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First day in South Africa – Apartheid Museum

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“Humanity was born in Africa. All people ultimately, are African.”

“The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.” – Nelson Mandela

These were some of the words that were significant to me as we walked into the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on our first day in South Africa. I visited the museum realizing once again as an American I didn’t really know much about Apartheid or Nelson Mandela or the history of South Africa. I left realizing I had grossly underestimated my lack of knowledge! Funny how the one thing that kept coming to my mind throughout the day was Lethal Weapon 2 (or 3?), where the “bad guys” are South African. I remember Danny Glover’s character going to the South African Embassy and being mistreated because he was black.

Unfortunately the real Apartheid was a lot more complicated and significant than a simple racism. It’s opened my eyes quite a bit to come and learn a bit of the history of the country and how this morphed into ways people and eventually blacks and whites started treating each other. The current country feels a bit like I imagine it did in the US after the civil rights movement – perhaps the 70’s to 80’s time period in race relations. Oddly now though the power has switched much faster than it did in the US. Starting with Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1994, South Africa has had 3 black presidents from the once outlawed ANC (African National Congress) party. We talked about the change to several of the locals who were kind enough to house us and it was fascinating to hear of the rapid change in a relatively short time.

Needless to say I now have a much better idea of what Apartheid was and how it became possible. Afrikaans, San people, ANC, PAN, Hector Peterson, Nelson Mandela, and 1976 are just a few of the terms and people I’ll now remember after visiting. Probably the most fascinating thing to me is how Apartheid started to unravel. Student led protests started in June of 1976 over their anger of having to learn in the language of Afrikaans (a Dutch based African language). Most grew up learning a native African language along with having to learn English and the government was now saying another language would be added to the mix. These revolts blew up into riots after a student, Hector Peterson, was shot and killed in the streets by police officers. Other schools followed suit in the days after hearing the news and eventually this became a turning point in the struggle against Apartheid. Another highpoint of the museum was watching F.W. de Klerk announce to his peers that Apartheid was ending and hearing the gasps… what a moment in history.

The Nelson Mandela section in the museum (a special exhibition) was also fascinating. Hearing of the 27 years of imprisonment, his turning the guards of the prison into friends, his underground leadership even to violent means, and his eventual presidency again gave information to a name I knew but didn’t really know why I knew. Here’s my one tidbit of info: Nelson’s names and what they mean.

Rolihlahla – Pulling the branch of a tree, or the one who disturbs the established order, name given to Nelson Mandela at birth.

Mandela – Birth name of Nelson Mandela’s grandfather, which became the surname of the family under colonial rule

Nelson – English name given to Nelson Mandela on his first day of school – Nelson thought “possibly because she liked Lord Nelson”

Dalibhunga – Founder of the parliament, name given to Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his initiation into manhood

Madiba – Nelson Mandela’s popularly known clan name, which means reconciler, metaphorically the filler of ditches.

Having been in South Africa now for almost three weeks I can see the lasting effects of Apartheid and it’s weird to feel it even in myself. There really are times of seeing the separate South Africas – the white and the black. Interacting with white “Afrikaans” people is definitely different than interacting with a black man on the street. I understand some how Apartheid was not just racism but a culture, a way of life for both black and white. I’ve heard several black men call to me on the street “Hey boss” and I react to it. I’m not their boss but whether they realize it or not this seems to me a reminder that culture has said because I’m white I’m their superior or “boss” when in actuality I’m a foreigner in their country. I hope this can change and it is amazing the change that has occurred in a relatively short time. I hope eventually there will be a disarming and destruction of the “walls” of South Africa – not unlike in Germany.