Part II: Lessons From Johannesburg

Hello friends,

Before I jump into some heavy material, I wanted to update you on how my Global Solidarity Challenge went. Thanks to my incredible family and friends, I exceeded my fundraising goal and raised $555 for VIDEA’s sustainable projects and partners in southern Africa! To everyone who supported me, whether you donated, fed me words of encouragement or joined me in solidarity, I am so grateful to you. I am truly humbled to know how many people have my back, you guys rock!

If you missed part one of Lessons From Johannesburg, you can check it out here. Initially, I considered writing a comparative piece on the diversity of Jozi. I intended on drawing out similarities to Toronto, and analyzing what it was about Johannesburg that made me feel so at home. But it’s been almost a month since I was in Johannesburg… and the longer I’ve delayed this post, the longer one thing has consistently stuck with me; something that has little to do with my Canadian experience and everything to do with this country: apartheid. One thing I was told several times before arriving in South Africa is that most to all of my conversations with locals will end up on the topic of race. I brushed this off, actually getting irked that I was already being labeled as the ignorant, curious tourist that didn’t know when to stop asking questions. I have been in South Africa for nearly two months now, and I realize that the cautionary warning on what direction my conversations would take was spot on, by no fault of my own.

My experience with this is different than that of the other interns who have also had difficult conversations on race. I say this because early on, I was able to contextualize these dialogues from a stop I made in Johannesburg. I consider this stop a defining moment in my time here in South Africa; the day I visited Soweto, followed by a trip to the Apartheid Museum. I’ve thrown around the word “apartheid” in many a post, vaguely touching upon the legacy that it has left in South Africa. But until this moment, I haven’t quite defined it, so if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re about to have an unpleasant history lesson.

The confronting tickets to the Apartheid Museum, a complex focused on the notorious system of racial discrimination that oppressed millions in South Africa from 1948-1994.


From the entry point, I was greeted with a very real reflection of what it was like to live in a racially segregated society.


In 1948, while the rest of the world exhaled after the Second World War, South Africa was embarking on a 46-year struggle that would cast a dark shadow on the nation for decades to follow. The National Party, representing Afrikaners (white South Africans), won the national election on a platform of racism and segregation under the slogan of ‘apartheid’. Built upon earlier laws, apartheid cruelly and forcibly separated people, making the segregation laws of the past more rigid and enforced more aggressively. America, as many of us know, also underwent similar segregation laws… but what made apartheid especially bizarre is the time it was introduced. In a period when other countries were moving away from racist policies, having just undergone a world war which highlighted the problems of racism and encouraging demands for decolonization, South Africa introduced the unyielding racial policy of apartheid.

The apartheid regime had fearsome state laws to punish those who fought against it. The 1950s was an era known as ‘petty apartheid,’ when the Nationalists passed many new racist laws to enforce a racially separate and unequal social order (similar to the Jim Crow laws in the United States). During this time, segregation was imposed on all public facilities, post offices, beaches, stadiums, parks, toilets, cemeteries, buses and trains.

Vintage signage from the Apartheid Museum. The laws governing which entrances people could use or which bus to catch were classified as ‘petty apartheid’, but there were far more serious overtones to this system of racial classification.


The 1950s also imposed the Group Areas Act, which was the start of the physical separation between races, especially in urban areas. The Act called for the removal of some groups of people into areas set aside for their racial group. People from these areas were then placed in townships outside of the city, where they could not own property as land could only be white owned. Black people were removed from city centres, causing much hardship and resentment…people lost their homes, were moved off land they had owned for many years and were moved to undeveloped areas far away from their place of work. The township I work in (Slangspruit) is a fine example of this, where black people living in Pietermaritzburg were relocated to the outskirts of the city.

I took the photo below when entering Soweto, the largest township in the country. Soweto is home to 1.3 million people who were displaced from Johannesburg during apartheid (some say it’s over 3 million but because it isn’t recognized as a city… it’s hard to tell the exact population in any given township)


The African National Congress (ANC) fought hard against apartheid, and were banned from the country as a result with many of its members being imprisoned (Nelson Mandela being the most prominent). He quickly became the world’s most famous political prisoner and emerged as the central symbol of the intensified anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa – despite his inability to speak directly to the public. In 1976 were the infamous Soweto riots, which began with a series of peaceful protests led by high school students in Soweto who were responding to the apartheid government’s enforcement of Afrikaans as the medium language of instruction in local schools. It is estimated that 20,000 students took part in the protests, being met with fierce police brutality. The number of protesters killed by police is usually given as 176, but estimates of up to 700 have been made.

I visited the Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto, named after 13 year old Hector Peterson who was killed by police as he was walking home from his Primary School. The memorial stands to commemorate the students who protested in 1976.


The ANC’s strategy to fight apartheid in the 80s was to increase armed struggle and make the country ungovernable. This was met by a collapse of government authority in the townships, the continuing prospect of spreading violence, and an increasingly uneasy white population. The government’s response was to declare a “State of Emergency”… giving security forces expanded powers of arrest and detention and full immunity for their actions. Hundreds of arrests followed, and the police swept through the townships apprehending hundreds of activists and detaining thousands of youth and children.

Eventually, the rest of the world tuned in. The UN and many nation states condemned South Africa’s apartheid policies. A significant divestment movement took place in the 80s, pressuring investors to refuse to invest in South African companies or companies that did business with South Africa. South African sports teams were barred from participation in international events, and South African culture and tourism were boycotted. By 1990, as resistance mounted, it was becoming clear that the regime was on the verge of giving in to popular political demands. The final stage of apartheid’s demise happened so quickly that it took South Africans by surprise. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after 27 years, and the ban was lifted off the African National Congress (ANC). A series of negotiations took place, and a democratic constitution emerged as well as the country’s first free election. The final transfer of power was remarkably peaceful; considering many thought the country would erupt into a violent civil war. In 1994, apartheid was officially lifted and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president after more than three centuries of white rule.

Visiting Soweto, followed by a 3 hour walk through the Apartheid Museum was very difficult for me as an outsider. When I was researching what to do in Johannesburg, the museum came up on my google results and I remember being irate when seeing it. I thought, “why would anyone build such a museum? Why commemorate such a dark time in this country’s history?”. Having said this, I wasn’t intending on paying the museum a visit until the day in question. I was taken through Soweto by a local Sowetan that morning, and he was adamant that my next stop be the Apartheid Museum in order to contextualize everything I just saw. So I went, taking my time through every section… shaking my head and shedding tears where necessary. There was troubling imagery at every turn, especially in a section where you had to walk under a ceiling engulfed in nooses. The end of the museum focuses on the liberation from apartheid and the reconciliation that followed, only I didn’t feel reconciled. Me, the Sudanese-Canadian who was in South Africa for about 5 minutes didn’t feel reconciled. I wasn’t angry either, rather I was aggravated and contemplative.

I kept thinking, surely this isn’t real. How could all this have materialized over 40+ years while the world watched silently? How could this have happened when white people make up less than 8% of the population? Why wasn’t this taught in my world history class? Among many more questions… I went back to work the following week feeling unsettled. Working in a township had an entirely new meaning now that I was able to contextualize the origins of all the socio-economic hardships around me. That day in Soweto followed by my visit to the museum will follow me everywhere I go in this country. I am already recognizing this in every which way… when I’m at the supermarket, work, church, at my neighbour’s, etc. I believe that this new found undercurrent of context [where apartheid is concerned] will govern most of my experiences here, therefore shaping my conversations and eventually landing me on the inescapable topic of race.

I’m hoping that this brief history of apartheid has given you some material to reflect on when thinking of your global brothers and sisters who are still struggling with the repercussions of this regime 20+ years later, and the ugliness of racism which is still so pertinent worldwide. How much damage must be done the next time a racist regime arises before someone puts their foot down? How much blood will be shed, necks broken, museum’s built? Food for thought.

Until next time, R.

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