races to marry—meaning White, Colored / Coloured (those who are mixed-race), Black and Indian (from India)—laws either limited or outright prohibited non-Whites from living in certain neighborhoods and townships, owning land, free movement, access to jobs Whites took for granted, and myriad others. In other words, the minority-ruled Whites (mostly of Dutch descent) controlled nearly everything in the life of non-Whites, in particular Blacks who to this day comprise the majority in the country.
This is the world Maja was born into, the one her parents fell in love in and the one that jailed former President Nelson Mandela (1994-1999) for 27 years starting in 1962.
Equally important, although not quite as known by those outside of South Africa, it is also the same world that created Steven Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Despite the restrictions of Blacks and Coloureds, Biko in particular, the BCM was instrumental in organizing the Soweto Uprising, which protested both the standard of education for non-Whites and the introduction of Afrikaans (spoken by those of Dutch descent living in South Africa and Namibia) as the language used to teach non-Whites. It’s estimated that of the 20,000 students who protested, more than 700 of them were shot or beaten to death during the uprising. The Soweto Uprising and others are responsible for bringing consciousness to the world about the horrific conditions taking place in South Africa.
Here now is Maja’s Stages of Being Biracial
Age 2 (1990):
My grandmother comes to live with us from Yugoslavia, during the civil war.
Age 3 (1992):
I cling to my grandmother whenever she’s around. She tells me to eat up so my father will be proud and because children are hungry in Russia (the irony makes me laugh today, because we were in Africa). I’m already tucked in and asleep on most nights when my dad comes in from work, but on the odd occasion, I pretend to be asleep when he walks in my bedroom and gives me a kiss on the forehead. When Joshua Doore appears on TV, I shout that it’s my dad.
Age 4 (1993):
Less than a month before my fifth birthday, my new sibling is born. The adults aren’t letting me see my mom in the hospital. When my mother comes back, I’m angry I got a baby sister instead of the brother I prayed for.
Age 5 (1994):
The colourful South African flag hangs by the entrance to our nursery school classroom, marking the official end of Apartheid and the beginning of the new South Africa. The teacher tells us what this means, but all I remember is that the country got a new flag.
Age 6 (1995):
My mom drops me off at ‘Big School’. I wave goodbye proudly, smirking at some of the kids who cry when their mothers leave. A new distinction appears in my life, one between my home and my school life. At home, I am Maja. At school, I am Mercia.
Age 9 (1998):
My grandmother tells my father that she’s getting too old to travel and requests that he sends me to visit her. I go to Croatia for the first time, where my grandmother lets me play outside until 10 p.m.
One day my grandmother sits me down and says that when she dies, she’s leaving everything to me. But she makes me promise to look after my father because he has a good heart. I look at her confused and ask if I can go outside to play.
My Croatian cousins give me a children’s diary as a farewell gift and I start writing in it.
Age 11 (2000):
My Grade 6 English and Home Room teacher Mrs. Kohen encourages my writing and poetry. It motivates me to keep writing and to sometimes share it with others. Mrs. Kohen is my favourite teacher ever because she’s the first teacher who looks like me – she’s coloured and her daughter looks just like my sister.
Age 13 (2002):
My grandmother dies on New Year’s Day, a couple of weeks before I start high school. My father’s older sister and her kids stop talking to us and we don’t see them anymore.
Age 15 (2003):
My best friend and I talk about our childhoods and how we feel. She tells me that she’s seeing a psychologist and says she could recommend her. One morning, as my father parks the car in front of the school gate to drop me off, I ask him if it’s okay if I see a psychologist. He smiles and says yes.
Age 15 (2004):
I begin a six-month process of dealing with my earlier childhood, which I’d mostly forgotten, and finding my identity. I’m also diagnosed with depression. My psychologist and I come to the conclusion that it would be best for me to live away from my parents for a while. I think of the only other place I’d ever thought of as home – Croatia.
Ages 16 – 18 (2005 – 2007):
I live in Zagreb with my other aunt while I complete high school. She is welcoming although overwhelmed by having a new teenager in the house. In the new school environment, we’re all different in some way. Although the majority of kids are White, there are other mixed race children, Arabs, Asians, and other ethnicities. We only stand out because we’re ‘exotic’, but I don’t pick up on any racism.
Age 19 (2007):
I decide to move back to South Africa after finishing high school. The recession has affected my dad’s restaurant business and I feel I can somehow help if I’m home with my parents.
My dad and I visit his family for dinner one night (he and his older sister have now been speaking again for two years). One of my cousins openly makes racist remarks and compares Black people to monkeys. I remember all the family events that my mom never attended and how my dad’s family would always take time to determine what the other kids wanted for Christmas to ensure they got the perfect gifts, and give my sister and me token cheap gifts with no thought at all. I remember how that hurt us as kids. On the drive back, I tell my dad that I never want to see those people again.
Age 21 (2010):
I haven’t been to Croatia in over a year, which feels odd. I meet Toi, a lady who’s an interior designer and she shows a huge interest in the country and our house there (she later becomes one of my best friends). Toi and I fly there with my dad to begin sorting out the house and our properties in Croatia. Unfortunately, this also means that we have to negotiate with my dad’s older sister again.
Age 23 (2012):
I meet Luke. He is a White Afrikaans man from a conservative family. He warns me that his family and some of his friends are racist, but still pushes me to meet and interact with his mother (who eventually turns out to be the most understanding and open-minded of all of them). Our relationship is tumultuous at best, but for some strange reason, we can’t stay away from each other. To the dismay of his family (who text Luke asking things like: “Why did you have to choose such a dark girl?”), Luke and I move in together. We are young, tempers are high and emotions fly around like fireworks. I realise that, on his side, when I do something wrong, the reaction is: “Get rid of her, she’s insane. They all are.” When Luke does something wrong, the reaction is: “What you did isn’t so bad. You aren’t married to her so it doesn’t matter.” My parents are phlegmatic about these situations, which hurts me, but I understand why now.
Age 25 (2014):
Luke and I decide to move to Croatia. It makes logical sense because my family has property there and we can do so much. My parents refuse to move with us, so we make the move alone. We start saving and planning.
Age 26 (2015):
I write “The Process of Killing Preconceived Ideas about Who We Are” for Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide anthology (co-authored by Multiracial Media co-founder Sarah Ratliff). This makes me think about a lot of things that I’d pushed aside for a long time.
Luke and I get married and move to Croatia.
My aunt (who I lived with during high school) shows me as much love as she did before and one day comes to our house with tears in her eyes. She tells me about a book she read that was about a biracial woman in South Africa during the time of Apartheid, and how she couldn’t help but think of me. I’m touched by her raw emotion. The book is The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch.
I start working long hours, crying at random, and acting out of character. My husband and friends tell me they think I’m depressed and should see a psychiatrist. I deny it, telling them that I studied psychology and I’d know if I was depressed since I’d been through it before. A few months later, a psychiatrist confirms that I’m going through my second major depressive episode. The rest of the year is hazy.
Age 27 (2016):
I wake up out of depression to find so much to be grateful for. I start waking up early, hiking to the beach with our cocker spaniel, swimming, hiking back; planting herbs, fruits and vegetables; baking; and interacting with people. I re-discover all the things I love and start paying attention to my own needs ahead of anyone else’s. My husband smiles and keeps telling me how glad he is that ‘I’m back’.
My sister and I have long conversations about racial identity, what we went through and how we identify. We both agree that we identify more as Black than White. Because if White is the racist, supremacist, religiously-fanatic, and ignorant White that we’ve experienced, we’d rather be anything but that.
I learn that my father’s older sister and her kids are resentful because their ‘rightful’ inheritance fell into the hands of these half-castes. My father was fifty-one when I was born, so up until then they just assumed that he’d never get married and have kids, then they’d automatically inherit his share of the wealth that remained from what was once a prominent aristocratic family in Dalmatia. Then, when we were born, they put up with us, assuming that the Black kids will never care for Croatia. Then I pulled the rug out from beneath them when I began doing the admin on my father’s properties.
February 6, 2016 Luke and Maja are featured in Dubrovački Vjesnik, one of the newspapers in Croatia, about moving to Croatia. On February 11, Maja was interviewed in English, if you’d like to read more.
Front page: Maja Dežulović, a Peljesac resident from Johannesburg,
Speaks Croatian to neighbours in Janjina, Afrikaans with her husband, Luke Visagie, and Zulu to Parents…
The article is like a short biography of us. It starts by describing our house, then me, my family history and how I speak Croatian and other languages. Then how we arrived in June, started fixing up the house and why we’re here, and a bit about our life here and our impression of Janjina. Luke says he loves it… A bit about SA: Croatia is known as a beautiful country and for their football. There are other Croatians who would like to return but battle because life here costs double of what it does in SA and because of the high cost of properties here, compared to SA. It also mentions the opening of our shop and the future Art Route and what it will mean for Janjina. A bit about Leeto – how we got him here and what his name means… A bit about my career as a writer and how I gather inspiration from my surroundings. One of the contrasts made is the different winter climate which surprised us a little and it’s mentioned that Luke’s mum and sister are in Australia, where we will go next winter to “escape” the cold here.
So here I am, sitting in this beautiful house that my great-grandparents built and my grandmother decided to give to me. Yes, me. The half-caste. Her first mixed race grandchild. The last grandchild she got to bond with. Her favourite. So, I raise a glass of water to my grandmother and say thanks, then send this post for publishing.
Maja Dežulović is Black South African and Croatian. She and her White South African husband live in Croatia. She is a poet and author, having published two anthologies and is currently working on a novel. Maja has ghostwrtten several novels and stories in the genres of literary fiction, crime fiction, romance, biographies and other non-fiction.
Her books are: Expressions of Humanity and The 360 Degree Heart and they’re available on Amazon.
Maja’s website: http://bluedaisiesandpurplegrass.blogspot.co.uk