Lessons from Apartheid

Today was a rich, full day, with lots to learn and lots to process.  We started the day at the Apartheid Museum, and three hours wasn’t enough to see it all.  There was a great exhibit about Nelson Mandela–his life and history, and his role in ending apartheid; and then the museum itself had lots of different sections, talking about different aspects of the history, as well as a variety of short films.  I admit to knowing only the basics before I came to South Africa, so I have really appreciated learning more.  

For me, one of the best sections in the museum was an area that used large chunks of Ernest Cole’s book, “House of Bondage,” and his photographs.  The book was published in 1968, and he narrated his own first hand accounts of particular aspects of apartheid:  the role of religion (and this weird Christian Zionism–no relation to Jewish Zionism–that was founded in the US in the late 19th Century–that was popular in South Africa during this time); the problems with transportation, particularly the trains; the challenges of health care and education; the terrible conditions for the miners; and a host of other topics.  One of our tour leaders, Deon, said at dinner that night that a South African friend of his who had lived through apartheid once said to him that apartheid was so “inconvenient.”  It sounds like a trivalization of a system that was so terribly brutal and destructive, but I think his point is actually very powerful.  He meant that under apartheid, things that should have been as simple and uncomplicated as breathing–going to the bathroom, going to the beach, getting together with friends, going shopping, etc., etc. all became extraordinarily complicated acts, each of which was fraught with possible criminal ramifications.  The laws that were put in place to maintain apartheid were shocking and extensive–black people (and only black people) could be arrested for the slightest acts.  Cole noted that a young man who was living at home with his parents after age 18 would be arrested if he didn’t have a special permit.
I don’t have the space to detail all the things I learned–I didn’t really understand the tense historical dynamic between the Afrikaaners and the British, I didn’t know the history of the founding of Johannesburg (gold), and I had no sense of the geography, and where people moved and/or were forcibly relocated.  I’m still trying to process it all.
Then, in the afternoon we went to Freedom Park, which is an amazing place.  There really are two parts to it:  //hapo museum (the word, with the two lines in front meaning you are supposed to “click” the first syllable, comes from a Khoi proverb that means a dream isn’t a dream until it is shared with the whole community) and a large outside park with several different stations.  The museum, which opened in 2012 is meant to tell the history of South Africa from an African perspective. It starts with an indigenous creation story (human were said to have been created from reeds), then moves to traditional religious beliefs/ceremonies/sacred places, then discusses slavery, and then apartheid.  It is very well done–I found the first part the most interesting.  Then we walked around Freedom Park.  It is designed in circular shapes, because the community comes together all sitting in a circle, not in rows.  There is a memorial wall of names, an amphitheater, and a sacred space for contemplation. Here, you take off your shoes, and there is a circle surrounded by rocks from every province, and sacred trees (they are believed to be able to transport the souls of the dead into the afterlife).  There are several water sources, and it is important to wash your hands when you come out of the area.  Overall, I was really intrigued by the intentionality of including spiritual elements in the design of the park; our guide said that this is considered an important part of the healing that is needed going forward, and also to recapture traditional African beliefs and practices.
Toward the end, we came to another area for contemplation that has a wonderful little statue called “The Day,” and it depicts people waiting in line to vote.  At the apartheid museum, it was really moving to see the thousands upon thousands of people waiting in long lines to vote in the first democratic election; and so I found this statue moving.  In the United States, we have come to take voting for granted, and our turnout is often abysmal. 


We had great views of Johannesburg from the park, and the weather was gorgeous–it has been sunny since we arrived–and it was lovely to be outside, reflecting on the country, the city, and all it has seen.  We wonder what will happen to President Zuma–we have seen lots of signs protesting his presidency and calling for his resignation.  We wonder what the future will bring for South Africa, and how it will continue to live into Mandela’s legacy and vision.

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