Barbara's Random Thoughts

Monday, July 03, 2006


Before church this morning, I was talking with a friend about my time in South Africa. She asked me if the racial tension there is still fairly visible. That would be a yes. The effects of apartheid definitely still linger, though the desire for reconciliation and the hope of moving forward is just as evident. She got me thinking again about these issues that I'm still processing--and this post that's still unfinished. And dangit, I'm going to post this tonight, scattered or no.

During my last week in South Africa, we spent a morning at the Apartheid Museum in Jo'burg, then the following afternoon in Soweto and Kliptown. The whole day was overwhelming, but I found the museum especially so. It's organized fairly chronologically, covering some background on the history of the country leading up to apartheid, documenting the years of struggle under the system, and its eventual abolishment in 1991. There was so much intense, difficult information to take in that I didn't make it through everything before it was time to leave. Because time was short, I stuck to reading the short descriptions in each section and moving on. But even if we'd spent the whole day there, and I had fulfilled my usual museum-practice of taking in absolutely everything, I don't think I could have absorbed all that was presented. It was just too much.

I'm the kind of person who wants to know everything, to feel like I have an at least adequate understanding from which to speak before I start to express an opinion. I don't like to talk about things I don't know about. And so when we were asked at lunch what we thought of the museum, I found it difficult to answer. Did I like the museum? Saying I liked the Apartheid Museum is kind of like saying I enjoyed Lord of the Flies. These are not things one enjoys. There was so much there: so much history, so much struggle, so many effects that continue to be felt in the life of the country. And who am I to know what these things mean or to talk about them? I want to understand more; but I know that will take time, and not just more time in a museum.

One thing that blew me away as I watched footage of the protests against apartheid policies in the '80s was how recent these events are. This is history that has taken place during my lifetime. And it's history I know so little about. Admittedly, I was all of 13 when apartheid was officially abolished. I can't quite be faulted for not being up on my international politics at that point in time. But still. These are years I remember, this is history that's tangible. The recent nature of these struggles is difficult for me to take in, I think partly because I can't imagine the policies of apartheid being conceivable during my lifetime. The idea that anyone could continue enforcing these kinds of attitudes in the world I've lived in is mind-boggling. But when I think about it--that we could treat each other this way at any time should be unthinkable.

After our time at the museum, we headed to Soweto for lunch at a local restaurant. (Here, we'd probably call it a hole-in-the-wall place, but things fall into different categories when you're in a township.) One of the black women who was hosting us around Soweto that day spoke to us at lunch--about Soweto, about the struggles people there have faced in the past and the issues they continue to face. She talked a little about the Apartheid Museum; how Americans visit it and talk about how they enjoyed it--and how that mystifies her. Like I said, the museum isn't the kind of thing you "enjoy."

She went on to make some rather pointed comments about the way white South Africans seem to deny a lot of the racial issues that still need to be dealt with. I grew increasingly more conscious of the two white South Africans in our group, and wondered about their thoughts on what she had to say. Her comments did make me feel a bit uncomfortable, and a lot ignorant. She was talking about issues that she faces every day, and these things are something I'm only now considering. But this is a good discomfort, I think. It grows in me a desire to understand, to know more, to hear from both sides. A process that I will definitely continue.

Postlude: Some reflections from Roger, who tagged along with our group for the day. (Discovered on an idle afternoon through a friend's MySpace and the wonders of webstalking...)
Part One
Part Two


| posted by Barbara | 8:36 AM