Janet Silvera, a reporter for the daily Gleaner in Jamaica, had the privilege of visiting South Africa in 2007 and wrote about her experiences of that vast country. She visited many places but this particular place, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg was particularly moving. Her account of the experience is compelling and it brings you to the place where human beings were humiliated, degraded and kept in human poverty because of the color of their skin.
The history of the world is full with accomplishments and discoveries but hidden in the book of life are shameful and despicable chapters that makes us cringe. Every man is born equal until someone says he is not. It is written that humans should be fruitful and multiply and that we do well multiplying good and evil, hatred and love. Why are we so inconsistent? Why do we create chaos?
Chaos , hate, love, war, peace, wealth, poverty are the engines that drives humanity. There will be no utopia of a world where everyone lives free and in perfect harmony. By our very differences we shall be separate in our upbringing ,our goals , our aspirations and these differences are what makes up our life experiences. As different are our fingerprints so it is that every human will experience his path on this journey called life. We are separated and categorised by these standards – mega rich, filthy rich, just rich, just ok, poor, very poor and dirt poor. Each person has to manage and face his/her destiny often times alone. Therefore we all checkout of this world as differently as we came into the world.
Apartheid therefore will never end. Life is a balance of the contrasts , black or white and sometimes you are given a choice of grey. But when one of us is able to face dehumanizing challenges , rise above the ashes and forgive his enemies then we create a word to signify their efforts. We call them saints. Nelson Mandela said it well.
There are few of us that could do what he did. Humanity rewards such bravery with epitaphs, books, movies and edifices. All that is good. But a true and lasting memory is if just one person emerges from this life in as many generations with the qualities , fortitude and forgiveness of Nelson Mandela, then he would have been a true saint as his life would have been re-incarnated, proving that hatred and chaos will exist but love and forgiveness conquers all and lives forever.
Read this touching and poignant tour of the Apartheid Museum in South Africa by Janet Silvera.
Janet Silvera, Senior Gleaner Writer
An explicit journey into apartheid
published: Sunday | May 13, 2007, South Africa:
One entrance says ‘whites’, the other says ‘non-whites’, while the park chairs have markings that read ‘Europeans only’.
The three signs, displayed in South Africa’s Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, represent a haunting reminder of this country’s not-so-distant past, when blacks and whites were racially segregated.
A quote outside the buildings from Nelson Mandela reads: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
But no matter what the signs depict, nothing comes close to preparing you for the brutal savagery and carnage that greets you inside.
Within half of an hour of entering this extraordinary museum, it became obvious that I did not have the inner strength to complete the suggested three hours of reliving the institutionalised and entrenched racial discrimination that gripped South Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Amid stomach knots, tear ducts ready to give way and a heart that pained as if there was no tomorrow, I became engulfed by a feeling of air being sucked from my body. Soon after, I was forced to journey into the 1970s, where I felt like I was part of the townships, dodging police bullets and teargas canisters. As one is taken on the historical journey, one is greeted by barred enclosures housed with blown-up copies of identity books – the reviled passbooks and ethnically-tagged identity cards.
The rest of the journey is as explicit:
A large yellow and blue police armoured vehicle, nicknamed a ‘casspir’, in which you can sit and watch footage taken from inside the vehicle while driving through the townships.
Dangling from the roof, 133 nooses representing the political prisoners hanged during apartheid.
A June 16, 1976, room with a curved wall of monitors showing footage of that defining day in Soweto when over 200 students died at the hands of the police.
A cage full of outrageous weapons that were used by the security forces to enforce apartheid.
Footage of a 1961 BBC interview with Nelson Mandela when he was in hiding from the authorities, as well as footage of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd addressing a crowd in English, explaining how the country could be happily ruled only when the races were separated.
I had fast-forwarded my tour and was now ready to cry my heart out, but decided that as soon as I found an executive who could comment on the renderings, I would exit the grounds and find another less overwhelming aspect of South Africa to write about.
But it was wrong to think it would be possible to block the bloodbath that blacks encountered in this country; and it was even more dense to try to deny the harsh reality that it was a mere 17 years ago that apartheid officially ended in South Africa.
Immediately, the thought was to blame the First World for turning a blind eye and allowing these atrocities to happen in these modern times. It became even easier to start hating the Afrikaans and their nationalist approach. The Afrikaner nationalists were the ones who introduced apartheid to South Africa. They believed in the superiority of the Afrikaner nation. They believed that their identity was ‘God-given’ and feared that their very existence was threatened by the black masses that confronted them in South Africa.
Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa from 1958 to 1966, is often given the title of the ‘Architect of Apartheid’.
His involvement in the system, like many others who impacted on the lives of the South Africans, was evident in this museum, which opened its doors five years ago and receives an average of 12,000 people per month – a small number, in light of the fact the country boasts a population of 47 million people. But there is the possibility that the scars are too deep to enter, while on the other hand, those who won’t visit are probably in denial. “The first time I toured the museum, I was speechless when I exited the gates. I just wasn’t able to speak for hours,” tour guide, 25-year-old Ndani Shude, said. Each time he goes there he is pained by the memories, but like most South Africans living in the new democracy, he adapts.
“What we are hoping to do here is to educate people about the past in order for them not to make the same mistakes,” explained Wayde Davy, deputy director at the museum, which was built at the cost of 100 million rand (US$700 million). She said there are people who do not visit because they cannot cope with the experience, that it was important that the victims of the past did not become the perpetrators of the future.
In the meantime, the nation expects to serve as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
To understand the roots of apartheid, it is important to examine how South African society changed when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886.
It is no accident that the Apartheid Museum was built at Gold Reef City, on the site of a disused mine. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand was central to both South Africa’s industrial development and to the politics of segregation.
The museum came about as part of a casino bid seven years ago. Bidders were obliged to include a social responsibility project, and the winning consortium indicated it would build a museum. A specialist team of curators, filmmakers, historians and museologists combined their expertise to develop the exhibition narrative which showcases ballooned photo-graphs, artefacts, newspaper clippings, footage and dynamic graphics of the apartheid story.
Exiting the museum is as difficult as entering, leaving you emotionally drained by the time you get out.
And when you think you have experienced it all, you are drawn to visiting the historically rich Soweto, where upper, middle, lower and squatter classes live in close proximity to each other. South Africa is richer for the work carried out by the freedom fighters in Soweto.
(c) Janet Silvera, 2007- published with permission.
And so it is. Susan Rice said these words…“One can’t erase the tremendous burden of apartheid in 10 years, 20 years, I believe, even 30 years…” I will add to these words,...”never in a millenium”.