Our second day in Johannesburg began on a cool morning with a smooth bus ride under a blue sky and a glistening sun. We passed fields that, above and below ground, once produced nearly 1,500 tons of gold and left vast hillsides poisoned by cyanide and coated by yellow sand unable, decades later, to produce trees, bushes or any sign of green growth. We drive within range of the Gold Reef Casino and the Gold Reef theme park, with its towering thrill rides, then come to our destination: The Apartheid Museum.
Our tickets tell us whether we enter as whites or non-whites through entrances designated for each. Those of us who are designated non-white quickly encounter a stray pigeon that has gotten trapped inside the building. At a door that leads tourists outside, the pigeon is standing on an overhead ledge where he faces a clear glass window. He flaps his wings, tries to fly out, hits the glass, and falls down; he tries again and again and again. Finally, our tour guide Brian Gough Palmer recruits a tall tourist to gently scoop the pigeon backward off the ledge. The bird gets traction in the air, turns toward the open door and flies low through the door to freedom. His easy freedom was unlike anything we would witness inside the museum for the next 90 minutes.
The museum paid tributes to two giants of the anti-apartheid movement who died recently – Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Hugh Masakela. Unsurprisingly, the museum’s next focus is on Nelson Mandela. We proceeded along a labyrinthine course that, due partly to construction and detours and poor signage, was confusing, out of chronology and lost its clarity and impact. In fact, from start to finish, the museum was difficult to navigate.
But the strength of the museum is its presentation of the history of apartheid – the raw, racist, and thoroughly comprehensive and methodical exclusion of blacks from every opportunity to achieve, far short of equality, mere visibility. This was unlike anything we experienced in the U.S., even in the South; South Africa was a Mississippi Jim Crow mentality spread out over an entire nation, but by white supremacist leaders who were smarter, savvier and more devious that just about any of the leaders of the government of Mississippi, the white Citizens Council or the government’s spy agency, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. On a wall listing the South African government’s quiet, legislative carpet bomb attack on freedom, I counted 148 laws and proclamations the government enacted to remove blacks from the lives of whites throughout South Africa.
In the U.S., Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi only talked about sending blacks back to Africa; in South Africa, the government in the early 1960s stripped blacks of their right to own land, forcibly removed them from their homes in the cities, moved them to far-flung townships with non-existent or poor public transportation, and put them in small, cement-block government-built homes that had metal roofs and no electricity.
Here’s another important distinction between South African leaders of the apartheid period and, say, Bilbo or Ross Barnett in Mississippi or George Wallace in Alabama, or Gene Talmadge in Georgia. The South Africans – Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd in the 1960s, for example, or Paul Sauer, Minister of Land, and others who came before and after, were not hysterical podium pounders. In televised speeches and interviews the museum featured, they explained their brutal and intractable tactics, and the ideology behind them, with calm voices, solemnity and simple metaphors. But these were maniacal men whose words unleashed authorized thuggery that routinely killed blacks not in twos and threes but by the dozens.
When we emerged from the museum, the first sound we heard was disconcerting. Not some fugue music to prolong our somber mood, but the sounds of kids, free to terrorize themselves, screaming in fear and joy as they rode thrill rides at the nearby Gold Reef theme park.
The entire day was not devoted entirely to the past. We visited with Keval Harie, (pictured) director of GALA, Gay Lesbian Memory in Action. While serving an advocacy role for current concerns of the LGBTIQ+ community in South Africa and beyond, GALA also has also embarked on the ambitious and important project of gathering and preserving a history of LGBTIQ life on the Africa continent. GALA has been gathering private and institutional collections of papers related to LGBTIQ history and lived experiences from across the continent. The archive, which has letters, oral histories, photograph albums, news articles, personal possessions and organization records, drew 120 local and international researchers last year, Harie said, and has served 50 so far this year.
We headed next to Soweto, the townships southwest of Johannesburg where the South African government forced blacks to move beginning in the late 1940s. It’s quite remarkable to drive through these streets, to see so many decrepit houses, fetid streams, insufficient municipal services and then to run into two homes, probably not more than 400 yards from each other, that produced Nobel Peace Prize winners – Nelson Mandela, who became president of South Africa, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Soweto is changing as it witnesses new home construction, but that can hardly change the overall image of poverty that the newcomer sees.
Soweto holds on to its past as a stark reminder of the inhumanity that poisoned it for so long. A critical and defining moment in that past is found at the Hector Pieterson Museum, named after one of the 27 people shot dead on June 16, 1976, during what became known as the Soweto Uprising. Schoolchildren, opposed to a new requirement that they learn the Afrikaans language, began a series of protests that very quickly brought an overreaction from fully armed government forces in tanks.
Soon, gunfire felled Hector Pieterson, who was 12 years old. His lifeless body, showing blood from apparent gunshots to his face, was picked up by a neighbor who ran with him through the streets. Hector’s sister ran alongside, screaming hysterically. We know this because newspaper photographer, Sam Nzima, captured that awful moment in several frames. The riveting photograph, which circulated the world, instantly captured the excessive government effort to shut down the student protest. Nzima, by the way, spent many years trying to claim rights to the photograph. The government harassed him, his newspaper was shut down, and it took him until 1998 to succeed in claiming rights to the photograph. Nzima, it turns out, died only a week before we visited the museum. (Thank you, Danielle Douez, an Emory alum and Atlanta journalist on our trip, for informing us of this).
Our final site visit was to Regina Mundi Catholic Church, the largest Catholic Church in South Africa. There was a personal connection for us. The dominant work of art in the church is a massive painting, “The Madonna and Child of Soweto,” which portrays a black Mary holding a black Jesus; the painting was presented to the church in 1974. The artist was the late Laurence Scully, a South African whose daughter, Pamela Scully, is one of our trip leaders. Prof. Scully, who has been a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and of African studies at Emory University, is the university’s new vice provost for undergraduate education – and essential to all we have learned on this trip.
The day ended gloriously with dinner at the home of Ayesha Kajee, who has been a front-line human rights activist, writer, consultant and force of nature in South Africa. We were pleased to meet her friends Gillian Anstey, a former journalist with the South African Sunday Times, and Buff Bafokeng, an electronic engineer.
Our end-of-day reflection, led by Bobbye Hampton and Nick Pernas turned into a lively discussion. Nick noted that museums devoted to our violence against each other are helpful to understanding. But he wondered, wisely, how long the violence must continue.
P.S. One final, fitting note: Subsequent to our Day 2 experiences, I was reminded that Nelson Mandela, when asked what he missed the most during his 27 years in jail, said he missed the sound of children. So in retrospect, perhaps the sound of screaming children at the theme park across from the Apartheid Museum shouldn’t have been so disconcerting to me. Maybe I should have seen it as the soundtrack of a new South Africa.
Blog contribution by Hank Klibanoff, an Emory professor in Creative Writing; co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Race Beat; and creator and host of the narrative podcast, Buried Truths, which is based on research and stories developed by the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory.