Tragedy and Triumph: The Apartheid Museum

At the entrance to the Apartheid Museum, each visitor is arbitrarily given a ticket that either says “Whites” or “Non-Whites”. With this arbitrary distinction in hand, visitors enter the museum through the appropriate segregated entrance. On Saturday afternoon, this is how our lesson on the rise and fall of apartheid began. (And it just so happened that Georgina and I (the two ‘whites’) selected “Non-Whites” tickets, while Rina (the only ‘non-white’) selected the “Whites” ticket – setting the stage for the absurdity of racial segregation from the outset.)

As is well known, apartheid was a system of legal segregation in South Africa that was in place from 1948 until its demise in 1994. Through the system of apartheid, the majority “non-whites”, which included “natives”, “coloureds” and “Asians”, were damned to a system of servitude, humiliation and abuse – all through the legal mechanisms of the state. The government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, providing ‘non-whites’ with services inferior to those of white people, and arbitrarily detaining, humiliating, abusing and even killing those who had the courage to resist.

The background and details of apartheid are many. After three hours of walking through the museum we only scratched the surface of understanding ‘apartheid’ and its impact on the lives and history of South Africa. Rather than sharing tidbits of my recollections or detailing the resistance movement, I’d like to share a thought that recurred as I walked through the halls of the museum.

Soon after arriving in Johannesburg, I had supper with a few South Africans. During the course of our conversations, one of them noted that we have to view apartheid in light of its historical context. Human subjugation, oppression and even genocide are part of the human experience, occurring and re-occurring all throughout human history. He stated that apartheid must be considered in light of this context, and that what makes apartheid so wrong is the fact that it happened during an enlightened period.

For me, this remark begged the following question: is human tragedy worse when those inflicting the wounds of oppression are enlightened on the wrongs they are committing? Or, in brief, when they should have known better?

I reflected on his comments as I walked through the halls of the museum. This thought was particularly striking in one room of the museum where a television uncovered what was occurring globally in the 1970s – the civil rights movement and the international discourse on human rights for example, and what was occurring nationally – the passage of more laws subjugating the majority “non-whites” in South Africa. In spite of the ability to understand, and living in an age of enlightenment in regards to human equality, the ‘white’ South Africans continued to suppress.

Upon reflecting, I’ve concluded that it is only through human experience that we can reflect on what is right and wrong. Knowing that something is wrong and proceeding to oppress is much worse, in my opinion, than to oppress and not understanding the consequences of one’s actions. In this respect, being enlightened creates certain obligations to treat others with respect and dignity.

I would strengthen this obligation even further and argue that we also have the obligation to seek to understand – to ask questions and to become enlightened about one another’s pains and struggles. I feel better thinking that we’re obligated, because of our mere existence, to try and understand one another. Viewed from this perspective, it is worse that apartheid occurred during an enlightened period where the people understood their wrongs, or at the very least, should have sought to understand.

I must note that in spite of South Africa’s recent tragedies, and in spite of the fact that South Africa is still deeply burdened with the consequences of white domination, I have noticed a great sense of maturity in this country. As I walk down the streets, as I talk to colleagues in the office, and as I meet strangers of different races everywhere I go, there is a sense of kindness and openness that is inspiring. A country that has been and still is so deeply divided on racial differences has been incredibly welcoming in spite of my colour. Perhaps the greatest thing about human tragedy is that it presents the stage for human triumph.

And so on a final note, as draining as the walk through the museum was, in that it presented much sadness and suffering, the triumph of the human spirit, exemplified by those who resisted apartheid and by a country that is moving onwards, was every bit as inspiring.