“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedoms of others.”
[ Nelson Mandela ]
We spent our final day in South Africa visiting the Apartheid Museum in Soweto, the township on the southwestern outskirts of Johannesburg that developed as a result of the eviction of black South Africans from other parts of the city. Apartheid, literally “the state of being apart,” was a system of oppression and racial segregation promulgated in South Africa from 1948 to 1994 in which the white minority ruled and oppressed the majority black population.
The museum’s exhibits start with “The Pillars of the Constitution.” After the end of apartheid in 1994 and South Africa transitioned into a democracy, these seven principles were ingrained into the country’s new constitution and serve as a foundation for the country moving forward: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.
When you purchase your admission ticket, you are assigned a designation — white, colored, or black — which determines deviations in routes you will be taken through the museum. As we passed through the section simulating how the old post offices were segregated, you were either sent through the aisle for Europeans Only (whites) or Blacks / Coloreds. They were separated by a fence on the inside.
As we made our way through the “Race Classification” corridor, Justin’s aunt turned to me and commented, “You know, I can remember so vividly when it was like this. It had always been like this. We didn’t know anything different. As a child, I never knew to question.”
I was so grateful she chose to share that. It is so easy to look back on apartheid and other past systems of injustice today and reflect upon how wrong such a system of oppression was. But for those who are born into it and told that it is right, it becomes difficult for both the oppressor and the oppressed to see the truth and to fight for change, instead remaining resigned to the idea that this is just how things are supposed to be.
What systems of oppression exist today that the world has been blinded to? That we feel powerless to challenge?
The next exhibit is called “Journeys.” The discovery of gold in Johannesburg in 1886 led to a mass immigration of workers from all over southern Africa and the world. This created a very racial and ethnically diverse society, with black Africans from across the continent, white Europeans primarily of British and Dutch descent, as well as Indians, Chinese, coloreds (those of mixed racial backgrounds), among other classifications. The structure of apartheid was instituted to keep these races separate. Whereas America is known as a Melting Pot of different races and cultures, South Africa has adopted the nickname the Rainbow Nation.
As you continue throughout the museum, various exhibits delve further into the history of apartheid in South Africa, a system of segregation that eventually led to the forced relocation of black South Africans. In the late 1950s, violence uprisings emerged to protest this system of oppression until it officially ended nearly forty years later in 1994.
As hard as it is to see and read about such brutality and oppression, it is nonetheless important to have such reminders of how senselessly cruel we can be toward our fellow human beings. The most striking thing I walked away with was just how great a change can come — to a life, to a country, to the world — when we are driven by a clear and compelling vision, one in which we cannot rest until we see it come to fruition. Nelson Mandela and those committed to ending apartheid didn’t just hope it would come to an end … they believed that it would, and they fought for it. If you think about it, the anti-apartheid movement was in full force at the same time as the American civil rights movement. Although neither country has seen an end to racism, they have both ended segregation, though those in South Africa had to fight for that end for several decades more than the U.S. But nonetheless, they clung to their vision and claimed it as truth until it became reality.
How different our world — and our lives — could be today if we claimed our visions as truth, rather than simply hopes; if we viewed our dreams as reality instead of dismissing theme as mere ideology.