My visit to South Africa last December included a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I went in with a general understanding of apartheid as a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa in the late 20th century, mostly gleaned from brief overviews in a high school history class. However, I quickly realized how much more there was to learn from this painful chapter in history. The Apartheid Museum serves as a reminder that the struggle for equality still exists, in South Africa and around the world.
Below are a few facts I learned for the first time during the visit.
-Apartheid permeated every detail of a person’s existence. Each citizen was legally classified as white, black, Indian, or “coloured,” and was required to carry an identification card denoting this. This classification affected details as small as what alcohol you were allowed to drink (black people had to drink the lower quality “Bantu beer” as mandated by the government) and as big as where you could live (3.5 million black South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods over the course of 2 decades).
-Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa early in his life, and was a victim of the discrimination that served as a precursor to the apartheid system. In 1893, Gandhi purchased a first-class ticket for a train traveling from Pretoria. A white passenger complained about sharing the car with Gandhi, and Gandhi was forcibly removed after refusing to move to third-class. Gandhi became active in fighting discrimination in South Africa, and called this incident among the most important in his political career. Gandhi continued his work in South Africa until 1914, when he returned to India as Mahatma, meaning “a great soul.”
-The Soweto Uprising of 1976 saw schoolchildren, some as young as 13, come together to protest inequality in the education system. Essentially, the government led by the pro-apartheid National Party passed a law mandating all children be educated in the Afrikaans language. However, black South Africans spoke English. As Desmond Tutu said at the time, black South Africans viewed Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor.” Can you imagine going to school and trying to learn math, history, and language in a language that was completely foreign to you, in your home country? This was exactly the problem faced by black South African students and teachers, who were now forced by law to communicate in Afrikaans only with English-speaking students. (It probably goes without mentioning, but the schools themselves were completely segregated along racial lines, and the black schools received much less funding.)
The students stood up for their right to an equal education. On June 16, 1976, 20,000 students and protesters marched in the streets and were met with violent backlash from the South African military, who used machine guns, dogs, and stoning to attack. It is estimated up to 700 protesters died during the uprising. June 16 is now Youth Day in South Africa, to honor the memory of these protesters.
As a former teacher of high school students, learning about the Soweto uprising shook me at my core. What are we doing in the US to fight for all students to have an excellent education? How are we empowering youth to stand up for their rights without fear of repercussion?
-The “toyi toyi” dance/military march was adopted as a symbol of protest and unity among black South Africans after the 1976 massacre. The museum had several very moving video clips of the toyi toyi used in protest. I’ve included one from You Tube below. Although this is fake footage from a movie, it can give you an idea how powerful it was to see actual video footage of this.
-Nelson Mandela was released as a political prisoner on February 11, 1990 after 27 years of confinement, much of it in solitary confinement. While this is a pretty widely known fact, it still blew my mind to be reminded that this happened during my lifetime (I was 8 months old and in diapers when he was released!).
-My tour included a visit to the Soweto neighborhood (a syllabic acronym for Southwest Township), where hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were forced to move after being forcibly removed from their original homes during apartheid. This is separate from the visit to the Apartheid Museum, but my hotel was able to arrange both tours and provide transportation. This neighborhood features the only street in the world with the addresses of two Nobel Peace Prize winners—Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
My visits to the Apartheid Museum and to the Soweto neighborhood were informative, inspiring, and humbling. I highly recommend the tours if you find yourself in Johannesburg.