Below Deck Mediterranean star Mzi ‘Zee’ Dempers has opened up about the racism he faced growing up as a black child in a white family in post-apartheid South Africa after being adopted by his grandmother’s employers.
A native of Durban, the 26-year-old deckhand on the Bravo series was adopted at age three after his mother died of an illness. He didn’t have a relationship with his biological father, which left his grandmother, a domestic worker, to care for him.
‘That’s when my parents now almost saw it, in a nice way, as a bit of a sign for them to take me in because I’d already been spending so much time with the family,’ he told Today Parents.
‘I got to go to have the best of my grandmother and the best of having an actual family.’
Support system: Mzi ‘Zee’ Dempers, 26, has opened up about being adopted by a large white family when he was three years old after the death of his biological mother
Looking back: Mzi said his parents and four siblings have always been supportive, but being a black child in a white family ‘wasn’t normal at all’ in South Africa in the late-’90s
Mzi’s biological mother worked a lot before her death, and he would often spend weekends with his grandmother, who lived in a house on the Dempers’ property. He recalled developing ‘a bit of a bond’ with his brother Josh, who is two years older.
Looking back on his childhood, he said race was never a factor in his relationship with his family, though he was initially hesitant to call his adopted mother ‘mom’ so soon after losing his birth mother. It took him about three or four years to do so.
He said his parents, Christine and Leon, and four siblings have always been supportive of him, but he noted that being a black child adopted into a white family ‘wasn’t normal at all’ in the late-’90s following the end of apartheid.
Mzi recalled being the only black person in most situations, which led his family members to be protective. His father had to ‘defend’ him at times, and his brother Josh would chastise his friends when they used racial slurs.
Hard times: Mzi, pictured with his siblings, his dad would have to ‘defend’ him, recalling how he was laughed at when he wore dreadlocks to his private school, which brought him to tears
Youngest in the family: Growing up, Mzi was closest with his older brother Josh, who is two years older than him
Big bro: Mzi said Josh, pictured, would chastise his friends when the used racial slurs
A lot of people ‘didn’t really understand’ why his parents had adopted black child, he explained.
‘Everybody in relatively privileged societies has their own take as to what’s right and what’s wrong. My parents had to deal with a lot,’ Mzi recalled.
He remembered being brought to tears after his classmates laughed at him for wearing dreadlocks to his private school with his father’s support.
‘It’s not something that people were used to seeing,’ he said of the hairstyle.
Mzi and Josh, 29, are the youngest children in the family. Their oldest brother is about 50, while their other brother is in his late 40s. They also have an older sister who is 40.
‘Our ages are all so different, so when we were growing up, it was really just myself and Josh. My older siblings would pop back every now and then,’ he said.
Grateful: Mzi, pictured at a recent Christmas celebration, shared that he feels lucky to have been brought into a large family where ‘everyone is just so accepting and so wonderful’
Career path: Mzi was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his two brothers who work in the yachting industry as a captain and a chief officer
Reality star: Mzi is a deckhand on the sixth season of Bravo’s Below Deck Mediterranean
‘Since we’ve all grown up, when we do get the time, it’s [as if] we’re the same age, a bunch of children together trying to have a good time. It really is incredible.’
Mzi was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his two brothers who work in the yachting industry as a captain and a chief officer, saying that ‘seeing them progress from strength to strength within their careers was quite mind-opening.’
While his parents are supportive of his career path, he joked that it’s a bit hard for him to be away because he is ‘the last little egg to leave the nest.’
Mzi shared that he feels lucky to have been brought into a large family where ‘everyone is just so accepting and so wonderful.’
‘I just try to be as grateful as possible for every opportunity that presents itself because I know, coming from where I came from to where I am today…I owe it all to my family,’ he said.