As I walked through the halls of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t help but consider the timeliness of my visit. With less than a week remaining in this trip of a lifetime I find myself growing reflective. I usually do this after wrapping up a major event, like a vacation or school year; my reactions differ each time, ranging from “I wish this would never end” to “well, that was a waste of time.” I’m glad to report this trip falls soundly into the first category.
Nevertheless, after looking back over my journey I feel like the Apartheid Museum provided an element that was distressingly absent: the dark side of South Africa’s history. Up until that point my tour of the country had been largely pleasant. Yes, I had seen some of the less flattering parts of South Africa before. But it was only yesterday that I understood these were just echoes of years of oppression. Now confined to these halls, the effects of this system of segregation are still being felt outside. I wouldn’t say it was a negative experience, however. On the contrary it has only raised my opinion of the country.
I must have mystified my other teammates, standing there dumbly as I viewed the numerous pictures, videos and testimonies of victims. There was a vague restlessness in me while my mind swirled and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. I put it aside and tried to focus on other things (I was also helping my teammate Christina to teach Clarece some Chinese), but the sensation dogged me all day. It was only as I was about to leave that a complete stranger I was talking to put it in perspective for me. He had found himself comparing the anti-apartheid movement to other fights against discrimination, like the civil rights movement. When we parted ways I pursued the notion further, comparing apartheid to other ethnic conflicts.
After looking through the annals of history, conventional wisdom would say the racial climate of South Africa should be impossible. Never in recent history have people forgiven so much so quickly. As I said before, although their fight against discrimination ended over 30 years after the civil rights movement in the United States, the state of race relations is similar to that of America. Or think about ethnic clashes that are still happening right now, like those between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East or Serbians and Albanians in Eastern Europe. Some of these conflicts are centuries old and there is ill will on both sides.
An outsider could probably never understand how or why it happened, but I will venture a guess anyway. Throughout my stay I have been hard-pressed to find happier people, and I think I finally know why: because they have every right to be. They say the bad times are there so we learn to appreciate the good ones; after such a long period of bad times, there must be great cause for joy.