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On Same-Sex Marriage

On Same-Sex Marriage

I was at the first same-sex civil union performed in Connecticut, and for that I consider myself privileged. After the brides slowly walked down the aisle to the altar, the Unitarian pastor performing the ceremony told us, through tears, that they symbolically took their time getting to the altar because it has taken them a long, long time to be able to get married. For a couple that had been together for more than 20 years, and had each spent a lifetime fighting for their right to get married, it was about bloody time they were allowed to openly, proudly declare their love for one another and have that love recognized by the state.

enhanced-buzz-21299-1355130638-5That was in 2005. It would still be three more years before Connecticut became only the third state to enact same-sex marriage legislation. Other states followed suit, but not without problems. In 2008, California’s infamous Prop 8 banned same-sex marriage in my current home state, rolling back a right that had been granted to gay couples previously, and prompting a litany of suits that have now reached the Supreme Court. But even in 2005, although it was still an uphill battle for millions of gay couples in the United States, it wasn’t unthinkable that the nation was at a tipping point. In just seven years’ time, a blink of the eye in legislative terms, nine states now allow same-sex couples to marry, with the first to allow it by popular vote in the last election. The president of the United States, for the first time, publicly acknowledged his support of the issue. Multiple Republicans and GOP insiders have acknowledged that there is little they can do about the eventual legalization of same sex marriage nationally. And in a stunning symbolic blow to the sadomasochistic social conservative movement, conservative-turned-libertarian Glen Beck is joining Bill O’Reilly and the ranks of the right who finally acknowledge that small-government conservatism means the government should stay out of love as well.

Pictures of couples marking their 40 years of commitment to each other with wedding rings say more about the necessity of righting this fundamental injustice nationally than I ever could, but it’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how we got here, and just how important this is to the nation. There are people today who still remember when “miscegenation” was illegal, and when blacks couldn’t marry whites. Hell, there are people today who were around when women first got the right to vote. It is a painful legacy of our history that only until recently have all people, of all kinds, truly been a part of the national project. And nothing is more odious than the interjection of government power into private lives of citizens (if you ask me, we’re going in the wrong direction: we should be ending government involvement in marriage altogether). But especially when sex and love have been used by countless regimes in history to drive wedges between people of different races and faiths (especially where religion is concerned), it has finally become somewhat of a banality at this point to stand up and declare openly, “I can love who I want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

enhanced-buzz-13310-1355130194-9I could say a lot about this, particularly about South Africa which went from apartheid’s strict regulations on sex and marriage to full-blown marriage equality within 20 years, but it is amazing how steadfastly civil liberties can be protected as long as people keep speaking out for them. For there are plenty of people who would like this “sin” to be punishable by death. There are plenty of people who would like to see gays “cured” by the state, or see religion in general imposed upon children in classrooms. And, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of our friends on the left who would like to tell people what foods they can eat, or what lightbulbs they can use, or what is appropriate to say and in which fora. There will always be people who believe they have a right not to be offended by someone else’s personal choices and beliefs, and they will work to take away our rights in turn.

The test of the immutability of the right to marriage is not whether it becomes national law in 5 years, but whether in 30 years, or 50 years, people take it for granted, the way I fear many people today take their right to a fair trial for granted. Whether people realize how difficult it was to acquire these rights, there are always sinister forces looking to defeat them. We must be vigilant and continue to fight to protect our natural rights, rights that should and will belong to us even if our universe has been clouded with totalitarianism.

The wedding bells today in Washington are a welcome sound to all who can hear them. And may they soon ring out in Mississippi and Georgia and Idaho. And may they soon ring out in Indonesia and Iran and Uganda. And when they do, let us not forget how hard it is to gain our rights, and never fail to protect them.

As an aside: if you are a supporter of gay rights, but also believe in conservative ideals like small government, free minds and free markets, I recommend donating to GOProud, an conservative gay rights organization that supports states’ rights (that wonderful feature of federalism that has allowed gay couples to get married all across America even while many people oppose it). Whereas they are a little controversial on their narrow line on same-sex marriage, they get points for fighting discrimination and pushing for more acceptance in the conservative movement.

December 11, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

I was reading my friend Luca’s blog post today about language and memories of our home stay in HaMakuya, Limpopo way back in 2009.  It was an awesome experience, and I have many fond memories of our host family and the various escapades of the children, who shall forever remember me as the white dude with the beard who couldn’t get the drum rhythms quite right.  But speaking of language, in Venda, the word for hello is different for men and women.  The women say Aa, which means “hello,” but the men declare Nda!, which literally means “I am a lion.”

This his how it usually happens:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

In my time in HaMakuya, I witnessed the interplay between Nda! and Aa several dozen times.  Sometimes the interaction was between two men, sometimes between a man and one or several woman, but interestingly enough, never from one woman to another–the household where we were staying was made up of mostly women of several generations, and they did not exchange Aa‘s as far as I could tell.  But as soon a man entered the conversation with the declarative “Nda!,” the women would always respond with “Aa,” accompanying it with a floor-level bow.

It is a challenge to modern notions of gender justice when you witness an old woman cowtowing to a young boy in casual conversation.  It is also difficult, as a foreigner, to let this situation play out without any judging the society based on moral incongruity.  One situation I saw that was particularly memorable was a boy who was just hitting puberty–maybe thirteen years old–walk into the household full of women, and without breaking his stride declare “Nda!”  The women, in response, all hit the floor with “Aa.”  What was striking about it was the level of bravado in his greeting: chest puffed out, chin lifted, with his voice intoned with confidence.  It was surprising to see this level of arrogance, especially in light of his smallish frame.  But for men and boys, the experience of Nda! must be imbued with an extreme level of self-righteousness, as it is always an opportunity to assert one’s dominance at the beginning of every conversation.  I suppose you have to give the men some credit; Whereas most men around the world must assert their masculinity in more subtle ways, the men of Limpopo can directly and forcefully declare their lion-hood to all company present without social awkwardness or shame.

The women, of course, are not ignorant to the peculiarity of this custom, and thus when a man walks into a room and declares “I am a lion,” it is not unusual hear the voices of the women dripping with irony as they assume their bows, often elongating their greeting with a sarcastic “Aaaaaahhhhh.”  At one interaction, I could have sworn I heard a woman say “Uh huh,” and she might as well have.  The tradition of Aa is clearly not taken very seriously by the women of HaMakuya.

So while a man hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

A woman hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  Sure you are, big guy.

That this very basic greeting, probably the cornerstone of conversation, can be used wildly differently depending on the gender of the speaker, speaks volumes about the role of language in society.  Words are the building blocks of ideas.  So when an entire Venda-speaking population communicates everyday greetings with this type of built-in sexism, one has to euthyphroically ask:  is the culture sexist because people say hello in this manner, or do people say hello in this manner because they are sexist?

When girls are taught at a young age to bow and submit to their male peers–when they see their grandmothers doing the same to their little brothers–they learn to assume the position of inferiority in a quite literal manner.  There is no ambiguity in the deep bow, no question of whose authority is present in a room when the first speaker declares he is a lion.  And as far as I can find, Aa has no correlative meaning (such as “I am a dove”).  It just means Aa.  The persistence of this tradition in the face of modern gender liberation is fascinating–especially since the women of Limpopo are no strangers to gender liberation.

For in HaMakuya, the women attend school and take night classes in business (we talked to a group of them coming home from school once).  The women run the households and educate their children.  The women do all the farming and cooking.  The men, as far as I can tell, have very few responsibilities.  They have political power in the community, they handle the cattle and fetch firewood, and in the rare case where employment is available, they work, usually in the nearby city.  When it comes to household finances, women make purchases for house and home and education, whereas the men, far as I can tell, spend their money on beer.  It was very apparent in our household who was in charge and who wasn’t.

Yet when the men arrive late at night from the bar and declare “I am a lion,” they are greeted customarily by all the women of the household, who put down their cooking spoons and brooms and scythes and kindling.  “Aaaahh,” the women say, falling to their weary knees, bowing to the freshly swept floor, “We salute you, Lion.  Now we need to get back to work.”

June 20, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Valley of the Afrikaners: Orania and the Making of a Post-Apartheid White Identity

Valley of the Afrikaners: Orania and the Making of a Post-Apartheid White Identity

Note:  This was originally published in the Hypocrite Reader in May 2011.

In a subtle valley among the rolling green hills of the South African veld, there is a rural village enclave known as Orania. Established on private land by a small group of South African citizens, the village is a bastion of memory for its 800 residents, within which they have attempted to recreate a failed 20th-century sociopolitical experiment architected by the man whose statue overlooks the town square. That man was H. F. Verwoerd, and that experiment was apartheid, arguably the most brutal and sustained violation of human rights since World War II.

Although Orania maintains a somewhat isolationist policy due to its decidedly awkward status in modern South Africa, I was given the opportunity to interview the residents of Orania and its leaders in order to study the realignment of the South African white identity after apartheid.

*              *              *

Apartheid is often misunderstood, by Americans in particular, as a system of segregation not unlike that in the pre-Civil Rights southern United States. In reality, apartheid was an absolute, undeniably fascist, fully compartmentalized system in which arbitrarily designated racial groups were not only relegated to separate citizenships, but operated within separate economies, polities, and juridical systems. (In one telling example, at one time during apartheid there were ten separate departments of education—one for each “race,” and one for each dependent “homeland” territory.) The Afrikaners were a white, Dutch Calvinist population that settled in South Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and developed their own linguistic, ethnic and cultural heritage, so much so that by the time of the British colonization in the nineteenth century it was the Afrikaners, not the native African populations, who put up the most resistance to British rule. Apartheid’s underlying philosophy was born of the political determination of the Afrikaners.

The Afrikaner dream of an independent volkstaat (“people’s state”) was delayed during the period of British colonization. It had to wait until 1948, when the National Party came to power. Its first order of business was the attempted establishment of a utopian, linguistically and culturally pure Afrikaans nation, in a political system that came to be known as apartheid. In 1960, Verwoerd, then Prime Minister, tried to fulfill the Afrikaner dream of full independence by separating from the British Commonwealth and establishing the Republic of South Africa.[1]

Increasing international isolation and internal demands for reform led to the demise of apartheid, and in 1994 the new multi-racial and multi-party democracy promulgated a new constitution that outlawed racism and guaranteed recognition of all South African ethnic identities. The new constitution offered many oppressed South African ethnic groups, such as the Zulu and Xhosa, who had been relegated to poverty and insignificance in the “native” homelands set up during apartheid, the opportunity to practice their linguistic and cultural heritage freely, and participate in the South African democratic project as equal citizens. But for some, like the Afrikaners, this constitutional provision was necessary to allay their fears of post-apartheid marginalization. After their protected status under apartheid ended, they feared the loss of their national and linguistic identity as they suddenly became a disempowered minority. Although most Afrikaners adapted to the transition by embracing non-racialism as an essential component of the new national order, some felt a compelling urge to entrench themselves further in the land, reaffirming their belief that Afrikanerdom constituted a culturally distinct and uncompromisingly African heritage.

Enter Carel Boshoff, grandson-in-law of Verwoerd himself, who, along with his wife and 30 Afrikaner farmers, professors, missionaries and clergy—and along with Verwoerd’s 92-year-old widow—spent half a million dollars on a ghost town in the Northern Cape to found Orania in 1993.

*              *              *

Orania, as a constitutionally legal self-governing entity with its own currency, banks, schools, and farms, occupies a fascinating position in the new South Africa: a group of Afrikaners, wishing to extend the nationalist project of apartheid, created a self-determined nation unto themselves, by citing their constitutional right to cultural advancement. Indeed, Oranians are overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, conservative Afrikaners who support a return to the ideals of Verwoerd and apartheid.

That sentiment in itself is not surprising. What is surprising is the nostalgia of these Afrikaner purists as it relates to their own self-determination. Frequently the residents express discontent over the “sapping of Afrikaner identity” and their fears of marginalization in the new South Africa, and they suggest that the Afrikaner ideal could be lost due to “Afrikaner pragmatism.” Observed Carel Boshoff IV, the grandson of Orania’s founder, “What was once a resolute community that demanded respect has now developed into a loose bundle of individuals that totter between nostalgia and opportunism.” However, Oranians do not consider themselves to be victims, but cultural crusaders who seized the opportunity of the transition to found a self-determined community of proactive, proud Afrikaners. Oranians hope to practice Afrikanerdom in all its purest linguistic, racial, religious and cultural forms free of outside molestation. Only Afrikaans is spoken, the only church is the Dutch Reformed Church, and no non-Afrikaners are allowed to live in Orania—not even white, English-speaking South Africans (unless they identify as Afrikaner).

The community, to them, is not about racism but about the continuance of Afrikanerdom as a legitimate cultural project. They see themselves therefore less as racial purists than as cultural purists, and view their town very much as a bastion of Afrikaner purity. Said one Oranian teacher:

Orania’s growth depends to a large extent on the situation in the rest of the country. If Afrikaners feel threatened in [South Africa] Orania will grow quicker, but fear should not be the driving force for people to move to Orania—neither racism. Orania cannot be seen as a place to escape—it may not be a negative action, but proactive and a positive challenge.

Furthermore, Oranians are surprisingly willing to engage in the national political discourse. They consider themselves to be citizens of South Africa, and are proud of the Afrikaner contribution to its history. Most moved to Orania because of what they perceived to be their victimization by the government when it came to employment, and fear of white-targeted crime. (It is a matter of debate among scholars whether the high crime rate in South Africa disproportionately targets whites.) They take a stance against the assertion that Afrikanerdom is merely a racial identity, and defend their right to exist in a closed community. Finally, they believe that living in such communities should be a goal of most South Africans. Said an Oranian engineer:

True peace can only be found in the co-existence of the different peoples of South Africa. If each group can find peace with themselves and peace with their neighbors then South Africa will be a good place to live in. You can only found peace with yourself if you respect your own identity and be prepared to protect it. The only way to protect it is to group with your own people.

This sentiment is echoed by another resident, who told me:

Yes, I think there should be more towns like Orania, as we are a bit far from our families, I would say, one Orania-type town in every province, maybe. No, never will the whole of SA ever be like Orania, as it is a rainbow nation, but to have a few places for each nationality in and around SA where your own culture is kept, will be a good idea, I think. [emphasis mine]

Certainly, this concept is nothing new—apartheid itself was an experiment in “Bantustaning,” the practice of allotting land to different ethnic groups. The Bantustans were legally treated much in the same way that American Indian reservations are today—separate governments, with little to no assistance from the apartheid government. The Bantustans, which date back to the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, were the government’s solution to the problem of the black majority. By giving them “homelands,” it was hoped a large-scale demographic catastrophe would be averted. The Oranian position, for this reason, has been challenged by South Africans who reject separatism and see echoes of the racist apartheid project in Orania. Orania has been criticized by many South Africans for being a racist enclave and continuing to support and teach apartheid-era ideas. One professor observed that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) opposes places like Orania because it fears a trend toward the Bantustaning of South Africa.

*              *              *

What is to be made of this group of rural settlers whose primary goal is the continuation of an apartheid system in the face of overwhelming national opposition? Are they to be celebrated for their commitment to a nationalist cause, or ridiculed for their refusal to assimilate into an increasingly democratized South Africa? Are they politicized? Whom do they represent, if more than just themselves? And finally, are they merely racists? Or do they represent a complex identity crisis, where whites have been forced to reexamine their own conceptions of themselves?

White introspection is not a peculiarly Afrikaner phenomenon in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a common discursive theme in the collective white experience, drawing from feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness in the new regime. After apartheid, the white identity in the new South Africa is no longer seen as a specifically racial concept, but as representing a complex relationship between culture and class. Whites have experienced a dismantling of their own worldview, a correction in their previously assumed conception of themselves. In response, many have created an environment of collectivism tied to a common history, in an attempt to legitimize whiteness as a compelling identity. The narrative of whiteness has become one of separation, of delegitimization. In other words, whites have finally had to come face-to-face with their minorityhood.

For Afrikaners, the identity crisis gains another level of complexity. Afrikaners have always had a strong conception of their own national heritage, born of religious persecution, anti-colonial resistance, rugged pioneering, and entrepreneurship. They were the first European settlers in South Africa, and they feel the same right to their country as white Australians feel to theirs. The deconstruction of apartheid, to most South Africans (including white non-Afrikaners), was the deconstruction of a racist aberration; for many Afrikaners, it was the deconstruction of a dream of independence and self-determination. Thus, many Afrikaners have been unable to adjust to their new post-apartheid minorityhood, but instead have found themselves to be a shadow in search of a form—a stark contrast to the previous regime, where the definition and elaboration of an Afrikaner national identity was an accepted dogma of state policy. In this search for recognition as a new minority, they have been met by a hostile South Africa that cares more about lifting the disenfranchised masses out of desolation than protecting a privileged few.

Thus it is not particularly surprising that since apartheid, a sentiment has emerged among Afrikaners that racism, while still very much active, has been turned on its head. A 2009 documentary, “Poor Whites/Rich Blacks,” depicts a poor Afrikaner family faced with the realities of the new South Africa. The man tells the interviewer that apartheid still exists, but in reverse: “Yes, we were in the good position, that was apartheid. Now it’s the opposite, but it is still apartheid.” The conception of “reverse apartheid” has become a rallying cry for Afrikaners. One Afrikaner wrote: “I continue to be against it [apartheid], also now that the role players have been swapped around and the policy of race differentiation is being labeled ‘affirmative action.’ Under the policy of apartheid, particularly the Afrikaners sought to obtain certain privileges and protection for themselves. Today the black majority seeks to do likewise.”

The use of the term “new apartheid” is particularly controversial because it draws an equivalency that is not historically or sociologically accurate. However, it is a common theme in interview responses from Afrikaners, especially those in Orania, to state their objection to the apartheid system, then draw a moral equivalency between apartheid victimization and their own experience. In doing so, they hope to legitimate their own position. It does not follow that white racism and black racism are morally equivalent, or that the white “victims” of the new order occupy the same historical position as their black counterparts. The compulsive desire to be sympathetic while simultaneously apologetic is reflective of a new type of white identity characteristic of the new South Africa, which has become ideologically linked with the persecution ethos of previous generations. Within the Afrikaner pro-nationalist and pro-white historiography, South Africa has always been a land of racial conflict, from the natives to the English, and now from black nationalism to black power. Thus, while it is hardly possible to demonstrate a moral equivalence between white racism and black racism, there may nonetheless be a relationship between the white fear of marginalization and the black fear of marginalization. Certainly this undercurrent runs through Afrikaner discourse on their experience, and it has permeated the modern Afrikaner society, causing it to reevaluate its own status in a post-apartheid world.

Many Afrikaners feel that to see evidence of their victimization, they need look no further than the systematic dismantling of Afrikaner institutions and linguistic heritage after apartheid. This was a bilateral process: not only did Afrikaner influence in government, education, and law wane, but after apartheid, Afrikaans-language publications, Afrikaans-identified businesses, and traditionally Afrikaans-identified political parties started to downplay their Afrikaner roots and integrate with mainstream society. Afrikaans festivals and cultural organizations saw a drop in funding, and the previously unabashedly Afrikaner bank, Volkskas, diluted its stake in Afrikanerdom by making the first “black empowerment” deal, courting Coloured management and selling its insurance policies to majority non-Afrikaner customers. Even the National Party, whose roots lay solidly in Afrikanerdom, disassociated with Afrikaners in an attempt to form new coalitions, notably merging with the ruling ANC in 2005.

However, despite a persistent fear among most Afrikaners in South Africa about delegitimization, Orania is one of only a couple such Afrikaner enclaves in the country, suggesting that on the whole, most Afrikaners participate in civil society and seek to protect their interests through the democratic process within public, diversified communities. This phenomenon is nowhere more apparent than in the activities of AfriForum, a major white advocacy group. Its charter draws heavily from the post-apartheid South African constitution and stresses the importance of minority rights vis-à-vis the rights of the majority, a common theme in the philosophy of liberal democracy. AfriForum’s commitment to the democratic process and its belief in the constitutionalism of the new South Africa legitimizes the organization, allowing it to be accepted, if begrudgingly, not as a fringe group seeking extremist or racist goals but as a lobbying group interested in advancing the interests of the white minority. (AfriForum is currently embroiled in a national controversy over the hate speech trial of Julius Malema, president of the African National Congress Youth League, who has been criticized for his use at rallies of the apartheid-era fight song “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer,” which has been used in the past to incite violence against Afrikaner farmers.)

AfriForum’s foremost concern, according to their literature, is the “apathetic withdrawal” of whites into their own political disenfranchisement, which leads to further non-involvement and lack of influence in the political process. In describing this apathy, they refer not just to the citizens of Orania, but to the attitude of the white minority in general, which they feel is a victim of its introspection as well as that of the ruling majority. They advocate a “Come Home” campaign, seeking to bring disaffected whites back to South Africa, and a campaign “for the protection and consolidation of civil rights,” which seeks to address specific policy points in the new race discourse, including employment inequity and crime.

*              *              *

Are Oranians merely racists? Indeed, many Oranians admit, even insist, that they are racists. However, the point of divergence with mainstream society, observed one foreign reporter, occurs when they insist that “There’s nothing wrong with racism.” The society of Orania has coalesced around a modern, and virulent, sort of racist white exclusivity—it is a way of life. However, unlike their white counterparts in the rest of South Africa, who live their lives in a “bubble” within a sea of black labor, whites in Orania do all of the work themselves. As a British journalist observed, “It’s not a photo opportunity in Britain to snap a white person holding a spade. For Afrikaners—hell, most of white South Africa—it’s a shock.” Orania can be viewed as a microcosm of the newfound white identity in South Africa, where racism lives on, but where new expectations regarding racial roles are being accepted. The racism of the people of Orania is almost a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era, to which they cling to retain cultural legitimacy. However, unlike some right-wing Afrikaner reactionaries who seek to dismantle the new democracy using violence, Oranians seem to be content living their lives in their cultural bubble, seemingly without ill will toward the larger South African state, with most actively participating in national elections as supporters of the Freedom Front Plus (FFP) party. As one resident told me, “I don’t mind being part of South Africa and having a loyalty toward the country as long as it does not mean that I have to sacrifice my own identity as Afrikaner.” Greater South Africa has not been as hostile as might be expected toward this community: Nelson Mandela, Julius Malema, and current president Jacob Zuma have all visited Orania.

So one has to ask: is it not so much a return to apartheid they crave, but a return to cultural independence? Is it minority rule they seek, or minority acceptance? Maybe in their search for their own apartheid, they hope to capture what control they can achieve: self-determination, self-government, and, if possible, self-respect. However, many Oranians hope that such a system will one day be unnecessary, and they can live in a greater South Africa free of the burdens of the past. One of my respondents wrote:

If there were ANY cure for this ugly mess in our lovely country called crime or violence, the necessity for an Orania would not have happened, as we are not people for hatred, fights and murders, no, no, no, we are loving people, that would only like a place in the sun, and a haven for our children and old people, where we can live like normal people, and not locked up in our houses that became our jails! If ever there is a cure for all of this, please let us know, and we will implement it immediately, so that we can have a SAFE and LOVELY SOUTH AFRICA again, which we love so much! Where else can we go, where can we hide, nowhere, so we will just have to stay, and pray to our Lord that all will end well!

It is hard to see these residents as anything but the people they have become: a minority—now perhaps an unprotected minority—who feel, sincerely, that their salvation will come not in their assimilation but in their separation. They do not view themselves as whites: that is a racial identity they would rather subordinate to their Afrikaner heritage. Instead, their very definition of Afrikanerdom is intertwined with their idea of cultural uniqueness, of rugged individualism, and above all else resistance to domination. As one of my respondents wrote,

What is an Afrikaner? To be proud of your heritage as a group of people that was forced out of their original mother country, to regroup in a foreign continent, and to build a community with strong Christian living norms, create their own language and norms and use it to better the living conditions not only of themselves but also the other people of South Africa.

The question today for the residents of Orania is how they can reconcile their new identity with a new nation that is also striving to identify itself—how they can be reabsorbed into the new South African identity without losing their own.

[1] It goes without saying that a true volkstaat never did—and never could—exist in South Africa. This is both because 80% of the population was non-white and because half of the white population was English-speaking non-Afrikaners, who were needed to form a white power coalition.

May 25, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More
Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

The apartheid museum presents itself as an attempt to educate and renew, not to shock and horrify.  It stands in stark contrast to museums which chronicle other instances of human suffering such as the Holocaust and slave museums;  the Apartheid Museum is designed to provide a path backwards into history, yet simultaneously put history in the present.  It cannot properly be called a post-apartheid museum because its goal is to preserve the memory of apartheid and its living history.  It is a museum of current events as much as it is a museum of the past.  It is a commentary on the present.

The Apartheid Museum presents a barren face and an optimistic interior, perhaps an attempt to recapitulate the horrors of apartheid against a backdrop of renewal and reconciliation.  Emotionless concrete pillars frame the entrance, tall, cold—yet symbolically representative of the pillars of the new South Africa.  Visitors are immediately forced into arbitrary apartheid-era categories of “white” and “non-white” and enter one of two doorways of the museum accordingly.  These first divided entrances are enclosed, claustrophobic, caged, lined with a mosaic of identity cards, an imposing presence of a system of classification and serialization:  Cape Coloured.  Malay.  Manlik.  Vronlik.  Republick van Suid-Afrika.  It is a direct assault on the visitor’s sense of comfort.  There is no escape.  And then the paths merge.

Aside from this first division, the museum embarks on a process of non-racialism, an attempt to explain apartheid without resorting to revisionist, emotionally charged or explosive history.  Visitors are presented with what can only be called an effort at completeness and accurateness—thus, unlike the District Six museum in Cape Town, or the Voortrekker Monument from the other side, the Apartheid Museum makes an effort, in theory, to address the foundational political and economical issues surrounding apartheid, and not merely to extract outrage from its visitors.  This is not to say the museum is emotionally lacking.  But the presentation of exhibits within the museum space allow for discussion, controversy, and emotion without imposing a nationalist, anti-Afrikaner or other agenda; it documents and presents.

That being said, a couple of biases and omissions were apparent in the presentation.  The museum seems to have a heavy pro-ANC bias, and pays little attention to the struggle of the PAC, SACP and other groups against apartheid.  Most notably, the struggle of black activists is presented almost in the complete absence of references to colored and white activists.  The liberation struggle is framed as an opposition to the National Party and only the National Party—thus, a lot of attention is paid to apartheid-era footage of government officials, propaganda from filmmakers reminiscent of Birth of a Nation recalling the Great Trek and the Voortrekker Monument, and facist constructionist films regarding the rise of the Afrikaner right and the nationalist movements that look more like Triumph of the Will and American neo-Nazis than anything else.  What is more surprising is virtually none of the exhibition focuses on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a watershed moment in the reconstruction, although the museum concentrates heavily on the process of political renewal.

However, several exhibits were provocative and succeeded in bringing across the enormity of the efforts of South Africans of all stripes to end apartheid peacefully.  Most notable was the array of television screens showing leaders at the 1993 constitutional convention discussing the process to peaceful political transition, while large windows beneath the screens showed the gallery in the next room with large projections of 1990’s violence during the same process.  It was meant, and it succeeded, to show the struggle of political leaders to overcome the destructiveness, yet appeal, of violence to come together and construct a new government.  This exhibit makes the blown-up photograph of the first free South African parliament, with President Nelson Mandela sitting in the front row, even more poignant:  it highlights the remarkable journey of a country from civil war to revolution to peace in a few short, relatively bloodless years.

And this was the museum’s greatest triumph.  It did not seek to create anger, nor to implicate the past in the travails of the present.  It sought to show the process of power and politics and the promise of South Africa through the audacity of its leaders and liberators.  It is not a museum of the past, says Steven C. Dubin: “That presupposes that museums are exclusively the domain of the defunct and the antiquated, rather being places that can initiate dialogue and stimulate debate about past as well as contemporary issues.”  The Apartheid Museum does stimulate debate, and seeing the museum in the context of the current election makes it even more meaningful.  One of the last exhibits is a glass case filled with newspaper articles—current newspaper articles—regarding politics, the election, and national South African issues.  The most recently dated one was February 27, two days before we visited the museum.  The attention paid to the present, in the context of the past, was the singular goal of the exhibit, and brought the entire museum full circle.  This is not a post-apartheid experiment but a modern exhibit detailing the colorful and diverse range of the South African population, across all political divides, and the promise of the future.

March 1, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 12

Updates from Africa 12

So we’ve been consistently on the road for the last couple days and we’re now settled in Cape Town.  I’ll give a brief account of what happened in the past two days.

On the morning of the second we caught our shuttle with Michael to Windhoek. It was the typical 5-hour drive, nothing very eventful.  We stopped at the same rest stop for biltong (basically jerky) on the way.  We rode back with the Second Girls.  We arrived early enough to do some shopping, especially for luggage, and Codrin wanted to look at some masks at a mall we had been to.  The shopping mall, where our favorite Mugg & Bean is, turned out to be where we saw the strangest sight we’ve seen so far: A group of native Namiba women, bare breasted, lathered in orange makeup, replete with traditional jewelry and with their babies wrapped around the nape of their backs, walking through the shopping mall with plastic shopping bags.  We ate at Mugg & Bean, and then Ioana went off back to the hostel and Codrin and I went to the casino to play some more blackjack.

That night the plan was to go to dinner at a Cameroon restaurant but we ended up lounging around the hostel until everything was closed so we just drank a bit and went to bed.  In the morning Michael picked us up to go to the airport.  The Windhoek airport is a charming airport in the middle of the shrublands.  There is nothing in sight of the airport, and it takes 30 minutes to get there from Windhoek.  We had some trouble with our bags; we were 30kg overweight between the three of us and had to pay a lot to get our bags onboard.  The bureaucracy was terrible, which was surprising considering we haven’t really had any problems yet in that department.  We had to check our bags first, then go to a separate office and pay, get a receipt and go back to make sure our bags got on the plane, but the receipt printing took forever because the woman didn’t know the computer, and long story short we went through security 10 minutes before boarding.  But as it turns out, we ended up being the first people through the gate because we were rushing so much we didn’t realize we were slightly ahead of schedule.  As we were taking off, it occurred to me that I had never given Namibia a second thought, and Windhoek (let alone Swakopmund) was a place I had never heard about until we started planning this trip.  It makes me wonder how many other unknown, untapped jewels there are in the world for the interested traveller.

The flight to Joburg was uneventful.  We got back to Doris Street around 4 and the VIP Guesthouse was closed.  We called the number, and the cell phone, and no one picked up.  So we had a cab, three suitcases, three backpacks, three smaller backpacks and various other bags and we really couldn’t afford to wait there.  For whatever reason, even though we told Sarah we were coming that day, no one was there.  So we were again homeless in Johannesburg with our bags; more than we had the first time we knocked on the gate of the VIP Guesthouse three weeks ago.  We remembered there was another guesthouse down the street, so Codrin and Ioana watched the bags and I took the cab to Diamond Diggers Backpackers, where we found a room. One cab ride (and an extra 100 rand) later we got our bags into our new guesthouse, which was an enormous compound with a swimming pool, bar, jacuzzi and internet cafe.  They didn’t have a three-person room, but they had an empty suite for 8 which they gave for just the three of us.  Codrin went off to play poker at the casino, which is the only one we had found that had poker, and he had been itching to play all week.  Ioana and I called Renata, our waitress at Rodizzo’s three weeks ago, who had offered to take us out for drinks when we were back in town.  While we were waiting to be picked up, a woman approached us on the street and told us to be careful because there were black people in the neighborhood.  We thanked her politely and told her our ride was just coming.  Renata is apparently part of a very typical set of 18-24 year olds who live at home and still depend on their parents for rides, despite taking classes at the university.  So Renata’s father picked us up and dropped us off on the other side of town at a bar called Cool Runnings where we met up with Renata’s friends–about 20 of them–some of which go to University of Cape Town and whom we’ll be hanging out with when they go back to school in February.  The scene reminded me of how high schoolers get together; everyone has to go home by the end of the night, and no one lives on their own.  It really disorients social life, but it also prevents the sort of partying-til-you-pass-out mentality that accompanies any college campus in the United States.  We met some interesting kids at the bar; at the end of the night Ioana and I ended up paying for a bulk of our tab, which we were completely willing to do.  I have a copy of the receipt in my pocket; it is 71 items long.  But it was a fun, fun night.  We have some friends to call up and meet when we’re back in Johannesburg.

Ioana and I got back to the hostel around 2; Codrin came in at 4 in the morning announcing that he had one 10,000 rand playing poker. Apparently his 10-hour stint at the casino had been quite profitable. In the morning, we checked out and Codrin and I went back to the casino to play poker (I ended up playing blackjack for most of the time).  Ioana wanted to do some writing so she went to Nelson Mandela Square, which apparently is lovely and it’s something we’ll have to do when we go back.  Around 6 we took a shuttle to the airport, flew to Cape Town, and I’m here now in the dorm room with Codrin and we are officially “Settled in.”  We’ve met some people on the program but not all; everyone is quite tired from their 20-hour commutes and it makes me, for one, feel very relaxed that I’m already acclimated and “Africanized.”  Go figure.

This trip has been quite expectation-shattering and interesting.  I don’t really have a “conclusion” for this pseudo-journal I’ve been writing, because this really isn’t the end of anything.  The Cape Town program starts tomorrow, and I really don’t know what to expect, aside from the fact that it will be scholarly.  Hopefully the past couple weeks will give me a heightened perspective on the issues we will be studying, but only time will tell.

January 5, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More