It was very fitting that our summer in South Africa began in Johannesburg—a city rich with history. Exploring sites such as the Apartheid Museum and the Liliesleaf farm not only provided context for the social climate of this country, but also showed me that the present is shaped by the manner in which the stories of the past are told. Immediately, I noticed a stark contrast in the portrayals of the equality struggles in South Africa and the United States.
My siblings and I comprise the first generation of black Americans in my family (this is a topic for an entirely different post). Growing up in Atlanta, my mother made it a priority to expose us to the history in our city. During breaks, she would take us to visit the iconic exhibits of the American Civil Rights struggle such as the Martin Luther King Jr. museum, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and various exhibits on Auburn Avenue. These experiences, coupled with the short break from white man’s history that every American grade school student receives each February, gave me a very basic and somewhat flawed understanding of how blacks in America got to where they are. I understood that blacks struggled more or less alone, with the occasional white supporter who stood on the sidelines. The two non-black figures I associated with the Civil Rights struggle were not even involved in it. Gandhi provided Dr. King with an example of civil disobedience, and due to political pressure, John F. Kennedy first gave attention to the movement six months prior to his assassination. The American Civil Rights struggle is often portrayed and perceived very simplistically—a black struggle against whites.
Nowhere in Johannesburg did I see this simplistic narrative. Segregation was in place before the Afrikaner Nationalist Party enacted apartheid legislation, and while most whites were complacent, some whites were very disgruntled and knew exactly what was occurring. This minority of whites, coloureds, and Asians, was vital in the success of the anti-apartheid movement, and the majority black South African society acknowledges and greatly appreciates their involvement as both leaders and participants in the movement.
The Liliesleaf museum sits on a farm where blacks, whites, and coloureds met in secret to discuss the armed division of the African National Congress as a means of combatting apartheid in the early 1960s. The conspirators were found and arrested in July 1963, and later brought to the landmark Rivonia trial where they were sentenced for life. The image below shows the accused:
Also at the Liliesleaf museum are tributes to George Bizos, who is of Greek origin, and the late Bram Fischer, an Afrikaner. These men were the defense lawyers for the accused at the Rivonia trial.
“Bram was a courageous man who followed the most difficult course any person could choose to follow. He challenged his own people because he felt that what they were doing was morally wrong. As an Afrikaner whose conscience forced him to reject his own heritage and be ostracised by his own people, he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself. I fought only against injustice not against my own people.”
Instead of burying their stories, the South African anti-apartheid struggle highlights individuals who gave up just about everything they knew to fight against pressing injustice. To me, that is noble. Furthermore, in no way does this undermine the everyday struggle of the black South African under apartheid!
As these thoughts fascinated me, I took the liberty to ask our American history scholar/great mentor/oracle-on-site, Bill Chafe (Google him, he’s incredible), why does our struggle look so different? Why does nobody know about the contributions of individuals like Ralph McGill, or William Lewis Moore?
Very simply put, blacks in the Civil Rights movement were angered that in spite of all the violence perpetrated against them, it took the death of a white minister named James Reeb to draw national attention to the voting rights struggle. “The killing of a white minister who had traveled to the South to advocate for equality was unpalatable to a large portion of the white citizenry.” It was after this event that Lyndon B. Johnson gained the political support to advocate for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and it was subsequently passed in 1965. This is largely the reason why our Civil Rights history looks the way it does. American society couldn’t find a way to highlight the contributions of others without undermining the efforts of blacks, so we ignore the white martyrs for equality. (Similarly today, the death of whites due to gun violence is still more salient in the media than so called black-on-black violence, and of course, white on black violence has racial undertones, so the media can capitalize on that too).
Now, it is true that racism still exists in South Africa just like it still exists in America. My boss, Simon, refers to this new age racism as “liberal racism,” in which an individual doesn’t actively acknowledge his prejudice but still has racially motivated tendencies/holds stereotypical beliefs that influence his world view, and I think we’re all guilty of this to a certain extent. However, I will provide an example that I find to be absolutely despicable.
Last week, I was privileged to meet Denis Goldberg, one of the eight accused at the Rivonia trial. He invited us to his home, and spoke to us at length about his experiences fighting against apartheid. As a white man, he had to gain the trust of others in the movement, which took time. He told us that despite strong African nationalism from some, early on, blacks recognized that “you couldn’t reconcile Africa for the Africans alone with equality,” allowing him to feel that he had a place in this movement. He was crucial in organizing meetings in select locations in which people of different races could come together, and worked closely with Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu on strategy for ANC objectives. He spent 22 years in prison on Robben Island with the hope that South Africa would one day be equal for all. This man is nothing short of a historical icon.
He was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Michigan, State University, but the department later called him to cancel when they discovered he was white.
In America, yes, we have a society in which people clutch their purses when they walk by a black man on the street. Yes, there is still a lot of white privilege. These are issues, but at least we talk about these issues.
The blatant ignorance that caused Michigan State to reject an experience that would have changed students’ lives is a result of our present racial problems due to how we have characterized our past. We have a society in which many blacks are taught early on not to trust white people simply because they are white, and capable of exploiting them. We have a society in which white people are still apologizing for mistakes made by their forefathers—and it’s never good enough. We have a society in which many white people are out of touch with their own family cultures, and are so uncomfortable talking about issues of race that they have to preface all their questions with “not to be racist, but…” You wouldn’t like to know how many times kids have asked me if it’s ok to call me black! I’m black! That’s a fact! These are real problems and nobody talks about them!
One of the most powerful quotes I’ve heard about Mandela that truly showed me what a visionary he was came from a video in an exhibit at the Apartheid Museum.
“[For him] the struggle was not just about liberating black people into freedom, but about liberating white people from fear.”
Mandela evidenced this by coming onto the field at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in which the all-white South African team was playing for a majority white crowd. This was a powerful symbol that allowed many whites to realize this newly unified democracy could succeed.
In my lifetime, I have met white people who were SO SCARED to cross the line and offend me. When this happens they create this distance, and only ask questions up to a certain level of depth. I can always tell when this is occurring. This offends me. Why? Because this discomfort due to my “difference” makes me think that you don’t validate me as an equal. If you felt like I was your equal, or your friend, you would approach me with your questions, even if they may be hard or potentially offensive.
One of my best friends at Duke is a rather conservative, young Southern gentleman from Memphis. We have different perspectives on racial issues, but we talk about them genuinely and respectfully. I love it when he asks me difficult questions, and I appreciate that he doesn’t try to tiptoe around them. We share fascinating dialogue and we learn from each other. My interactions with him give me hope for a future America, in which we can come to grips with our real past, and speak more openly about social problems with people who come from different viewpoints.
While South Africa is only twenty years post-apartheid, in terms of race relations, they are not very far behind us. Saying ‘apartheid’ in a restaurant will draw stares, but this society seems to be much better at embracing its past; “white guilt” doesn’t seem to contaminate interracial interactions. We can learn a lot from the South African example.