While in South Africa, most tourist want to see wild animals, gamble in Sun City, tour the DeBiers diamond mines, surf the coast, shark dive, hike the gorgeous southern most tip, ride rollercoasters at the Disneyland-esk amusement parks, shop the many luxury centers and resorts… etc. None of these activities were really South African though. I talked with my two body guards Vincent (whom we lovingly called V) & Tuli who were both proud South Africans. I wanted learn about their country, culture and heritage… V and Tuli suggested the Apartheid Museum and Soweto. My mother had never been one to turn down an opportunity to browse a museum and at 14, I had already adopted a similar mindset.
As we walked up to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the first exhibit was already visible, “The Pillars of the Constitution.” Seven concrete pillars each with a different fundamental values South Africa’s first democratic parliament deemed vital to the construction of the new constitution; Freedom, respect, responsibility, diversity, reconciliation, equality & democracy. A placard denoted that S.A.’s constitution now guaranteed equality more extensively than any other nations. The next exhibit was located at the entrance to the museum, completely unavoidable. “Race Classifications.” Visitors were classified and only permitted to enter through one of two entries, “White” or “Non-White.” It was immediately far more upsetting than just reading about it in a book. There was a moment of realization for me as I read how racial classification was in fact the foundation for apartheid law. Your race actually mattered as you were constantly being divided into four groups: Native, Coloured, Asian or White. This was an everyday reality.
In 1886 there was an enormous global migration as word spread that gold had been discovered in Johannesburg. The next exhibit, “Journeys” illustrated the diversity of families as well as the cultural diffusion through racial mixing. “It was this racial mixing that segregation and apartheid were designed to prevent.” For the first time, South Africa was recognized as a single united nation “The Union of South Africa,” in 1910. Jan Smuts and JBM Hertzog (two major politicians during this period), decided on the policy of racial segregation at the same time, denying the right to vote to both blacks and white women. All opposition was suppressed by force. This was hard for me to grasp. What egos these two men must have had to write such laws of conscious suppression.
Moving forward into the heart of the apartheid exhibit, there was a list of apartheid laws accompanied by heart breaking unframed, black and white photographs of physical removal and relocation. The pictures became graphic and abusive in nature as the history during 1959-1960 was increasingly more violent. Demonstrations were lead by the African national Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) against the killings of 69 people during a crowd protested against the passed laws in Sharpeville. These demonstrations caused the main African opposition organizations to be banned. The 60’s, for black South Africans did not improve even though it was a decade of supposed prosperity. The apartheid had solidified into its most racist, inflexible, intolerant and narrow-minded form yet. Black and white videos played from mounted televisions showing horrific scenes on loop. It was painful that this was real life. These events were not part of a made up plot for movie. People had suffered at the hands of those who believed in a false concept of superiority.
Ernest Cole was one of the main contributors to the gallery and his emotional pictures captured what it was like to be black in a white republic. Most of the photographs in the museum were the first of Cole’s photographs to be displayed in South Africa as he was exiled in the 60’s and his book “House of Bondage” was actually banned in apartheid S.A. During the 1970’s the S.A. government created ten different “homelands” that every black African was assigned to in accordance with their ethnic identity all with the sole intention of mass removals. I walked from display to display reading every ounce of information. There was no explanation for why these black Africans were being treated with such disrespect other than their skin color. I felt sick. What ignorance! If a 14-year-old could see this was wrong how could the government be so blind?
Then came one of my favorite parts of the museum. “The Rise of Black Consciousness.” Finally. The heroes of this devastating historical story were about to be introduced. Bantu Setphen Biko inspired a new generation of black youths and lead to the change in black philosophy. Inspiring hope, these leaders spoke of black pride, black self-assertion, and blacks’ right to psychological emancipation. My excitement and hope for change and equality was dealt a quick blow as I read, “Under apartheid’s various terrorism laws, 131 government opponents were executed. The state claimed that many others committed suicide in detention.” I was furious. Terrorist?! History is always written by the conquerors! What nonsense! By terrorist definition, “those who create fear for political gain,” the apartheid South African government and all involved politicians should also be labeled Terrorists.
On June 16, 1976, school children protested in Soweto. This was a turning point in the history of South Africa as it truly marked the end of the black populations submissiveness in the struggle against apartheid law. It also marked the start of a more militant style resistance which led to the the government forming new reforms and means of repression. The 80’s were filled with the most unrest South Africa had yet to sustain.
There was a giant armored vehicle parked in the center of the museum floor and as I walked around it I caught a glimpse of Tuli. He was staring at the vehicle with extreme distaste. As if he could feel my eyes upon him he met my gaze and walked over to me. He spoke for the first time since we entered the museum. Calmly but with an edge pain and distaste, he told me of his encounters with these monstrous vehicles during his own youth. How the bullet proof latches would be flipped up and as the machine guns fired people fled. People he knew. He harbored a hatred for these “hippos” and rightfully so. I felt dumb for not previously making the connection that my body guards Tuli and V were in their late 20’s and early 30’s. They had actually lived through this turmoil and corruption. This exhibit was not just a true story to them. It was their past. I nodded to acknowledged his words but remained silent.
While Nelson Mandela was still in prison, he wrote an invitation to the government to end the apartheid with peaceful negations. The new president, F W de Klerk decided that with the non-racial democratic movement taking to the streets with increasing ferocity, the only path now was for the mass release of the political organizations and Nelson Mandela. My mom, V, Tuli and I watched the historic moment of Nelson Mandela’s release on February 1990. He had been imprisoned for 27 years at this point, but proceeded to give the most empowering speech that brought us to tears. Now V spoke. He pointed to the screen which showed a stadium full of people Mandela was addressing. “I was somewhere over here.” Tuli leaned forward and with pride tapped the monitor as well. “I was over here,” he said. Standing side by side the four of us watched till the video faded then started over. The only thing that I was seeing in black and white was the pixelated T.V. screen. All of this violence and political injustice over race? The sad thing being that even in 2016 there are still individuals that judge people by the color of their skin. I wanted to hug V and Tuli but didn’t out of fear that it would be taken wrong. I just wanted so desperately to express my grief for their plight and how much I disagreed with the discriminatory mindset, I just couldn’t seem to appropriately communicate at the time. It was a lot to take in, and admittedly I was overwhelmed.
A few weeks later my dad and brother (ten at the time) flew in to visit. My brother chatted away with V as we drove back from the airport. V almost seemed unfamiliar with how friendly whites could be and my mom knowingly asked my brother, “Hunter, did you notice V is black?” Without missing a beat, my brother replied, “Nope. But why is the steering-wheel on the wrong side of the vehicle?” V laughed out loud and shook his head with disbelief. This perfectly illustrated how my parents had raised my brother and I though. Racism isn’t something you are born with.