Apartheid Museum: when finite humans in the influx of time make decisions of infinite damage.

A current theme in my life over the past few months has been sheer surprise at just how much of my own history I do not know. Every time I pick up a book, watch a documentary or have meaningful conversations with friends I’m overwhelmed by the amount of unlearning I have to do. 

History manifests itself in the structures around you and once you realise this you start to see that very little of how we live is as a result of chance or random events. Most structures in business, education, agriculture, the legal system etc. are a remnant of a past whose architects were very deliberate about the interests each of these structures should serve. 

I recently spent the day at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. If you have been before, you will know very well that this can be a 5 hour long journey of anger, sadness, surprise, pride, beauty, hell and confusion. The journey is curated as follows; 

You start off at the courtyard with the pillars of the Constitution; democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom. A fitting start in my opinion because in those 7 concepts, lies a lot of our history, our fears, our hopes and our disappointments as a nation. 

The next 20 minutes takes you through the concept on which apartheid laws was based (i.e race classification), the birth of the struggle against colonial rule and a brief introduction of the journeys to Johannesburg. As if to set the scene and prepare your mind for a tough 4/5 hours ahead, you get a panoramic view of the city of Johannesburg at the top of the museum before heading inside the museum where the story officially begins. 

I want to share thoughts and concepts that really stuck with me. What’s interesting to me is how the discovery of gold would forever be a turning point in our history. This intensified issues of land and labour, the two most important concepts in history and today. The struggle for land and labour can be traced back to the colonial days, but the discovery of gold in Gauteng and diamonds in Kimberley created land and labour issues that we will struggle with for generations to come. 

“There can be no doubt that the historian…..will point to the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrandand and the establishment of the city of Johannesburg as a turning point in the history not only of Southern Africa but of the whole continent”- RV Selope Thema. 

Enerst Cole is one photographer who depicted beautifully and truthfully the day to day struggles of migrant labour and the landless people. He was a free lance photographer in the 1960s who had a gift for taking photos that not only tell stories but also challenge you and make you think.

Ernest Cole photography

Ernest Cole photography

As soon as natives were exploited for their labour and denied land through the Land Act of 1913, an alienation from a dignified existence was made evident. This alienation from human dignity would carry on for decades to come ….writing on the Land Act of 1913, Sol Plaatjie had this to say; 

“Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Apartheid, as a legal system, only solidified a lot of the injustices and ills that were already in existence. Unfortunately as much as we may want to deny this, the past is not yet done……it is unfolding as we speak. And as I look to the present and look towards to the future, I can only echo Toni Morrison’s words; 

‘I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning menage a trois of political interest, corporate interest and military interest will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, human future. Because I don’t think we can no longer rely on separation of powers, free speech, religious tolerance or unchallenged civil liberties as a matter of course. That is, not while finite humans in the influx of time make decisions of infinite damage. Not while finite humans make infinite claims of virtue and unassailable power that are beyond their competence, if not their reach.’