The day after our emotional concert with the Pretoria Community Choir brought us to a different theme in South Africa, that of race. South African history is darkened by a cloud of apartheid and racial problems, with political sanctions on the country not fully lifted until 1993. It was a long day and thus it is full of information; however, given our current racial struggle in America, I think it is worth writing, because only by learning from the past can we overcome our problems in the present.
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Our day began at the national Apartheid Museum. Apartheid, or ‘apart-hood’ in Afrikaans (a hybrid language derived from Dutch and native African tongues), was the political and social segregation of whites from other races. Imagine Reformation Era United States except worse. The museum experience began when we were randomly assigned White or Non-White on our tickets. We simulated entrance into the museum according to our ticket, as South Africa had separate facilities for different races. Blacks made up the vast majority of the country with 80%. Whites and Colored folks (‘Colored’ described anyone who was mixed race, usually with some White lineage) tied at 9%, and Indians made up 2%.
While Dutch and British colonization generally oppressed locals decades before apartheid, legal segregation really heated up in 1950. Over the course of the decade, the White-led government of South Africa passed several racist and segregationist laws. First, the Population Registration Act made citizens carry an ID that declared their race. The government also passed the Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between the races. Police enforced this by snooping on suspecting couples, with some people sent to jail because of evidence collected by spying officers. Another law passed in 1950 was the Group Areas Act which forcefully removed people from their homes and forced them into neighborhoods for Whites, Blacks, etc. This and the Land Act set aside 92% of the land for White South Africans, or Afrikaners, and another law increased the strict segregation by forcing non-White people to have a permit if they worked in White areas. The current government has implemented the Land Reclamation Act to re-appropriate stolen land to ancestors of the original owners, so slowly but surely steps are being taken to right the wrongs. One final law that silenced the voices of the Black majority in the newly-minted White polity was the Separate Representation of Voters Act, which gave native Black South Africans passports according to their tribes. This theoretically gave each tribe legislative autonomy; however, since tribal economies were so intertwined with the South African economy, in reality it only stifled the tribes’ political influence in South African politics and thus forcefully ceded Black political power to their White oppressors.
The next important apartheid law was the Afrikaans Medium Decree, an offshoot of the Bantu Education Act of 1973. This selected Afrikaans—the language mostly spoken by the Afrikaners—as the national language for all education in the country. The government justified the Act by claiming that this would create a workforce with a unified language and, thus, would promote economic growth. The problem with the law is that it put non-Afrikaans speakers at a stark disadvantage. South Africa currently has 11 official national languages, which reflects the diversity of the country. By making all schooling in one language, the law effectively stifled educational potential for the non-Afrikaans speakers which, in practice, discriminated against the non-White students by setting back their education until they picked up the language. As with all apartheid law, it is now seen as purposefully discriminatory and as bolstering the White political regime.
Resistance against the Bantu education swiftly turned violent. Police forces clashed with student protestors and in one particularly tragic occasion police mistook rubber bullets with real ones and killed a 12-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson. An image from the murder quickly garnered international infamy and prompted the creation of the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum.
The museum’s exhibits obviously put special emphasis on the educational injustice of apartheid, citing interviews that showed that the teachers themselves deplored the law and longed to teach in the students’ language. However, it also framed the tragic accident as part of the larger issue of apartheid. Hector’s sister, who has worked at the museum for over 40 years, was quoted as specifically asking visitors not to martyrize her brother’s death. I don’t think that’s possible at this point, as he’s such a strong symbol of the tragedy of apartheid; however, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We cannot escape the past and we cannot stand for injustice, as leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to present day Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza have recognized. Rather, when you remember the name of a person who died fighting against the system which keeps them oppressed—whether you choose MLK, Harvey Milk, Hector Pieterson, or John Crawford III—you keep that person’s spirit and their legacy alive. And if their spirit is alive, their political struggle is a lot harder to forget.
Political resistance to apartheid took other forms, as well. Most famous would probably be the political party of Nelson Mandela called the African National Congress, whose Programme of Action called for civil disobedience in lieu of violence. Under Mr. Mandela, the party was voted in as the first democratically-elected party in South Africa and it still retains control through legitimate democratic approval. Another movement- after which the American feminist movement partly modeled itself- was the Black Consciousness Movement. This began in universities as a way to instill Black pride and buck what they perceived as White liberal values. It was an effective means within the university system to diversify academic thought, though it faced similar issues as academic feminism today in bridging the theoretical with the people’s everyday problems.
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The world first took notice of apartheid when the newly re-formed Republic of South Africa was denied reapplication to the symbolic trading union between former British colonies, the Commonwealth of Nations. United Nations Resolution 1761 further solidified general worldwide disapproval because it condemned apartheid, though at that time no political sanctions were levied. Part of this is because the United States and United Kingdom saw South Africa as prone to a communist revolution at any moment, and as this was during the Cold War they both used their veto in the UN to stop expulsion of South Africa from the political association in order to show support for the capitalist, if not kosher, government. This mirrored their later veto of the Apartheid Convention which aimed at qualifying apartheid as a crime against humanity. A good example of how deep the sentiment ran is a quote by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calling the African National Congress- again, the great Nelson Mandela’s party- a “terrorist organization.”
Political pressures finally did surface in the form of voluntary arms embargo and then cultural, educational, and sports-related exclusions of the country. Sanctions would have lasted longer if not for F.W. de Klerk, the final president of apartheid-era South Africa. Seeing how apartheid was tearing apart his country, he decriminalized and opened up negotiations with anti-apartheid political groups, released Nelson Mandela from his 27-year imprisonment, stopped the Land Act (which gave 92% of the land to the 9% of White citizens), and restored other democratic institutions like freedom of the press. His precedent led to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa and to the first democratic elections in the country. The world judged the elections to be unbiased and successful.
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Overall, it is impossible to discuss South Africa without discussing apartheid. It is so recent in their history that it is my generation that is the first generation living without the practice, and they are eager to overcome their racial challenges. Throughout the whole trip I couldn’t help but think back to America and our problems swiftly bubbling to the surface. The news and social media bristle with opposing Black Lives Matter-Police Lives Matter forces and our government seems all too keen to stay silent on the issue, even when our first Black President has vocalized his dismay with our race relations. Xenophobia only corrupts the ideal of diversity for which our country stands and these issues will not simply fade away, as America has and always will be a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, and religions. It is time to open up a nationwide discussion and tackle this difficult issue head-on, because otherwise we will only have more discontent and hatred exploding from beneath the surface in years to come.