Sunday was a day of sacredness.
In the true sense of the word “catholic” (universal), I attended Catholic Mass at the local church. Youth were raising money for the next World Youth Day. The parish was running a capital campaign to build a new sanctuary. The announcements spoke of ministries, activities, and fellowship. The translation of the Mass was nearly–but not exactly–identical to the U.S. English translation of the Mass. It felt very familiar, and yet, the full church sang and responded in slightly different accents. Songs ranged from traditional European, lyrics in Latin, and contemporary praise music to songs in the local African languages. There are 11 official languages in South Africa and several other unofficial languages–the Gloria (Tlotlo e nne go Modimo) was in Sotho.
I love going to Mass in other countries. The sameness and the differences remind me so strikingly that we are all many diverse parts of one body. However, sometimes the most sacred spaces we encounter are outside of a church. They remind us of our inherent connectedness as human beings. The Apartheid Museum is precisely one of those spaces. A space dedicated not only to remembering, but also to teaching and witnessing. Museums, along with schools, play such a critical role in the collective memory of a nation and of social trauma. One hopes that such a memorial will not only honor those who died, but cause pause and reflection as future decisions are made and we work to build a future that is brighter than our past.
The entrance of the museum is a courtyard with a reflection pool and fountain. Similar to the traveling Titanic Exhibit from several years ago or the Holocaust Museum, with your admission ticket comes an identity. But instead of being identified as an individual, you are classified as a White (Blanke) or Black (non-Blanke) and enter the museum through separate entrances.
The museum exhibits cover the first peoples of Africa, Dutch colonization in the 1600s, the 19th century English-Boer South African War (between the British colonists and the Dutch), and the continuing legacy of legally enforced segregation and oppression based on race. Signs, photos, posters, and other artifacts testify to the story of Blacks who were denied citizenship and treated to a police state and its brutality. But artifacts also testify to the students, the children, and the revolutionaries who spoke truth to power–who often died, suffered, or faced imprisonment for defying the system.
One of the final exhibits showed three large video screens. The right screen played footage of a former government official describing the violence he perpetrated as an official in the Apartheid regime. On the left screen was an advocate posing questions. The center screen showed the face of the young girl who was murdered and the grave in which she was cruelly buried. The screens went black. The footage was then replaced by a man in a wheelchair testifying to the brutalities perpetrated against him on one side. Center footage showing a single candle burning in the dark and the far side again showing the advocate/lawyer, asking him for his testimony.
This was the Truth and Reconciliation room, an exhibit playing live footage from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings–a mechanism for bringing out the truth about the violence and abuse of the Apartheid movement that was once heralded by its perpetrators as a system that should be modeled around the world. This commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who I met in high school at the University of Tulsa!) is controversial. Knowledge comes to light that many don’t want to face or deal with. Some of the worst perpetrators refuse to speak.
The point of the commission is to provide truth to the historical record, process the full-scale of the trauma, and move forward united, not to sentence the guilty. But, as is often a problem in the United States, the perpetrators want to know why the nation is still talking about 20 years ago. As if the current living situation of millions of South Africans isn’t a result of Apartheid policies, as if current access to education and to jobs in the economy have no root in past access to education or industry. As if the loss of children, sisters, brothers, and friends in the 1976 student uprising or the violence that reigned from 1990-1994 isn’t still hurting.
A phenomenal temporary exhibit featured the life and work of Nelson Mandela–timely for tomorrow’s Nelson Mandela Day of Service. We will be participating in this national holiday (and you can, too!). Some of the most impressive things to me about Mandela is his insistence on meeting government violence, control, and brutality with non-violent resistance and his ability to unite and lead after serving a 27-year prison sentence, including over a decade where he was often in isolation and nearly a decade of completely monitored house-arrest (at a warden’s cottage of a prison). I thought back to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Soviet Russia who says some of his best thoughts and his first thoughts on what it means to be good came from his struggle in the Gulag. I can’t help but think that women and men like these must be superhuman.
Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address that these men living and dead who fought for the Union hallowed and consecrated the battlefield far above our power to do so in words after the fact. I think that the brave women, men, and children who risked themselves to end the oppression of Apartheid have done the same. What will we do to ensure our brothers and sisters across the world have access to education, freedom, and security?
I left the sacred space of the Apartheid Museum my head full of thoughts, feeling empty and completely overwhelmed all at the same time.