Saturday, February 7, 2009

Apartheid Museum

Went to the Apartheid Museum today with some friends from work... not the most uplifting start to a Saturday, but quite an experience. The closest thing I can relate to it is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Except... the pictures are in color. And the 'survivors', instead of being considerably aged and few in number, are everywhere. It's stunning how recently some of the horrors of Apartheid took place. Kurt Cobain died before Apartheid finally did.

For those who have never heard of it, Apartheid was the system of racial segregation set up by and enforced by the government. The foundation was laid at the beginning of the 20th century, although it could be argued that its roots stretch back to the colonization of South Africa hundreds of years earlier. Apartheid didn't really get going until until the mid-20th century though, and the violence didn't erupt until the 60's, and then got progessively worse in the 70's and 80's. To put it in more Western terms, it was the Jim Crow laws, Native American forced relocation, European ethnic cleansing / labor camps, early American sharecropping, and pretty much every other racial offense one can think of rolled into one. Pretty much everything except mass execution, unless you think about it more broadly and less literally.

These are the all of the Apartheid laws - there are a lot. One placard next to it said to think of it as a symbol of oppression, but also a symbol of people's ability to circumvent laws and force the creation of new ones. The glass window there in the middle leads to...

Nearly 200 nooses, one for each person that was executed or died in confinement while resisting Apartheid. The most recent was in 1989. The only name I recognized on the wall was Steve Biko, who I know mostly from the occasional mention in a rap lyric.

At least I'd heard of Nelson Mandela. As you might imagine, there is no shortage of mention of his name. Here they detail the meaning of his name - the name given to him at birth was Rolihlahla, meaning 'pulling the branch of a tree, or the one who disturbs the established order.' Well, they got that one right.

Just one of the many horrors under Apartheid was Bantu (native) education. There were no desks or chairs in classrooms, even for the teacher. There were upwards of 100 children in a class. Training was meant to keep people repressed and forced into menial labor positions. While this might look like scenes from the 1860's in the US, this was in the 1960's in South Africa.

What was striking was just how recent everything was. I was 10 years old when the first free elections were held in 1994. Also, it was not like there was no organized resistance to it all. Led mostly by the youth, there was internal resistance for 55 years before it all came to an end. The government simply detained people for life, if they didn't execute them outright, and continued on with business as usual.

I could go on for a while, but please, if you want to know more, go to the Apartheid museum website or the wikipedia page.

One final thought - this quote is on the wall outside of the museum, with letters protruding from the wall so that they cast a shadow directly below:

"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" -- Nelson Mandela

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