I entered this new year far from home and, over just these short days, have been reminded that we have less to overcome than we think and more resources than we realise. It sounds optimistic to say, given our daily and long term troubles, but it is possible to make everyday life better, to end unjust systems, and to be driven by redistribution as much as by reconciliation.
Traveling South Africa, from the Eastern to the Western Cape, the duration, force and severity of apartheid is memorialized across the landscape. In Johannesburg, the apartheid museum encloses everything from dozens of bold resistance posters to yellow and bullet-pocked police vans, feared by old and young alike, for their association with police impunity and state killing.
The images of massacres go back to the 17th century, to Dutch Boer land grabbing and enslavement of Africans indigenous to Southern Africa as well as those brought to the area along with others such as Malays and Indians. There were also merciless torch-earth strategies by the British to establish their own sovereignty over the Boers. The possibilities for European wealth sustained centuries of suffering.
Coming from the Caribbean, I thought I understood colonialism. Living in the Americas, I thought I understood how recent it was that racism, such as in the US, dictated state policy. South Africa presents something else entirely – a social experiment that extended across every aspect of life, from the prison where both Mandela and Gandhi were held to the buses domestic workers could use.
The bus driver’s mother, who lived in the infamous District 6 in Cape Town, lost her home along with 60 000 others across a range of ethnicities, when they were forcibly removed to make way for a ‘Whites Only’ policy for the area. Her home has not yet been returned today. That is only another layer on the dispossession of Black people that occurred, by imposition of Boer law, since 1913, when whole communities were moved, enslaved, forced to work to pay taxes, made homeless and jailed. Africans who were indigenous to this area, known as the Khoi, had to go work on the wine-producing farms, and were paid in wine. They have the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world today.
School children did not escape. It almost reads like a chapter in Aldous Huxley’ critical novel, ‘Brave New World’, which documents a world built on engineering inequality and subordination. The novel is absurd and clearly fantastical, but it is also disturbingly like the South African state then for whole groups were given different chances simply because of, sometimes random, labeling of their race.
Free schooling was for Whites. Black children had to pay. The quality of education at ‘Black Only’ universities could not compare to those reserved for Whites. Some children, like Hector Peterson, were killed in the 1976 peaceful protests against the imposition of Afrikaan as the language of schooling. Children were also jailed and disappeared. The cost to individual lives is hard to get one’s head around, and I walk around wondering how Black people manage to not still be angry. Turns out, they are, particularly around issues of land. Racism itself, as manifested in economic inequality, if nothing else, continues to heat a pot about to boil over. This is obvious from seeing shacks, slums and humble housing in townships in comparison to the palatial suburbs.
I saw one poet perform a piece called “I’ve Come to Take You Home’, her tribute to Sarah Baartman, stereotyped as the Hottentot Venus, who was considered to embody the link between apes and humans, and who was put on display for European audiences to gawk at her body. She then told us that her poem was translated and read in the French parliament as part of a campaign to bring Bartmann’s remains back to South Africa. They flew back with her remains, bringing her to be eventually buried in her homeland of the Eastern Cape.
What people survived here is a reminder of why all forms of structural inequality must be struggled against, and that change is always possible. It requires organization and commitment, and deep learning from the past to move ahead.