The sombre feeling that overtakes you the moment you walk into the Johannesburg apartheid museum is almost paralyzing. The apartheid museum opened its doors in 2001 with the compelling story of apartheid at its heart.
Beginning at the entrance you are randomly assigned a “race card”. There are only two options, White (Blankes) or Non White (Nie Blankes). That card determines where your journey begins. Those with the “White card” enter through the left and those with the Non White card enter through the right.
I happened to receive the white entrance card which felt a bit queasy. Though the separation was opaque there were a mix of feelings between my companions and I.
The Rise and fall of a regime
I found the museum refreshing in how it provided spaces to host different voices and activities during and after apartheid. The architectural use of space and design allowed me to move between times. From the provocative film footage to snapshots, text boards and other apartheid paraphernalia.
There are about 20 exhibition areas that takes one through the systemic oppression of a majority group by a small minority and their uprising to overthrow the regime. The moment the National Party took over in 1948 it immediately started enforcing racial segregation where everyone was classified and grouped.
This further continued in the demarcation of urban areas. There were a number of other oppressive measures that were put in place such as curfews and pass books for non-whites. When watching the mini video clips one sees how whites justified their actions on morality.
I observed how political executions, strikes and black consciousness to name a few were instrumental in the swelling of the resistance. The situation was further exasperated by the sanctions of the international community until it eventually broke the camel’s back.
“It’s an extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black.” Ernest Cole summed it up so well.
We speak a lot about a post racial society and yet the haunting images of apartheid continue to linger through to today. One of the pictures that stood out for me was the domestic worker raising children whilst living in an inhumane space far from her own family. We continue to see such rippling effects of apartheid more pronounced in rural areas.
Passing though the stunning beautiful town of Tsumeb I was confronted with our own unhealed wounds. I stopped with a few friends at a nearby shop to refuel our padkos. In the shop the white manager was shouting at the employees in very derogatory terms. The latter responded only as “ja mevrou” smh… I went quietly to the cashier (white lady) whom I asked if they have airtime to which she responded no. I carried on paying for the rest of the snacks.
The white lady behind me spoke in Afrikaans and whilst paying also asked for N$50-00 airtime which she received. I paused and waited for her to finish helping the customer and asked the cashier why she told me there was no airtime. Her response… “There is no 10 dollar airtime”. I was blind sighted by the blatant insult and prejudice. I took her on and the manager making it very clear that such behaviour is nonsensical and should they not take measures to deal with it I will. Surprisingly the small group that formed due to the commotion alluded that this was a lost cause.
I continue to see this power relationships more pronounced in smaller towns in Namibia. There are of course other factors such as job security, socialization, access to education/ information etc, that continue to perpetuate that that power inequality. Our privileged lens living in the city can blind us from seeing the lived experience of Namibia beyond the metropolis. The only way we can measure the effects of a post racial society is when every Namibian especially those living in rustic areas can experience it.
One of my South African friends couldn’t finish the tour as she felt re-traumatized by the experience. The pain is still very real after 20 something years for her. There are crude remarks one hears about how non blacks should just “get over it”, or that it was long ago. It is imperative to note that without justice peace cannot be possible. Another coloured friend expressed the internal conflict that she has trying to reconcile her identity and the contribution of the coloured community to the liberation of South Africa.
Create Spaces, Host Healing Conversations
We need to honestly engage the perpetuating effects of apartheid and colonialism. We need meaningful justice for all. Part of healing is through story telling. There is a lot of pain and trauma that is inherited and passed on. Prejudice is taught based on experience no matter how subjective.
The visit to the museum was a sobering moment for me in how far we have come but also where we are going. Healing conversations are not only about crying and asking forgiveness. On a higher level its empathetic presence to the experience of those around you. May that museum be a reminder of how low humanity has gone and the pain we have caused one another but simultaneously call us to learn and built different. Truly history is a truest vindicator.
All we truly want is to be… SEEN, HEARD, CELEBRATED AND LOVED. I see you !