Two conversations and a museum: it is important to face our past if we are to have a future

I do remember that Thursdays on The Money Principle are usually reserved for a book review or for thought provoked by reading something related to life and money. But today I am feeling ill – I had to see a doctor, spend loads of money for the check up and on medicine and miss a very nice dinner in a traditional African restaurant. This and my experiences during the last several days have made me much more emotional than usual. So I am not going to write about books but about life through the eyes of South Africans.

In my previous post I mentioned that the hotel where I am staying boasted a gym – essential since one can’t run outside here – and it turned out that they don’t have one; they have a deal with a Virgin Active gym which is fifteen minutes drive away and guests can be driven there if they pay on top of the hotel rate. Now, given I know exactly how much it will hurt on October 29th (when I cross the finish line of Lausanne marathon) if I don’t train I chose to pay (with all intention to claim the expense) and be driven.

These are the conversations, almost word for word, that I had with two Afrikaner drivers.

Conversation 1

Me:     Africa is so large and mostly very fertile. It is poor because of wars, social problems and AIDS.

D:        Yo; but we are so far behind Europe!

Me:     This is very interesting; how tiny Europe came to dominate the World.

D:        I read a book once that explained it.

Me:     What was the explanation?

D:        White people originate in Europe and blacks originate in Africa. No wonder all the brains are in Europe.

Me:     [lost for words I keep silent for the rest of the journey; mercifully it is a short one]

Conversation 2

This one needs a bit of context. The driver was an old guy – my estimate is that he was nearer 80 than 70. We were driving carefully towards the gym when just before some traffic lights a large tractor pulling a heavy trailer signalled and started pulling in front of us. It didn’t feel right but the tractor driver was being considerate – he just needed to move in the right lane fast. Then he indicated right again but went straight ahead. The driver of the tractor was black.

Me:     It looks like he is lost.

D:        Ha! They can’t hold a steering wheel and signal at the same time.

Me:     Common! The guy is driving this really big, heavy thing; give him a break!

D:        We have been giving them a break for three hundred years – no good.

Me:     Some of the people I am working with here are really good!

D.        Yo…but the people who run the country are no good.

Me:     People who run countries are often no good; it doesn’t matter whether they are white, black or yellow; or men or women, for that matter.

By this time we were at the gym. The same driver collected me but I didn’t take my earphones out and listen to music on the way back.

Visit to a museum

Yesterday I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. It was a very emotional experience: on arrival you are issued a ticket and when you turn it over you discover whether you are ‘white’ or ‘black’. Then you enter the museum through the separate entrances – I am white in life and was ‘white’ according to my ticket. But going through the entrance saying ‘Only whites’ I was not simply ashamed to be white – I was ashamed to be human.

The museum is very well done – it informs but even more powerfully it works on emotions. I felt myself getting more and more upset; while watching a movie about the youth movement of the 1980s, seeing all this violence I started sobbing. There was a group of black children watching with me and they were giggling when the beatings of black youths were shown. All I can say is that Hollywood has a lot answer for!

This museum is well worth seeing. What struck me though is that:

  • What happened in South Africa in 1945 is so similar to what happened in Germany in 1936 – there were so many laws that had to be enacted to ensure racial segregation and the whole thing was carried consistently and with purposeful efficiency. Most of these rules were dehumanising, degrading and plain mad.
  • What very few people outside South Africa realise is how close it was to a complete collapse into violence in 1992; well, I didn’t. And it is a great achievement that it didn’t; that crime ridden as it is, this country did not become another cesspit of tribal and racial violence.
  • Having this museum is a great act of courage: this way the nation is facing its history and accepting that the shame is in the past; that apartheid is finally where it should be – in a museum.

Final words

Racism is still very much here although it is contained within certain groups – mainly red-neck Afrikaner with low level of education! But this nation has had the courage to face its history and the wisdom to put it where it belongs – in museums.

7 thoughts on “Two conversations and a museum: it is important to face our past if we are to have a future”

  1. Krants is right on for this point. You observed overt racism. Since it is blatant, it is not hard to identify. Systemic racism is particularly problematic too and has tangible implications for us all. Sometimes offenders don’t even know that they are guilty.

    • @Roshawn: Dangerous situation this – when people don’t even realise that they are doing something. Particularly with things like racisms, sexism and agism. What struck me as well is that in Africa it goes both ways – black people can be racist as well. Every time I do something there I have to work very hard to convince people that I am not a ‘white’ threat, the latest manifestation of colonialism. At the same time, I know (existentially) what it means to be discriminated against because of religion (historically) and gender (on-going).

      What is better: to be colour aware or to be colour blind?

  2. The Colbert Report did a piece on racism a week or so ago – he talked about a NYT editorial that suggested that the reason Obama was still ahead in the polls was because Americans didn’t want to “give up on their first black president.” It’s almost as though if he wins, it’s because of his race, and if he loses, it’ll be because of his race.

    • @Elizabeth: Don’t we women know the feeling? Still sad that Obama will stay in history as ‘the first black President’ (which is by no means a small achievement) when he should remain as the brave man who took the reins in very difficult circumstances and is doing the best of it.


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