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Sawubona (I see you): Memory and Social Justice in South Africa

By Lisa Brock, Senior Editor

This piece is dedicated to my comrade and friend Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, who passed away earlier this week. As one of the Rivonia Eight, he spent 25 years in prison with Mandela. In 2009, he shared his Robben Island story with our group from Columbia College Chicago and in that same year shared a meal in my home in Chicago. I will never forget his commitment, his intelligence and his wit. He, and his cohort, had a way of spinning hardship and repression into funny stories. Go Well, Great One!

From left to right: Kathrada, Lisa Brock, and long term southern African Solidarity Activist, Prexy Nesbitt in Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island Cell; Kathrada talking to Lisa Brock in the infamous Robben Island Courtyard where they broke rocks; Kathrada walking down Cell Block B in Robben Island Prison where he spent 25 years with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki. He is the last of that group to leave us and that era. Photo credit: Nicole Salvo

For two weeks in December of 2016, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership sponsored a study trip to South Africa for faculty members and center directors from its own Kalamazoo College. The title of the trip was Memory and Social Justice Pedagogy in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

The purpose was to see how South Africans have been wrestling with the intense history of struggle with a special focus on the individual and collective trauma they experienced. We explored how this past has been represented in museums, archives, cultural and public history sites, and educational institutions. Our goal was to reckon with the relationship between social justice and memory in South Africa today and to be able to return to campus with concrete plans to integrate social justice pedagogy (both content and approach) into our own curriculum. This was indeed an experience of a lifetime replete with the joy and pain at what South Africans sacrificed and achieved. We were faced with contradictions and tensions as the apartheid past clashed in startling ways with the unfinished business of the present. As actor and playwright John Kani aptly put it: “what we wanted was freedom but what we got was democracy.” The photo montage below shows some of the highlights from our visit.

Bricks with words are embedded in the wall that surrounds Nelson Mandela’s family house in SOWETO, now a heritage site.

South Africa Poet Laureate Bra Willie

Early on, we had dinner with Bra Keoropatse “Willie” Kgositsile, who went home to South Africa after thirty years in exile. A revolutionary poet, Kgositsile named one of his children after Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. During our meal together, he waxed poignantly about his life in exile and on the orality of all poetry especially within the textual rhythm of southern African languages. He shared stories about finding home in the U.S. with black poets such as New York based Amiri Baraka and Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks. He shared how his poem “The Last Poets” became the name of the early rap group of the 1970s. He told us how pleased he was when Vusi Mahlasela, South Africa’s award winning tenor troubadour, put his poem “Red Song” to music.

A young man at the dinner, who had been active in the SOWETO uprising and had never left the country, brought up the issue of the uneasy relationship between the 80,000 who returned and those who stayed. In the context of limited jobs, money, and access, who “suffered” most has become an unresolvable question in South Africa.

Listen to Bra Willie’s poem, “Red Song,” put to music by Vusi Mahlasela.

We also visited the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. A statement by Mandela entitled, “The Call Now is for Each of Us to Ask Ourselves: Are We Doing All We Can to Build our Dreams? can be found in the official brochure of the Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory, which houses Mandela’s official archives.

“One had to be a bandit,” Verne Harris, Mandela’s personal archivist (2004 to 2013) and the Director of Research and Archive at the Nelson Mandela Center for Memory and Foundation, told us during a conversation about his views of archival science, memory and transparency. As former security officers and apartheid leaders burned and shredded documents during the transition, Verne desperately tried to beat the clock to salvage what he could as the former Deputy Director of South Africa’s National Archives. He would later serve as an “evidence collector” during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He views archival access as essential to democracy and is concerned about the current South African leadership which has begun to restrict access to key government documents. Because he was a white South African, he had been called upon for mandatory service for the South African military and was sent to Angola in the 1980s. This experience led him to say, “not me, never again,” and he joined the struggle. The day we visited, the situation with the current president was weighing heavy on him, and he bluntly stated that the TRC, while important to a national transition, failed to address the personal and intimate trauma that most South Africans continue to face.

Inside the Mandela archival vault

According to Harris, Mandela nurtured domestic space while in prison through letters to his family, whom he missed terribly. To be the “father of the nation” meant he could not be the father that he wanted to be or they needed. On the right is a draft of the second memoir that Mandela was trying to write about his presidential years. We learned that he had to use a certain kind of pen and ink and that he wrote many drafts of chapter one. He never finished this second memoir.

We visited the historic Market Theater in Johannesburg, founded in 1976, in the old Indian Fruit Market, which was founded in 1913. The theater became a beacon of cutting edge and anti-apartheid plays during a time of persistent government harassment and censorship. Leaving signage up both outside and inside honors the building’s history, including the South African-Indian community’s ties to that building.

Bonisile John Kani, Playwright, Actor & Director, Market Theater

John Kani is South Africa’s premier “man of the theater.” He is a Tony Award winner for his Broadway role in Master Harold and the Boys, and he co-wrote, directed and acted in some of South Africa’s best known plays. He graciously invited us into the Market Theater, a space that he knows intimately, from the tiny step-downs, wall cracks and back doors that actors had to run out of during government raids. With wit and humour, he shared personal stories of apartheid. One was of a play in which he had to kiss a white woman. Initially, he had been told by the censors that he could not kiss her. After he argued with them, which he did often, that it was key to the story of the play, they agreed that he could kiss her, but only for a few seconds and that it could not be too “amorous.” When asked how he felt about the hardship of censorship under apartheid, he jokingly said, “well, at least it forced some of the police to read plays.” He then told us the horrendous story of being stabbed twenty times by the secret police who had forced him and his wife off the road. Targeted for assassination, his killers left him for dead. His wife somehow managed to get him to a nearby hospital. But the hospital was for whites and could not take in black patients, according to the law. The police had gone back to the scene and realized that he had survived. They searched nearby hospitals “to finish the job.” Miraculously, the hospital administration, wanting no trouble, hid John in the Infectious Disease Unit, where he was undiscovered and received care.

Freedom Park, South Africa’s National Museum, is similar in vision and scope to that of the Smithsonian. Created by law in 1994, its aim was to help shape a new national consciousness for all South Africans. Embedded in a hill in the city of Pretoria, which is one of South Africa’s three national capitols, it is aesthetically African and incorporates three distinct themes:  Isivivane, a spiritual place, symbolic of those who died fighting for freedom and liberation in South Africa; Skhumbuto, a sweeping story of South African ecology and history that spans 3.5 billion years; and the Wall of Names, which is inscribed with the names of all of those who died fighting for South African humanity and freedom.

Freedom Park. The view from inside to the outside amphitheater.

Freedom Park’s Wall of Names is made of small bricks, which circle around and around along curved paths. Names of the individuals who lost their lives fighting against oppression are engraved in the bricks and organized by different theaters of struggle such as the SOWETO Uprising. Interestingly, there are walls for those who lost lives fighting in the two World Wars and also a wall for Afrikaners (white settlers of Dutch descent) who lost their lives fighting British imperialism in the Boer War (1899-1902). This is contested history and memory-making, given that Afrikaner leaders were the architects and defenders of apartheid, and the Boer War was essentially a war between white colonial rivals.

The Cuban people supported the long struggle against apartheid. In fact, Cuba, invited by Angola, helped fend off the South African invasions and covert operations in that country, when the apartheid state waged “total war” on the region. This is a section of the wall honoring the thousands of Cubans who lost their lives in Angola and is controversial for those who believe that only South Africans should be honored. Yet the South African leadership understands that without international solidarity of all types, apartheid would not have been defeated. Inside there are other tributes to the international movements in over 150 countries that supported South African liberation.

In stark contrast to Freedom Park, the Voortrekker monument sits atop an adjacent hilltop in Pretoria. Granite and grandiose, it is visible from almost everywhere in the area. Built between 1938 and 1949, it pays homage to the rise of white Afrikaners to power over various pre-colonial African nations. Our team was astonished as the senior docent gave us a long guided tour on the rise of the benign white nation, as if racist imperialism has legitimacy. Given that in the U.S., white nationalism is making a serious return, we could not help but worry whether a comeback could happen in South Africa. Since whites in South Africa are 13-15% of the population and this is in Africa, this seems highly unlikely. Nonetheless, when we left the museum, the docent asked me where we were going next, and I said that we were going to Freedom Park. She said, “You know, apartheid was not a bad system.”

Constitution Hill is a complex that sits on the site of the infamous Johannesburg prison and military fort, where Mandela and many others who resisted were held. Today it is the home to the country’s Constitutional Court where the Superior Court meets to hear constitutional questions (much like our Supreme Court). Many of the walls and structures that made up the prison complex remain and are integrated into the new site.

Signage for the Constitutional Court is spelled out in South Africa’s eleven national languages. This was astonishing to some of our team. Yet, most South Africans speak at least three of these languages and seem to move easily between them. The only critique that I heard about national languages was that they neglected to add Khoi as a twelfth language. The Khoi are the original people of Cape Town, who suffered the genocidal practices of the early Dutch settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Many people today who were/are defined as “colored” are reclaiming their Khoi heritage.

Inside the foyer of the Constitutional Court, where art and architecture are in conversation with South African culture, its history of resistance, and justice.

This is the inside of the Constitutional Court, where the Superior Court justices hear cases and constitutional questions are decided upon. Along the back wall is a horizontal row of windows, which expose the deliberations to the public. On the left corner of that wall is an embroidered South African flag made by a group of six KwaZulu-Natal women, led by Leonie Malherbe, and completed in March 2006. The South African flag is a fusion of the black, green, and gold of the African National Congress which led the liberation struggle against apartheid and the red, white, and blue flag of white apartheid South Africa. When it was unveiled, it was intended to be a temporary flag representing the transitional Government of National Unity from 1994 to 1997. Today it remains the national flag, and in the minds of many South Africans, it represents an unfinished process and yet to be realized freedom.

In one of the buildings on Constitution Hill, this left wall sculpture represents the number of years that Govan Mbeki, a scholar and professor who was among the seven men tried with Mandela, spent in jail. He spent 8,548 days in jail.

Zandile Ngubeni and Sarah Mokwebo #FeesMustFall

We met these two young women on Constitution Hill. They shared their powerful stories of struggle for education for all in South Africa. Sarah Mokwebo is a current university student who has been a leader in the #FeesMustFall campaign which began in October 2015 as the government prepared to raise college costs. They are arguing for free education. The protests have captured the imagination of the entire nation, and on many campuses, the protests have led to shut downs, attacks on university property, and police tear gas and arrest. Zandile Ngubeni a recent student who now works for the national organization Equal Education, who is working with rural communities to get what the laws call for which are schools with four walls and a roof. While they understand the struggles of their elders, it is their job and their time to breathe life into South Africa’s promises, even if it means showing their elders that the struggle they began is far from over.

I visited SOWETO in 1998, when there were neighborhood women watching over a makeshift museum dedicated to the 1976 SOWETO Uprising. Now there is a firm museum, using the inside and outside to tell the story of South Africa’s largest youth and student uprising. Hector Pieterson, a SOWETO teenager became memorialized in this photo by the photographer Sam Nzima as the “first” of thousands of youth that were killed throughout the country that year. This site was a key site in the mobilization that took place on June 16, 1976.

Because the Hector Pieterson Museum is on a site of the uprising, the curators of the museum deftly use the windows and visibility to tell the story.

When one purchases a ticket to enter the National Apartheid Museum, one is given a ticket which indicates which door you are “allowed to enter.” This is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa that was based on segregation and racial justice. The inset of nooses is one of the hundreds of exhibitions in the museum. The museum was overwhelming for our team. We had to meet and debrief after the day which included this museum.

The District Six Museum is in Cape Town.

District Six was a several-hundred-year-old community that represented the historic “colored” community of South Africa. This community evolved from the indigenous Khoi and San people who thrived in the region before the Dutch East India Company sent settlers there in 1652 and included those the company kidnapped from Indonesia, South Asia and East Africa to be enslaved laborers on Dutch farms. This community continued to be a welcome place for Muslims, Hindus, Christians and others, including those whose mixed-race families might have needed a home. After 1948, the apartheid government took its policy of forced removal to Cape Town and demolished the tightly knit neighborhoods block by block because the area had been designated as white. This museum is about the history of that community.

The District Six Museum in Cape Town was probably our team’s favorite institution involved in memory work. Rather than creating a new master narrative, the curators of this museum are interested in making sure multiple and often times contested chronicles of the past and present are visible. The long banner you see hanging from the ceiling is a space for ongoing dialogue, where people write their opinions of the museum and the world. There are clearly debates and discussions about issues as far-ranging as the U.S. election and the Palestinian-Israeli impasse on this long scroll.

This totem of street signs has an important story. One contractor who had been hired by the apartheid regime to bulldoze houses and other buildings was told to destroy the signs. He decided to keep the signs and when the museum opened, he donated them.

Robben Island is about five miles from mainland Cape Town, and this is the entrance to the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela and thousands of other political prisoners were held for decades. If one looks at the signage, the name of the prison is written in Afrikaans, but the other words — “we serve with pride” and “welcome” are in both English and Afrikaans, serving as an eerie reminder that repression and terror can be intentionally masked. Robben Island is now a heritage site.

Inside Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island cell. These were the only furnishings during his years at Robben Island Prison. The red bucket was his toilet and a mat was his bed.

Lionel Davis, Political Prisoner. 1964-71

Lionel Davis met us in Cape Town and rode the ferry with us to give us our own special tour. He shared with us his own story of how inmates in Robben Island triumphed over suffering. He told us that they built a “university” where those who could read taught those who could not, those who knew math taught those who did not and so on. He realized that he was an artist while in prison. When released in 1971, his home in District Six had been razed and his mother had been moved into the dusty resettlement area known as the Cape Flats. He was released but placed under house arrest for years and slept in his mother’s teeny kitchen. He said he missed the camaraderie he had developed with other political prisoners. “Isolation,” he said, “is a killer of spirits.”

After taking us to where he and Mandela and others were kept, he brought us outside to see the new mural dedicated to the final group of political prisoners released from the prison in the early 1990s.

See a list of political prisoners on Robben Island.

Justice Albie Sachs became an activist as a teenager in the 1950s and went on to study law and spend time in apartheid jails before going into exile in England and then Mozambique. In England, he earned his Ph.D. in English and taught at the Eduardo Mondlane Law School in Mozambique. In 1988, he was the victim of a South African apartheid regime assassination attempt when a bomb was put in his car. Although he lost his right arm and eye in that attack, he survived to join the National Executive ANC transition team and Constitutional Committee, which drafted the new Constitution. In 1994, after the first democratic election, he was appointed as a Superior Court justice and led the team that designed Constitutional Hill. Justice Sachs, his wife, and their son greeted us in their Cape Town home for a wonderful discussion about the tense transition period in which he was deeply engaged. Out of nowhere, he offered to give us each a copy of his latest book, hot off the press, We the People: Insights of An Activist Judge (November 2016), and he signed each one for us.

We ended our journey in Durban and spent our last night in the mountains and hills of Zululand. Jerry Poi, an actor and theater director, founded this place in his home area so that youth and other creative souls could find a place to develop their desires, talents and skills. This is one of the buildings that houses an art gallery in the top floor and a theater in the bottom floor. Right in the middle, there is a round outside theater space. The steps have affirming words on each step riser that were developed by local youth, and there is wonderful mural along the bottom wall.

After a play on the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission and other cultural performances that night, the Wushwini family brought in a DJ who lit up the night. As one from our group said, “nobody was sleeping on that mountain that night.” We ended our journey in true South African fashion with a dance party where we danced to Kwaito music until the wee hours of the morning.


All photos were taken by Kalamazoo College staff unless otherwise indicated. 

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