Politicizing the Past

May 19, 2013 • Reporting Trips, South Africa 2013, Uncategorized • Views: 857

By: Zoe Rubin. Visiting Johannesburg’s celebrated apartheid museum today, the final quote of the permanent exhibition stuck out at me. “South Africa still bears the wounds of apartheid and of the struggle against it. If South Africa is to develop into a truly non-racial society the past must be grappled with and understood,” read the stainless steel plaque. “Without that, no full reconciliation can occur.”


A map at the Apartheid Museum depicts the many African countries that aided the anti-apartheid movement.

Each day during our stay in South Africa, we are reminded that the nation is still very much affected by the legacy of apartheid. Communities remain largely segregated. Inequality, crime, and unemployment prevent previously marginalized areas from developing or their citizens from finding happier prospects. The leafy avenues of our Melville suburb are alarmingly empty day and night– the only sounds come from the guard dogs howling behind their barbed wire topped cement walls. Yet, when we drove yesterday through the poor neighborhood of Hillbrow, we passed countless adults and children alike aimless wandering on the broken concrete sidewalks. Boys no older than ten years old were sharing a joint on one street corner.


Racial segregation was a hallmark of  apartheid legal policies.

Last week I sat down with Kenneth Lukuko, a senior project leader with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, who organizes community healing programs for victims of apartheid through dialogues, workshops, and other creative process. He enthusiastically talked about the projects that he organized between a historically black township and a historically colored township. But when I try to broach the subject of bridging the divide between black and white communities, he paused. He mentioned the documentaries that the IJR made about the perspectives of white students at Stellenbosch University, but nothing about dialogues or other cross-communal partnerships. Lukuko noticed my discomfort. For if a significant voice in today’s South Africa is left out of post-apartheid community healing projects, how much of an effect will such healing projects ever have?

South African students are not offered civics courses. History is not mandatory in high school, only for those who elect to take it. And when our tour guide at Robben Island asked our group of predominately South Africans if we knew how long Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, her question was met with awkward silence, shifting looks, and few tentative guesses.


Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, of which 18 were spent in solitary confinement in this cell on Robben Island.

I understand why some South Africans are weary of concentrating on the past. Youth born after apartheid do not want to blamed, or punished, for the wrongs of those who came before them. Today’s South Africa faces it’s own dire issues – rampant domestic violence, widespread police abuses, slow economic growth, state bureaucratic failures, and far more. Some feel that it is pointless to waste time wrapped up in problems of the past, when the problems of the present demand undivided attention. People want action, not talk.

But devaluing history and civics will only harm tomorrow’s South Africa. History teaches a way of thinking. Understanding the past in its totality allows us to critically challenge our present-day situation and to pick up on the historical origins of worrisome current trends. Historical events are never inevitable; the actions of individuals, groups, and governments must be remembered and studied if they are to be repeated or avoided.

In South Africa, the past remains a highly contested narrative, subject to conflicting interpretations and competing claims for authenticity. It lives on through the political dominance of the African National Congress (ANC), whose liberation struggle credentials allow the party to win election after election even as South Africans tire of failed ANC campaign promises and endemic government corruption. It lives on in the ANC’s autocratic attempts, reminiscent of those of the apartheid-era ruling National Party, to delegitimize opposition politicians like the Democratic Alliance (DA)’s Helen Zille and to discredit their challengers’ own links to the anti-apartheid struggle. And it lives on in the Zuma administration’s crackdown on the independent media’s coverage of government misconduct, akin to prior apartheid-era media suppression.

Unless the study of past become a nationwide practice, competing narratives about the apartheid era and the anti-apartheid struggle will be passed down from generation to generation. South African visitors to Robben Island may continue not to answer their tour guide’s questions and the autocratic elements of the ANC may develop unchecked. History and civics must be fundamental elements of school curricula not to perpetuate a single historical narrative, but so that students can learn to challenge the various one-sided narratives that still pervade their society.

0 Responses to Politicizing the Past

  1. Ray Korona says:

    Thoughtful and well written. If only any society could fully embrace and learn from its history, the world world a far, far better place.