Although Apartheid is over, its influence continues to intrude in virtually every waking moment of a Black person’s life in South Africa, says Kelebogile Motswatswa.
In his autobiography Still Grazing, South African jazz extraordinaire Hugh Masekela’s recollection of a bygone monolith moved me in ways I can’t even begin to enunciate.
What particularly struck a nerve were his reflections on the conditions during the Apartheid regime under which miners, in his hometown, Witbank, worked – and the homes to which they returned: no land, no family; they were forced to participate in a migrant labour system that caused the disintegration of many Black families.
Reading Masekela’s book got me thinking: how can White South Africans tell me to get over Apartheid when it dehumanised my people in such unbelievable ways? The callousness and lack of empathy is bewildering, to say the least.
“It was a tough town where African miners drank themselves stuporous to blot out memory of the blackness of the mines and the families and lands they’d left behind, often to never see again,” writes Masekela.
In 2012, I lived in the Cape of Not So Good Hope – also nicknamed “the colony” due to the fact that, spatially and socially, that city has been slow to reflect a transitioned South African society.
My White flatmate walked into a conversation my friend and I were having about racism in South Africa and what South African political analyst and author Eusebius McKaiser once described as the existing “non-violent manifestations” of Apartheid.
As we were having this heart-wrenching discussion, we were told to “let go of the past because Apartheid is over”. I don’t remember the direction the conversation took thereafter but what I do know is that many Black people have heard a variation of this statement.
So, to address that pernicious statement – “let go of the past, apartheid is over” – here are two reasons, among many, why I simply cannot get over Apartheid.
The persistence of environmental Apartheid
2020 was a difficult year for us all, what with forced lockdowns that required that we stay home to flatten the curve. In spite of the chaos, my home has offered much-need tranquility in this time of collective grief.
I am fortunate enough to reside in an area that feels like an oasis in the middle of an arid desert. But even as I enjoy basking in the northern Johannesburg suburbs, my heart breaks for those who live on the barren outskirts of the city, pushed there by Apartheid, and deprived of the serenity and mental wellbeing that come with being exposed to nature.
With over 10m trees, Johannesburg is touted as being the largest man-made forest in the world. Living in one of South Africa’s wealthiest suburbs, Sandton, I get to experience the beauty of huge trees, lush grass, and the calming smell of jacarandas.
Privileged as I am, it is not lost on me that the majority of South Africans do not live in such ecological splendour. I’m constantly reminded that Apartheid was a system of deprivation, denial and death; a system that made sure that Black people were stripped of everything that resembled life.
The Apartheid government also used the environment to oppress and cause harm to Black people. Academics Valerie Stull, Michael M.Bell, and Mpumelelo Ncwadi (2016) describe environmental Apartheid as “the use of rural space as an environmental means of marginalisation”.
And this is something that is very clear to anyone who has spent time in Sandton (or any wealthy South African town) and in townships such as Soweto, where there are fewer trees, little space and more pollution: all of this has had devastating implications for people’s physical and mental health.
As noted by the Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Witwatersrand, Jacklyn Cock (2017): “Most black South Africans continue to live on the most damaged land, in the most polluted neighbourhoods near coal-fired power stations, steel mills, incinerators and waste sites. Many are without access to clean air, water and services.”
For those who live in the townships and work in the suburbs, the daily commute is a reminder of the stark difference between the lives of Black and White people. It is a reminder of the spatial violence meted out against them through forced removals. It is a reminder that they are Black and that the system within which they operate is anti-Black.
So, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting. The memory of Apartheid lives on in the environments we inhabit; our homes have been turned into sites of trauma. Forgetting is a part of White privilege that cannot be denied.
Relentless cloud of anti-Blackness
There are many ways in which White privilege manifests itself in the South African context. I see it in how White patrons get better service than Black patrons at a restaurant, especially from Black waiters and waitresses. This is due, in part, to the fact that many Black South Africans battle internalised racism.
I experience a form of this internalised self-hatred almost every day, whether I’m buying groceries or trying to get help at the bank – anti-Blackness is a relentless cloud that hovers above my head.
I simply cannot let go of Apartheid because that violent, oppressive system and the concomitant Black trauma have been memorialised even beyond the spatial and the institutional; our pain has been commodified through dark tourism sites such as the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Johannesburg, and the District Six Museum in Cape Town.
On the memorialisation of Black trauma, a Psychology Today commentary (2019) observed: “Dark tourism refers to a type of tourism that involves visits to tourist attractions and destinations that are associated with death, suffering, disasters and tragedies.”
There are many sites in South Africa that exhibit Black pain, and with our trauma on exhibition for the world to see as part of some attempt at socio-economic growth, how can we possibly leave Apartheid in the past when it haunts our present in so many vivid ways?
I have no idea what a dompas looks like – a dompas was a passbook that Black people over the age of 26, mandated by the Pass Laws Act of 1952, had to carry with them during Apartheid – and I am unfamiliar with the stench and interior of a cesspit, but what I do know are the scars of Apartheid.
In South Africa, Black trauma is passed on from generation to generation, and as a Black South African, regardless of my age, I do not have the luxury of forgetting and moving on.
Our inferiority is reflected in our minimal access to quality healthcare and education; it is manifested in our fight for a seat at the corporate table. Through Black tax, the struggle is manifested in our obligation to our mothers and fathers, who were denied equal opportunities to build successful careers.
South Africa has come far but the road ahead is still long, and until privilege and access to a quality of life are deracialised, I simply cannot get over Apartheid. The past is still present; we simply cannot move on – the system will not allow us.