Warning, this is long, and disjointed, and semi-preachy, and potentially without a point, but perhaps still worth thinking about
(Sorry, thought I posted this long ago, never clicked publish. Will update soon on Zambian exploits and get some photos uploaded, I promise. Internet's slow in these parts, be patient. Also on a side note, as you've undoubtedly read being the loyal blog followers you are, my dear friend and one time travel companion has returned to the states. I've till got another month or two in Africa before I too will be forced to throw in my hat and return to those pesky responsibilities of normal life, like earning a living. I'll do my bet to keep up my end of the bargain over here in blog land but I can't make up for the burning vacancy we all feel in our hearts at the loss of Lauren's contributions, so just bare with me.)
I left South Africa with a mixture of incredible relief and incredible loss. As I said before, the country as a whole is ridiculously beautiful, but more than that, it's unbelievably complex and interesting. It's pulsating, it's dynamic, it's growing, and yes, it's dangerous. The job as it turns out, wasn't for me, and on May 23rd I hopped on a plane to paradise on the coast of Mozambique and left Johannesburg's cauldron of crime, its opulent suburbs, its vibrant sprawl of tin shack townships, its intoxicating sense of a city where anything can happen, behind. Before officially waving goodbye to South Africa though I had a one night return to the country to catch my flight to Zambia. I took advantage of the extra time and rented a car and headed west across the city in search of the Apartheid Museum.
After hours lost on the massive highways intersecting across the city, passing endless miles of townships without a single off ramp (one of the many legacies of the apartheid gov't is their carefully, maliciously calculated infrastructure designed to restrict movement by the black majority. The result is that many townships still lack access to the major arteries that would allow them to travel to other parts of the city), I finally arrived at my destination. Upon arrival I was surprised to see that the museum's parking lot was completely empty, but I was immediately happy I had come. The building is a beautiful modern design with interesting use of lines and water, once inside inside the design and presentation never failed to impress.
When I entered the museum I felt prepared for what was to come. I had read Mandela's book, I had had countless conversations with South Africans of different races and political opinions, I had mulled the facts over with fellow travelers, I felt that I was in a good position to process and handle the history that the museum would present. I wasn't. To say it was appalling would be a grave understatement. To watch the interviews with apartheid government officials as they lamented the hardships of having to "care" for black africans, claiming that without the white minority there, the people would run themselves into the ground. They waxed on and on about about how useless it is to give them education which they'll never use, "Why teach them math if God didn't intend that they should ever use it? Once they understand that their lot in life is one of servitude, once we teach them to value hard work and understand their place, they'll be much happier" they claimed.
Of course, what was worse than the mindset of the white minority was the way that it was acted upon. The savage abuse, the absence of rule of law, the complete lack of humanity that existed in that regime, it makes one question the entire idea of a common understanding of right and wrong. I saw video footage of police men with whips beating men, women and children during protests, beating them with so much hatred, so much unbridled animosity, it was terrifying. When I walked into the cells that were used to put political prisoners in solitary confinement - windowless cells just big enough for someone my height (5'5") to lie down on the floor, but not to spread my arms out - I got chills. That humans put other humans who had committed no crime other than believe that they are equal to those of other skin tones in such conditions is unfathomable. That this happened so recently and the world let it, that my own government refused to impose even economic sanctions until the 11th hour, is just too awful.
I left the museum feeling like I had been punched in the stomach. Of course there are modern and historic atrocities on far larger and more destructive scale, but the length of time this went on, the systematic approach, the maliciousness of the planning, and I guess the familiarity of South Africa's social culture to my own, somehow made this part of our living history harder to swallow.
On my way back from the museum I drove for hours, lost in Johannesburg trying to find a place to stay. At one point, I took a wrong turn off and found myself scared out of my mind at a stop light, at night, in one of the worst parts of the city. I kept thinking of a description I had heard that compared driving into downtown Joberg to "crawling into the belly of the beast." There's no better way to describe it. As I compulsively checked and rechecked my doors were locked, gripped my pepper spray, and prayed frantically under my breath for the light to change, I was looking around me thinking about the people that have to live there in that environment, mostly immigrants from nearby countries, people who are fleeing their own country's terrors, thinking about how unfair it is. Thinking about the fact that I could guarantee that in a 5 mile radius I was sure to be the only white person stuck in such a dangerous situation, thinking about all the other white people, sitting cosily behind their electric wire fences and guarded security gates, sitting in large homes with beautiful shade trees on quiet streets, thinking about how completely unjust it all is. I was angry I was there, angry I was scared, angry that the people who in many ways deserve to feel fear, rarely have to face it.
I guess what keeps nagging at me about the South African situation is that somehow I had always believed that everyone has something inside them that tells them the difference between just and unjust, that what is "fair" is in a way intrinsic to us as humans. Even monkeys know when equal treatment is not being given and will routinely refuse food if it is not as good as the treats his neighbor is given. How is it possible that in our modern world, an entire population of people, a whole race if that's what Afrikaners can be called, came to be without an internal moral compass (granted there were surely those who did have objections, and of course if you ask now, there's not a single white person in South Africa who admits to voting for the apartheid government for its 48 years of power, but still). I just keep wondering how is it possible that anyone could drive from their mansion with lush surroundings and beautiful views past the disease filled poverty stricken masses in cardboard and tin shacks and think "this is right," how could anyone dare claim that there is a God that could approve of this? An Afrikaner woman I met told me with a smile on her face that during the apartheid era her grandfather used to always say that "Only the angels in heaven live better than the Boers of South Africa." She looked happy, remembering a lost era of grandeur. All I could think was "how could you?"
Since then I've been thinking more about this question. I recalled a British woman I met in S.Af who was married to an Afrikaner man. Starved for conversation with another foreigner she quickly released her frustrations about living in what she felt was an incredibly misogynistic and racist environment. She then asked a question that surprised me "Is America really as racist as it is here, is it as racist as we see on t.v.?" I was taken aback. I had been horrified by the continued segregation in South Africa, by the poor living conditions of the black majority, by the racist attitudes that the white minority - who in my opinion owe their lives in large part to the black majority who gave them undeserved peace and forgiveness following the transition. I had never imagined that my own country could ever be compared on the same level. My immediate reaction was "No! No, not at all. We're not like this. We're not racists. We're the land of equality, of justice. Even though there are racist people in America, society doesn't accept it as they do here..." The more I explained though, the less convinced I became. Am I treading along a well worn path of white liberal delusion?Am I kidding myself about the realities of my own country because none of my friends would ever judge someone on something as arbitrary as the color of their skin? I thought about who my friends are, how representative that is. I work with refugees, my best friends also work with refugees, or in inner city schools, or with people with disabilities. My family's not racist but then again we grew up in Vermont - there are no black people. It's not even a topic of conversation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how out of touch my world in America is from the reality.
Sure, people of color are not living in shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. And yes, our obsession with political correctness ensures that people do not express opinions of racist nature, at least not in public. And yes we've taken strides, we're making headway in our country in terms of race relations and representative government. But on the ground can we really claim to have a nation built on equality when the people building the nation, the people laying the cement, cleaning the floors, picking up the trash, providing domestic labor, washing the dishes, working in the factories, are all people of color? I live in a country where between 65% and 85% of the prison population consists of people of color, where in supposedly "liberal" states like California, a young black male is statistically more likely to go to prison than to a state college, where 24.7% of black families live in poverty (as compared to a mere 8.7% of non-hispanic whites). Knowing this, I am forced to stop asking myself "how could they?" and start asking "how could we?"
Now, I'm not entirely naive. It's not as though I've never thought about this before or that it's just now occurring to me that race relations in America are far from equal. I work with newly arrived refugees, I see this inequity day in and day out in my country, I've had countless conversations with friends and colleagues and fellow travelers about the ills of America, but seeing it through the foil of the South African context somehow showed it in a different light. I think for the first time it made me truly angry - not angry about a single injustice, a single racist joke, or single ill treatment of someone I care about, but angry about the entire thing. Angry I'm not doing something more to change it. Angry that the vast majority of white America doesn't feel a responsibility in anyway to do something to change it. I hope that if nothing else, South Africa has instilled in me a strong enough aversion to complacency that I use this anger productively when I return home to the states. And I hope that I, and other travelers traipsing about the globe learning about other people's problems and pitying their situations, remember from time to time what they say about people in glass houses, and look at how it relates to our own countries.