Today was a packed but very poignant day for all of the Culver students. Our new tour guide, Tifo, took us around Johannesburg and we all learned a lot about South African history and how it has impacted the country today.
We started the tour by visiting Nelson Mandela’s house that he lived in until he passed away in 2013. This neighborhood was segregated before 1994 and the only nonwhite people who lived there were domestic workers. In front of the house, there were memorials dedicated to Mandela, in which visitors wrote messages to Mandela on stones.
As we continued driving through Johannesburg, we noticed a very fancy school called St. John’s College. The students were wearing blazers and there was a rugby game. We also saw a huge amount of graffiti, often reflecting South African politics. Tifo said that graffiti is extremely common in Joburg and there are many artists who use it to spread a particular message.
The next stop was Soweto, where we walked through a market and viewed a monument dedicated to the 1955 Freedom Charter, which put forth the ideals that were wanted for South Africa–such as “the people shall govern” and “the people shall share in the country’s wealth.” Soweto is the location of the infamous 1976 uprising that brought international attention to the struggles of apartheid. The National Party, which established apartheid and was in political control throughout the apartheid years, wanted to make Afrikaans the national language and introduced Afrikaans in schools in the Soweto township. Hundreds of students were killed, and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was one of the first victims. We were able to visit the Hector Pieterson memorial and the museum.
Here is a reflection from Erin Postma ’19:
Soweto was an amazing experience. The museum helped put a lot of things into perspective and show the brutality of the shooting. As a senior, I am always very worried about college, but in Soweto, students my age had to fight for their right to be educated in a language they understood. One thing I did not know before visiting the museum is that after the shooting, the police searched for students involved in the protests and shot them. This represents the brutality shown against the innocent students. The museum also included a lot of eyewitness accounts and quotes from people involved in the shooting. It helped me understand what people went through. All in all, it was a very moving experience and I learned a lot factually and emotionally.
Then, we stopped for 20 minutes at the Nelson Mandela house, where we learned more about Mandela’s family life and were able to step into the house, which had a lot of the original furniture when Mandela lived there.
After lunch, we were able to explore the Apartheid Museum. We all agreed that the museum was incredibly well put-together and organized. The tickets to the museum were cards that randomly sorted us as white or non-white, and the people with different tickets had to go through different doorways. Inside the museum, there were very detailed descriptions of South Africa’s history starting from the time before the arrival of Portuguese and British colonists. It explained the events leading up to the creation of apartheid and had many sections that illuminated how terrible apartheid truly was.
One room that really struck the Culver students was the exhibit about solitary confinement. There, the museums replicated the tiny jail cells that visitors could go into to experience, for a brief moment, what many political prisoners had to endure for years of their lives. The museum also had a casspir, or an armored vehicle that was used in many townships by the police, that we were actually able to climb into and sit in. We were completely shocked by how large the vehicle was.
Other exhibits that really left an impression on us were the Political Executions, Truth and Reconciliation, and South African Voices After 1994 exhibitions. The political executions exhibit showed that while dozens of South African activists were killed in detention, the government often tried to hide this by declaring their cause of death to be “death by hanging,” “suffering from a stroke in the hospital,” or something along those lines in the official record.
I was really impressed by the way that nothing was sugarcoated in the museum and they did their best to portray the reality of apartheid and even demonstrate that many of our heroes were not perfect. Understanding the awful human rights violations that occurred during apartheid and confronting the country’s history, the museum believes, is key to moving South Africa forward as a nation. Although the exhibitions about post-apartheid South Africa demonstrate that there are definitely many unresolved inequalities in South Africa, especially with regards to land, it is really important that the museum seeks to confront this past while acknowledging that the present is not perfect either. All of us learned a lot from the tour of Johannesburg today.
After visiting the museum, we had an incredible dinner and are heading to Pilanesburg for our safari! Stay tuned, and if you are reading this, I really encourage you to read about the Soweto uprising and the system of apartheid. It is something that has profoundly shaped South Africa and is essential to understanding the country.