Thursday and Friday of my week in Joburg/Pretoria were spent at museums. The first place we visited was Freedom Park in Pretoria. It was highly rated online but I wonder how many people actually visit, because it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere and you have to drive through some pretty dodgy areas to get there. Once we arrived we found a pretty incredible facility, which is saying something, as I’ve visited many museums and monuments. We did both the museum and the guided tour of the Garden of Remembrance, and since there really weren’t any visitors at the park that day so we got to take our time. The layout of the park and the symbolism behind its designs and monument was really beautiful. But the one aspect of the park that probably stood out the most was the Wall of Names. In the US we all know the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This wall was similar, listing the names of all those who fell over the course of South Africa’s participation in different wars as well as those who died during their long political struggle. Names are still being added daily. What was particularly interesting was how they listed the names, not just by a particular conflict, but by manner of death, by political or ethnic group, and by nation, for those who weren’t actually from SA but died helping in their struggle for freedom, as was the case for the long list of Cuban combatants. The guide was an essential component of our understanding of the symbolism and history involved.
The indoor part of the museum was also incredibly informative but also captivating. It didn’t require intensive reading and focus as the story was told through short stories, pictures, props, and short films. It was definitely a worthwhile experience, and probably one that isn’t as well known as the Apartheid Museum.
The Apartheid Museum was also incredible though, I must say. It was very dense in terms of the volume of material presented, and if you’re like me and have to read everything and look at every picture, caption, and video clip, it will definitely take you longer than the estimated 2 – 2.5 hours. I think we were in there for over 4 hours, and probably would’ve been there longer had Efrem not started getting tired and had part of the museum not been under renovation. I didn’t take any photos of the museum because it wasn’t permitted, although honestly, that would’ve just prolonged my stay, so I’m glad it wasn’t allowed. While it was thorough, it was difficult to digest everything, so I definitely feel the need to read a book, or several, about South African history .
Going to both museums definitely makes you think, especially as an African American. Learning the detailed history of SA, the effects of the slave trade and the laws of separation and inequality in their context, invited reflection about the complicated history of race and racism, the parallels with our history in the US, and how relevant the issue is in both countries and many more, despite how many people would like to label racism an obsolete factor. While this topic is certainly meritorious of a continued dialogue, there was one issue that bothered me throughout my visit that I’ll bring up here. During all the panels and video clips about countries that came to the aid of South African political exiles and the underground movement, about the millions of people that protested in distant countries, and about the process of divestment from SA, I wondered about the world’s view of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and lynching. Don’t let me be misunderstood, I recognize the vast differences between the situation in the US and the situation in SA: The majority group oppressing a minority in the US versus minority control in SA, not to mention that Apartheid policies and the forced removals were far more extreme and longer lasting than Jim Crow.
However, the similarities are still vast; the violence and terrorism experienced by black Americans was incredible and we continue to deal with the effects of such policies and attitudes as reflected in the prison industrial complex. It was probably the existence our Jim Crow laws that made the US take so long to get on board with the rest of the world to sanction SA. I recognize that some nations did come to the aid of our political exiles, and did help further the Civil Right Movement. I also recognize that the US probably had more internal opposition; that there were more fractures to the system than there were in SA. I guess my wonder comes from the seeming lack of outrage and public denouncement of Jim Crow as a human rights violation by the same international boards and governments that were outraged by and denounced Apartheid. I wondered where our Truth and Reconciliation was, since there was no real process of healing and the mounting anger and frustration diffused into indifference. But maybe human rights violations don’t mean as much in nations that are deemed an economic world power. Maybe that was the biggest difference of all–that because other economies had too much to lose for denouncing the US, that it was just better to stay quiet. But I could be looking at this wrong.
I do think the relative lack of recognition of the human rights violations experienced in the US really contributes to much of the rest of the world’s misconceptions about America. This is probably the topic for another post, but travelling abroad always brings this issue to the forefront of my consciousness. It presents an interesting discussion of what other people think is the reality of living in the US as opposed to what it actually is. The conversation usually involves much shock or disbelief that America isn’t the paradise of opportunity and social equality it’s often made out to be; a place where the only real problems are of a material nature. Poverty, hunger, joblessness, and homelessness, among other things, don’t prominently feature as realities of the US. Nor does racism, especially since the election of President Obama was portrayed as the mark of the end of that era. But I can understand the disconnect. Most of what the rest of the world sees are music videos where money is stacked and discarded freely, reality TV shows that portray us as spoiled, vain, and vapid, and reports of how weird we are with shows like strange addictions and hoarding. The CNN reports they get here are either fluff or just sound bites that lack any context. Add to that the selection bias of the type of Americans people of other countries interact with–mostly upper-middle class, mostly white, and almost entirely college educated, as travelling abroad is a privilege. Honestly, the same can be said about our understanding of the situations of other nations.
Again, I emphasize that I’m not comparing struggles: little to no sanitation, clean water, or electricity, makeshift housing, little access to medicines, and death from entirely preventable diseases at a young age does make the US and other developed nations sound like paradise. But even now as I read back that sentence, I think about the segments of our population those same problems apply to– by no means the majority of us, but certainly enough to be significant. And enough that I see how important it is for everyone to work harder to become more educated about the struggles and realities of other peoples– to recognize historical parallels, to acknowledge the hypocrisies, and to work in concert to end the continual violations of each other’s humanity. I guess that starts with those of us with the privilege of a comprehensive education taking this on as our responsibility. (<—I’m such an Obie!)