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Apartheid amnesia

14 July 2009

Others have written about the fading memory of the apartheid era, and one of the better recent pieces was by Pumla Gqola in The Weekender of June 27-28, 2009. If you missed it you can catch it on her blog Apartheid still lives on in SA — Loudrastress:

AN UNDERGRADUATE student of mine recently spoke of racism, and apartheid specifically, as something that happened “in our grandparents’ time”. How I wish that is true.

I remain ambivalent about the meanings of such ignorance. On the one hand, I am amazed that an 18-year-old can make such a weighty slip. For her, apartheid can never be a burdensome reference point, and an ever-present reality that shapes what is possible and what not — like it was for me, and many South Africans of the same age.

On the other hand, this relegation of apartheid to a mythical distant past is enabled by the forced amnesia at the heart of new South African nationalism.

Yes, I meet many young people who hardly remember apartheid, and some of them aren’t interested. And i suppose for people of my generation who grew up with it, it makes us feel like old fossils.

And one even finds people who did live through the apartheid period saying that we should forget the past and look forward and move on. The problem is that some of the burden of that past is like a heavy weight we are dragging behind us, that makes it difficult for us to make progress and move on. Some of those who want us to forget complain that too many people, especially in government, use apartheid as an excuse for failure to solve problems, and say that fifteen years after the end of apartheid they have plenty of time to put them right, so they should no longer use apartheid as an excuse for their own incompetence, because there is no longer any apartheid.

In some ways that is true. The laws that enforced apartheid have been removed. You no longer attract the attention of the Security Police if you talk to people of a different pigmentation. Little black children and little white children play together unselfconsciously, in a way they would never have done 30 years ago. We live in a free society, and South Africa is no longer a police state, as it was under B.J. Vorster, nor are we ruled by a military junta, as we were under P.W. Botha. These things have changed, and we can be grateful that they have.

In the transformation of South Africa from the racist oligarchy that it was under apartheid into a free and non-racial democratic society, there are some things that can be changed quickly, like the things I have mentioned. In many cases those were simply a matter of repealing apartheid laws, and amending other laws.

Other things cannot be changed so quickly, and in many ways the legacy of apartheid is still with us.

Apartheid changed the landscape of the country. In the name of segregating the races, something like 3-4 million people were ethnically cleansed. Apartheid was social engineering on a massive scale, and to remove its legacy would requite more social engineering on an equally massive scale. It is like nursery rhymes:

O the grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.

Apartheid left them up at the top of the hill. Who will march them down again?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Or, to use another metaphor, it is easier to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube than to undo the damage done by apartheid. The end of apartheid means that we have stopped squeezing it out, but putting it back is a different matter.

In the west of Pretoria is Lady Selborne. During the apartheid era thousands of people were forcibly removed from there and made to go and live in Ga-Rankuwa and Mabopane (if they spoke Tswana) and Soshanguve (if they didn’t). Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, Lady Selborne is still desolate.

To the north-east of Pretoria is KwaNdebele. Thousands of people went to live there in the 1980s: Tweefontein, 80 km from Pretoria, Kwaggafontein 90 km from Pretoria, Siyabuswa 120 km from Pretoria, and many of those people still commute over those distances by bus and taxi. Once, in 1984, I travelled back to Pretoria from Siyabuswa to Pretoria by car, and counted 220 Putco buses ferrying people home from work. Some of the people left home at 3:00 am, and got home at 9:00 pm, and they never saw their children from one day to the next because the children were in bed when they left in the morning, and in bed when they got home at night. And, fifteen years after the end of apartheid, they are still doing it. And, what is worse, ten years after the end of apartheid, one could see rows and rows of toilets in the veld at Dennilton, east of Kwaggafontein, waiting for new houses to be built in the left-over apartheid paradise. There are so many homeless people as it is that the government would be crazy to try to do reverse social engineering to bring those people back to live closer to their work, but that there are new rows of toilets in the veld cannot be blamed on apartheid.

It took forty years for apartheid to change the landscape, and it was a huge waste of time, money and resources to do it. But we can’t simply return things to the way they were before — for one thing, there are many more people, so it would cost very much more than it did to do the damage in the first place. So the scars of the old wounds will take a long time to heal, and they will be with us for a long time to come.

This calls for discernment. We need to be able to discern how apartheid still affects us, and how it doesn’t. If we close our eyes and pretend that it was all in the past, we will be deluding ourselves. But if we blame all problems in the present on the legacy of apartheid and use that as an excuse for not doing anything about them, it becomes an easy cop-out.

Read Pumla Gqola’s article — it describes some other ways in which the legacy of apartheid is still with us.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 July 2009 7:56 pm


    You are not a fossil … we need you to help us remember so that we don’t make the same mistakes … Thanks for this post.

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