In some ways it’s hard to believe that a system such as apartheid was in full operation up until less than 20 years ago. But when you look at the horrible things currently going on in the world, it doesn’t seem so unbelievable. Still, we find it incredibly sad how people continue to hurt one another and let fear drive their actions. In our first week in SA we visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto.
Between the late 1800s and early 1900s the white minority rose to power and created a system by which colored (the term they use) and white people would live separately. Many white people felt this was necessary, believing their cultures were too different to coexist. Fear drove much of their thinking and was reinforced with propaganda. They believed the separation was for the good of all the people, but it was used to oppress the colored population. Colored people were forced out of the cities and into townships which were established miles outside the city centers. These townships still exist today and even with apartheid no longer part of this country, these seem to be the places a large portion of black South Africans live (even Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela live in a township). It is interesting to drive down the street and have a huge township with shacks and small government houses on one side and on the other to have a nice suburban neighborhood complete with electric fencing. This obvious disparity is unlike anything we have seen before. The government is trying to help and establish homes and schools and opportunity for these communities, but it is a slow process and an overwhelming task.
Those who rose up and spoke out or acted out against the ruling power and apartheid, such as Nelson Mandela, were jailed, some for decades. In 1976 school kids from Soweto (Southwestern Township with a population of 1 million at the time) decided to peacefully march in protest of Afrikaans being legislated as the language in which they would be taught. As Afrikaans wasn’t a language most of these kids knew, the rule was another device of oppression. The march ended violently as the white police force fired tear gas and both rubber and real bullets into the crowd. Thirteen year old Hector Pieterson was one of 35 people killed that day–the photograph of his body being carried through the street in the aftermath became a symbol of this event. This march also seemed to be the catalyst of the climate necessary for the colored population to come together and fight apartheid. It was sobering to drive down the streets in Soweto where these kids marched over 30 years ago and to see the path they took that ended tragically.
Apartheid was denounced in the early 90s, Mandela was released among other wrongfully incarcerated opposition members, and South Africa began moving in a new direction. There remain many complications from the long history of apartheid and much healing needs to take place. So much more can be said about apartheid and why and how it came about that we just can’t synthesize into a brief blog and there is still much we don’t understand or haven’t learned. It is something we hope to learn more about and by which we can understand the current situation in SA better. As we found in the civil rights movement in our own country, the elimination of lawful segregation doesn’t mean everything is peachy and that there aren’t significant problems or inequities. There continue to be political and government challenges that aren’t easily solved. Unemployment, education, health care, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, poverty… these issues haven’t gone away. We hope that strong leaders with integrity and vision will fill the government seats and move South Africa ahead in a positive way.