It comes as part of being a South African, particularly a white one, that when travelling abroad and meeting people who are remotely educated about world history, that the fat elephant of my country’s racist past comes stomping into the room and taking residence. I never really understood what the fuss was about, and visitng the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg yesterday was an fascinating re-education on exactly from where (and how far) my country has come.
In 1994, South Africa saw its transition from a minority-ruled white government to a truly democratic state with a universal franchise, possibly the most liberal constitution on earth and a bill of rights to put even the most socialist states to shame (we even go so far as to have a right to housing and education). I was 13 at the time. It is testament to how unaware I was of the world I lived in, that I could have been so utterly clueless of exactly how close South Africa in fact came to a civil war. The Apartheid Museum does an amazing job of narrating the whole history of the system, from how it came to be, right up to its eventual downfall and the amazing courage of the people – both black and white – who were able to trust each other and hold together a peace agreement unlike anything that had ever been tried before in the world. Effectively taking a chance on rewriting an entire country in an election, on faith that there would be no reprisals, no revenge, no tit-for tat descent into what could so easily have become a brutal and hate-filled conflict.
Two things struck me coming from the museum. The first was this incredible sense of amazement at exactly how momentous the achievement of a non-racial South Africa in fact was. To have had 20% of a country oppressing the rest, frequently violently, for the better part of a century, and then to transition directly to a non-racial, equal state without racial reprisals truly was a miracle. Watching how the negotiations for the new constitution unfolded, and the visions of racists, both black and white, for an unequal South Africa become defeated by those who believed in something wholly unlike a country anyone had ever known, I was inspired by the power of people who believe in something fundamentally good to occasionally win the big battles – the ones that really matter. I am glad that I was alive now, to see this transition happen, and be here while we try to work out a common destiny.
But in the middle of the sadness about where we are, is the memory of what we were in our very recent history.
Which brought me to the second realisation – the sharp contrast between the mood of the country then and now. For a country born on the back of the purest principles of human rights, freedom and inequality, we are a country becoming increasingly hypocritical on the world stage, while so many of the leaders from that period and subsequently have shown darker, greedier sides, or stand so small against the intellectual and principled examples of the likes of Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and others who brought about a nonracial government. That sense of pride that the country had in April 1994 – that we were doing something and being a part of something that nobody else had ever come close to achieving has been replaced by an increasing sense of being betrayed by current leaders for whom the high principles on which the country was founded have taken a back seat to more immediate personal interests. There is frustration on the part of those who still have no jobs or houses and live in grinding poverty. There is frustration at an arrogant party that can no longer see beyond themselves. And there is a forgetfulness of exactly how much we have done and how much we are yet capable of doing if we can look past ourselves to something bigger.
It is bittersweet to contrast the heroes who fought and died for something so important as a truly nonracial society with the petty politicians who are now succeeding them. It is saddening to see us forget so soon about how momentous the very existence of a country like this is. But in the middle of the sadness about where we are, is the memory of what we were in our very recent history. And in that is a reminder that if you care, if you really care, and will speak out and act for something you believe in – those high principles remain as ready to be pursued as they have ever been.