This time in Johannesburg has been nothing short of amazing. I find myself not only continuing to love the culture the way I did in Cape Town but also find that I am being challenged as both an academic thinker and on a personal level. It has been very difficult to process some of the things we’ve learned, as some of these things show the very worst of humanity. Over the past three days, we’ve visited Lilieslief, taken a tour of Brixton, toured the beautiful graffiti art of the streets of Joburg, visited the Voortrekkers monument, freedom park, and the union building. However, the thing that has stood out the most to me is this conversation of power.
Our tour of Brixton was given by Sifiso Ntuli, or the Roving Bantu as he calls himself. His points and opinions were very interesting to me, and by the end of his tour, I found myself in such a state of shock that it has taken me until now to be able to fully process everything. His story was intriguing, and it was through his life experiences that I was able to really get a sense of life in post-apartheid South Africa.
One of the most interesting points he made was this idea of power and the creation of white and black. We as a society have made these constructions, and have allowed ourselves to be dictated by them. Furthermore, the feelings that fueled apartheid didn’t end just because apartheid did. But then one must wonder, where do these feelings come from? No one is born racist. We are born as clean slates, and over time the way society has created the construction of white, black, Indian, etc enters our life. It is how these constructs enter our lives the decide who we are initially, and the way we open our minds later in life that dictates who we become. There was so much more from this tour that I would love to discuss, however I am still processing the way I would like to share those stories as I have been emotionally moved and changed by them.
There is one thing that stood out to me and connected to both my experience at the Voortrekkers monument and freedom park. While showing us around, Sifso showed us what was left of what had once been a white nationalist monument. It had been torn down and defaced. It reminded me of other times the discussion of old monuments or names came up and it seems that South Africa faces a very similar issue to the United States- do we leave up the monuments commemorating the past, specifically those that idolize those who committed horrific acts in the past, or do we tear them down, and rename those places. In the US, there is a very large argument that by tearing down those monuments we are attempting to erase history, and this idea that history is always written by the victors comes up often. I’ve even heard people say that had the Civil War gone differently, it would be the northern monuments on the chopping block.
Something that has given me a unique perspective on this issue is the way history is discussed in South Africa. South Africans are usually very open about their history, and as much of it is so recent, many speak from personal experience. Everything here is educational, and to speak out against the past. Today while touring Freedom Park, our guide mentioned that many statues commemorating old times have been gathered and put in museums to be discussed in the correct way, and this is something I understand. Those places that are named after old generals or figures are being changed, and if you think about it it makes sense, they serve no educational purpose. It is not about erasing history, but rather learning from it in order to make sure we don’t repeat past mistakes.
When you leave up a monument in the context that it was erected, you allow it to continue to have power. While you might argue “it is our history,” you are allowing those who idolize it, who use it to justify ongoing racism, who draw from it to continue on. We say the past is over, yet the KKK continues to grow in numbers. We say there is no point in changing the name of a school because it is a hassle, but you then allow a distorted version of history to be told, one that reminds students who walk into that school every day who truly won the war. The North may have officially won the Civil War, but racism did not end. Policies that imprisoned people of color in the United States did not end. We do not use our monuments and our names to educate. Those who worry we are trying to erase history need not worry, for American history is not written by the victors, but rather the racism and intolerance that lived long past the Civil War, long past the Civil Rights Movement, and infects our society today.
The Voortrekkers monument is a great example of a place that really continues a certain narrative here in South Africa. For those who do not know, the Voortrekkers were the Boers (Dutch) who traveled across South Africa in the late 1800s/ early 1900s in covered wagons (similar to our pioneers). The entire tour told their history but also continued to talk about the brutality they faced at the hands of the Zulu tribes, and how they just wanted a place to settle. Yet, it left out one important point. The Zulu tribes owed these people nothing. They did not owe them treaties or land. And realistically, they reacted the way any people would when a foreigner invades their land and claims it for their own, they fought back. Yet, that was not the narrative shown, it was simply a monument to the greatness of the Voortrekkers and the savagery of the Zulu. It left out so much, and the Voortrekkers are not the eventual victors of this story, yet their story is told.
Our guide at Freedom Hill today said that these heritage spaces, spaces where we discuss our history and commemorate, must be contested spaces. They must be spaces that we are willing to discuss, argue, to work to understand. Our spaces in the United States aren’t contested. We have the inability to be able to have discussion, but rather stick to history the way we see it, the way we were taught. We do not have the problem of victors the way those who justify these monuments believe we do. American history is taught in a way that is subjective, in a way that shows we have not reconciled with our past, and allow it to take hold. You want your monuments, fine, but justify to me how they’re educational, how you’ve used them in a way that takes away their power.
In my opinon, you don’t erase history by changing them, you shape it. You document it and in doing so change the conversation for generations to come. When you can justify that we will talk, but until then we must really think about how we’re sharing history, and if we are allowing our past the power to continue having the same impact it was erected to have.