To Be Free…

“You lost everything that looked like me, except your humanity”

When John Kani talks about what distinguishes whites from blacks, that is how he describes it.  That’s a powerful perspective, but even more powerful coming from a man who spent 51 of his 69 years as a black under apartheid rule.

To catch everyone up, I was in South Africa with AFAR magazine.  Launching in 2009 (who would have thought launching a magazine in ’09 was a good idea??), the mission of AFAR is to create a “brand that inspires and guides those who travel the world to connect with its people, experience their cultures, and understand their perspectives.”  The embodiment of that mission is what attracted me to AFAR magazine in the first place and what compelled me to join them in South Africa as part of AFARExperiences.  Having visited South Africa five years ago and fleeing Joburg immediately on arrival (based on the advice of others) I was intrigued by the opportunity to return and spend quality time in the city.

My adventure in Johannesburg began with a trip to the Apartheid Museum.  I expected a powerful experience, what I didn’t expect was that it would be housed in an amusement park.  Yes, the Apartheid Museum sits right inside the gates of Gold Reef City, in the shadow of a roller coaster.  While the locals see irony in the fact that the museum sits on a site where nothing actually happened, there is actually a logical explanation. When the developer wanted to build a casino there the government insisted on a cultural project being part of the development.  The Apartheid Museum was born.

True to their promise, AFAR did offer us a once in a lifetime experience.  The museum was closed to the public so we were able to explore the entire museum on our own.  And the tour ended with a talk by John Kani, a black South African playwright who won a Tony Award in the ‘70s for his performance in “The Island”, a play based on Robben Island.  John was born in 1943 in the Eastern Cape and spent most of his life living under, and fighting against Apartheid rule.

Listening to John Kani put the years since Apartheid in a whole new light for me.  I barely recalled that when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, as his release from prison was televised, no one knew which one he was.  No one had seen him in 27 years.  The only way people could identify him was by the woman by his side, the same woman who had been by his side all along, his wife Winnie.  How could a man so revered in his country, be so unrecognizable?  That’s how powerful the white government was.

After his release the attitude amongst non-whites was, now we are free, now is the time to seek revenge, kill the oppressors!  But Mandela said no, it’s not.  Mandela’s message was that now is the time to make South Africa the South Africa for all people black and white.

The problem was that those who had been fighting for their freedom all those years knew what freedom was, but they didn’t know about democracy.  That was something they would have to learn.  They came to accept that the only way to democracy was to accept that the problems of South Africa were everyone’s problems and as everyone’s problems they could only be solved together.  That acceptance led to an approach now known as truth and reconciliation and has been a model for conflict resolution all over the world.  Some say the Irish Peace Accord would never have been reached without it.

Kani believes South Africa is predestined for greatness and to achieve that greatness South Africans need to let go of the bad memories of the past and look to the future; “you can’t measure progress wearing the spectacles of the past”.  He looks at the 51 years he spent under apartheid rule as part of his “journey from the past to the present and a commitment to the future”.

Here in America we believe that we have mastered democracy.  After spending time in South Africa I would suggest that we might have a lot to learn from this young nation, only 18 years into their democracy.

Later that day we visited a place where things did happen, Liliesleaf Farm.  Liliesleaf, in the suburb of Rivonia was the headquarters of the ANC that was raided in 1963 leading to the Rivonia Trials and the sentencing of 10 ANC leaders to life in prison (including Nelson Mandela).  I’ll share that experience  in my next post.