By Laura Walters, UC Davis South Africa, Study Abroad Writing Intern
Apartheid. It means “separation.” South Africa struggled with it for forty-six years. Even though its reign has technically ended, pieces of the pain it caused still exist.
Yet despite their long era of “separation,” South Africa was nothing but welcoming when a group of 13 foreign students who knew very little about the country and its history arrived to spend four weeks there.
In fact, everyone we met while studying abroad this past summer was eager to share the country’s history — the atrocities as well as the glories. Nothing about South Africa was hidden. Apartheid is not tucked away under the rug or hushed with a stern look.
The apartheid regime may have ended, but it is not completely gone, and frankly, the people of South Africa do not want it erased.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela, the first president of the South Africa, once said.
The people of South Africa live up to this expectation by distributing this power freely to any interested in obtaining it.
During our four weeks there, we went on only a few field trips obviously related to apartheid. Yet everything we experienced seemed to have been touched by its history.
Apartheid describes the period between 1948 and 1994 during which time the National Party’s white government forced non-white South Africans into separate areas of cities and restricted their access to public facilities. Relationships between whites and other races were prohibited, students organized uprisings that prompted violent police retaliation, and at one point the government forcibly removed black citizens from certain areas of the country that they deemed “white” areas, and then sold this land.
District Six museum in Cape Town pays homage to one particular area where this happened.
In the 1960s, the government kicked out entire families from their homes in the area now called District Six, and dumped them far away in a segregated section of the city. Their houses were then destroyed, supposedly to make way for new buildings and facilities.
Much of that land remains empty today. You can still seem some of the rubble from the demolition in the growing weeds.
The museum itself is a small, two-story building. The majority of the ground on the first floor is covered by a huge map of what the city used to look like. People from the district came and signed where they used to live. Street signs decorate the stairs up to the second floor, and a large tapestry with the names of the former inhabitants hangs from the ceiling. Photographs and histories of some of the families who used to live in the district create a timeline on the second floor. Rubble, antiques, a piano, games, artwork, and other remnants from the destroyed area decorate the rest of the museum.
This museum, however, is unique in that its exhibits extend outside the walls of the building. Ruth, our tour guide, took us outside and walked us through the areas surrounding the museum to where homes used to exist.
Some of the land taken from the families was used to create housing for Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Part of this land now boasts a beloved bakery, among other businesses. Some was dedicated to building new homes for some of the displaced.
Too much, though, is weeds and rubble.
Ruth’s family was one of the many removed from their home in District Six. Her mother took the move extremely hard, and, like many of the older victims, she died from depression shortly after leaving.
The only architecture that was not destroyed were churches. Ruth led us into one of the remaining Anglican churches that actually looked very similar to what it did in Ruth’s old photographs from before the evacuation:
Tourism on Robben Island similarly depends on apartheid history. Robben Island was the prison where many of the political prisoners were kept during the apartheid era. Nelson Mandela, who later went on to become the first president of South Africa and one of the most beloved leaders in history, was imprisoned there for most of his 27 years of imprisonment.
Because of conservation efforts and limited facilities, Robben Island is restricted to no more than 1800 visitors per day. The very fact that visitors have to be limited speaks to the island’s popularity as a tourist attraction. People want to know about the political prisoners, and want to see what life was like for those who fought against apartheid, and South Africa is more than willing to share. Even ex-prisoners voluntarily return to the island to work as tour guides and to relive their experiences in the prison for all these foreigners.
That is how strongly they feel about spreading the knowledge of apartheid.
Then, the one day we spent in Johannesburg, we visited the Apartheid Museum. That alone emphasizes the significance of apartheid: we had one day to spend in Johannesburg, and we spent it at a museum dedicated to this era.
To enter the museum, we of course had to buy tickets. Here though, each ticket is randomly labeled “black” or “white.” Whichever label is on your ticket dictates through which door you enter the museum to symbolically mimic the segregation that occurred during apartheid.
Inside was a cage-like maze of panels with information. This eventually led to an outdoor uphill walkway where the segregated visitors reconvene. Speckled along this barren walkway were a series of mirrors, each with a life-size picture of a person, each symbolizing a different story.
This pathway led into the rest of the museum. Inside we all broke off to wander the museum at our own pace.
One entire wing was dedicated to Nelson Mandela’s life. Other areas included individual stories of other anti-apartheid fighters, photographs, and videos. A casspir — a tank-like vehicle used during the Soweto school uprisings — dominated one entire room.
The most sinisterly captivating exhibit, however, was in one of the smallest alcoves of the museum. This room had nothing but nooses hanging from the ceiling to pay respect to those executed.
The entire museum was essentially a timeline through apartheid. The museum pamphlet calls it “A journey to understanding, freedom and equality. It may be the most important lesson you’ll ever learn.”
Even a place as beautiful and well-kempt as Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens has traces of this lesson sewn throughout.
President Mandela visited the gardens in 1996. He was given a Strelitzia regina, commonly known as a bird of paradise. Birds of paradise are generally orange and purple, but this flower was a golden yellow variety, which can only be found in South Africa. They are thus nicknamed “Mandela’s Gold,” in honor of his visit to the gardens.
During his visit, Mandela planted a threatened pepper-bark tree in the garden, and, growing right next to it, are beautiful golden Strelitzia regina, which surround a bust of Mandela in his prime. This, according to Kirstenbosch Gardens, “portrays Mandela during the pivotal years of his presidency and captures his radiance and generosity of spirit the world has grown to love.”
Mandela spent most of his life fighting for social justice. Kirstenbosch honors him and his fight with this tribute.
Apartheid touched so many lives and affected the country so thoroughly that it cannot simply be forgotten or ignored — even in a garden as beautiful as Kirstenbosch — despite the sadness associated with it.
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity,” Mandela said. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”
This is what the people of South Africa accomplish by sharing their history, both the good and the bad, with a random group of 13 college kids from halfway around the world.
“We wish to remember so that we can all together and by ourselves, rebuild a city which belongs to all of us, in which all of us can live not as races but as people.”
— District Six Sign
About UC Davis Study Abroad
UC Davis Study Abroad integrates global opportunities into the academic experience, supporting 1,300 students each year in studying across 30 countries, exploring the world, and gaining valuable skills and competencies. In the quest for Global Education for All, Study Abroad goes beyond traditional programs to meet the academic, personal and professional needs of UC Davis’ diverse and driven student body.
As a part of Global Affairs at UC Davis, Study Abroad aims to inspire global curiosity, understanding, and engagement.