Throughout this first week in Johannesburg, I have learned so much about South African history, culture, and people, and I have constantly been struck by how much I did not know, as well as how much mirrors American history and culture. I am struck by how we tend to simplify the vast, complex, and nuanced history of an entire continent into a single narrative of poverty, development, conflict, and dependence. Our world history classes in high school are incredibly Euro-centric. When I think about what I had learned about the history of different African countries in my previous classes, I realize that we only expansively discussed African history when it became relevant in European and American politics. Proponents of this often subconscious practice will justify this by saying that European and American culture and politics are the dominant forces across the globe, which I think is true to an extent. However, how can we possibly incorporate less developed countries like South Africa into a global order and economy if we do not understand their respective histories, cultures, and points of views?
Most people, particularly people in America, think about these countries through a lens of subconscious superiority that is driven into us through concepts like “American exceptionalism.” This allows us to mentally separate ourselves and “other” these less developed nations. This hinders us from realizing that, in fact, we are more similar to countries like South Africa than we want to admit. Learning about South African history and culture during our one week in Johannesburg certainly does not make me an expert on the subject, but even from this short whirlwind week of museums, monuments, and tours, I can immediately point out glaring parallels between our histories. Some of the most interesting parallels arose on the first full day.
We first visited the Voortrekker Monument, which honors the Dutch settlers of the Cape who decided to make the Great Trek north because the British had formed a colony in the Cape. Our tour guide was this incredibly enthusiastic Afrikaner woman who clearly was really passionate about her (version of) history. The main part of the monument is “Heroes Hall,” which houses an elaborate and long set of reliefs that describe the Great Trek. It describes the Afrikaners’ move north and how they displaced and warred with native African tribes. The narrative that is told is clearly sympathetic towards the Afrikaners. These Afrikaners are shown as valiant saviors and visionaries of a particular type of Dutch society, rather than as conquerors taking away land from original inhabitants.
Immediately afterwards, we visited Freedom Park, which is primarily a monument to honor those who worked and fought against apartheid, both internationally and nationally. The stark dichotomy between the two monuments was immediately clear. Our guide at Freedom Park was completely candid about the aims of the monument and, impressively, about the criticisms against its methodology and mission. His objective, nuanced comments allowed us to gain a broad and holistic understanding of the different versions of history and of the role of race in current conflicts over the current rewriting of history to be more inclusive of all races in South Africa.
Importantly, we learned about the relationship and tension between the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park, and the politics attached to them. These two monuments have been joined by one road for a few years now, and this is meant to be symbolic of the reconciling of the two histories and peace between white people, particularly Afrikaners, who have historically been in power, and nonwhite South Africans. However, these two histories are vastly different and oppose each other. Our guide explained that the Voortrekker Monument has become a rallying point for the far right in South Africa, made up of white nationalist interests. This is extremely interesting to me because it parallels the growing trend in right-wing American politics. Many people have pointed to the rise of Trump as an indicator of American white nationalist frustration.
Furthermore, the two monuments reminded me of the continuing conflict over the rhetoric and events of the American Civil War. For some in the South, the civil war is still the “War of Northern Aggression,” similar to how the Voortrekker Monument and its tour guide did not acknowledge the other part of the story. Many Southern towns still display the Confederate flag and statues that commemorate Confederate leaders without regard to the racist institution that they were defending. The display of these alternate histories is not itself the problem (except for the Confederate flag on public property), but the blind glorification of incredibly biased histories is. It is not enough to have these varied narratives available because people must know the context behind these narratives and be open to discussion.
All in all, my slowly growing understanding of South African politics is providing me with an excellent framework to compare American politics to. My first week in South Africa has definitely increased my appreciation for the power of political narratives and shown me the importance of not only what we choose to remember, but how.
Lastly, I wanted to share a quote that I found powerful and disturbing from the Apartheid Museum:
“When I have control over native education, I will reform it so that natives will be taught from childhood that equality with Europeans is not for them.”
– Prime Minister HF Verwoerd, architect of Apartheid. 1963.
This is just a reminder that 1963 was not actually very long ago. Not in South Africa and not in America either.