“Apartheid was good for South Africa” said a fellow masters student from across the cafeteria table.
“Pardon!?!” I spluttered.
“Apartheid was good for South Africa.”
“Oh,” I said as I reached for a napkin to wipe up the coffee drops that landed on my top and on the table between us, “that’s what I thought you said.”
A thousand thoughts ran through my head. Mostly I was very surprised that this person would say that. They were, after all, also from a Southern state that also has staggering inequality and inequity. Practicing my new skills of open listening and trying my very hardest not to steamroll with my opinion I politely asked, “Why do you say that?”
They told me that Apartheid was good for South Africa because “at least South Africa has a name for something that had oppressed all of its people by privileging some and de-privileging others. Many other nations (if not all???) had and have systems that work against whatever population is in the cross hairs at that time. Sometimes it is written clear as day in the political-legal system as it was for South Africa and sometimes it is not. It is difficult for those who are/were fighting against something that is/was nameless whose effects are/were as profound as those of Apartheid. Without a name there can be no rally point for the struggle against injustice and inequality. Fighting something that cannot be named might be like fighting an invisible destructive giant. You can only remedy the effects of the destruction and not the source(s) of it.”
I have always known that the story of Apartheid was a strong one but I didn’t know it had such resonance with other places. I thought of the power of naming and how evoking a significant experience can silence or bring speech or action or emotion. How one word can be the reason, the excuse, the anchor, the wind in a sail, the hope, the push and the pull. Seeing more recent discussions in the South African media about the usage or non-usage of “Apartheid” (here and here) I wondered about how it is being used now and think that it’s more important how you use a name rather than just having a name.
I suppose because it is also one of these “big” names in Western history, in thinking about Apartheid I have found myself thinking the Holocaust. In particular I have found myself reflecting on my experiences of Holocaust museums in Cape Town and Germany. The one in Cape Town consciously draws parallels between the Holocaust and Apartheid and underlines the efforts of Jewish people in the anti-Apartheid Struggle. Two of it’s purposes as stated on the website are to “Teach about the consequences of prejudice, racism and discrimination [and] promote an understanding of the dangers of indifference, apathy and silence”. However when we asked our passionate and knowledgeable guide about what was happening in Israel and Palestine and how these purposes applied to that situation we were quickly stonewalled and were, um, encouraged not to ask anymore questions like that.
And so I would like South Africans to think how the “term” Apartheid is used. We have this powerful name. A name that other places do not have and so, struggle to fight against an invisible giant. Should we forget about it? Should we test all schools on the same test and pretended to be surprised when the older, wealthier schools succeed (see the tables here)? How can we remember Apartheid but not replicate it in other ways? How can we make Apartheid good for us, if at all?
P.S. Happy birthday New South Africa!