we all know the iconic images of the first democratic election 27 years ago. They capture people in a row in the shape of a river, twisting and turning into shapes never seen in South Africa.
These lines contrast with the rigid history of white supremacy – of black and white, us and them – and have created forms that cross the historical narrative of racism and separation in the country.
Some people think that it is useless to contemplate freedom in South Africa because the subject is just a front for the most unequal country in the world. Some ignore the violence of the transition period. Others think the issue is redundant and everyone should move on. It may be even less useful for an American like me to do that. What can an American clarify about South African democracy, anyway?
But I think it is necessary to reflect on the transition from South Africa, especially as a non-South African, because I believe that the result of democracy is revolutionary.
It is crucial to continually reflect on South Africa’s transition to democracy, no matter who is doing it, because the meaning of this changes and evolves over time – it doesn’t mean and it shouldn’t mean anything.
When viewed in relation to the full extent of South Africa’s turbulent history, the outcome of democracy is so unlikely.
While it is tempting to take an internal or external perspective as a non-South African, preferring to consider the differences between “here” and “there”, establishing my life in South Africa required me to adopt as full and broad a view of the country as possible.
When it comes to South African history, this means considering not only apartheid, but also the projects of slavery and colonialism. These projects are often thought of in historic silos, although they were built on top of each other.
But, I didn’t always think about South African history that way. In fact, for a time I had a distorted view of it.
In 2011, I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I was a wide-eyed international student originally from Minnesota, in the United States, and had spent a semester at Stellenbosch University. At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas.
What I remember from my first visit to the museum was the brutality of apartheid portrayed in the different exhibitions: the tragic combination of violence, fear and ignorance that was institutionally spread throughout South Africa.
My first impression of the museum – and, by extension, of South African history – was not shaped by understanding. Instead, it was shaped by the ease with which a visitor like me could conveniently isolate the apartheid past, as if the continuity between then and now was an invention of some imaginary present. After all, what the museum portrayed was history – and it was not my history, I assumed.
Seven years later, in 2018, I visited the Apartheid Museum for the second time. This time, I was working with a group of American international students who were studying at the University of Cape Town.
During my second walk through the museum with American students in 2018, I had a totally different and profound experience. I realized how mistaken I was to assume that the history of South Africa was not my history and, in fact, it had become part of my life since my first visit. What made my second visit profound was everything that happened in between.
My life had been transformed. I returned to South Africa in 2013, after finishing my undergraduate studies to graduate from Stellenbosch University, focusing on the novels Triomf and Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk. I started working with international students. I also met the woman who became my wife in 2017.
Over time, a path opened up and I saw my future in the country.
With that backstory in mind, I walked from exhibition to exhibition at the Apartheid Museum during my second visit and realized that if the transition to democracy in 1994 had failed or fallen into a violent civil war, as it almost happened, I would not have known my wife and the outlines of my life would be radically different. When that perception took shape, I stopped in front of a map of the Bantustans, which really became readable for me.
One of the few cities listed on this map is where my wife is from. Realizing everything that had to happen – both in the United States and in South Africa – to meet, I was moved to tears.
Leaving the Apartheid Museum that day, I realized that it was not between South Africa and the USA. I was leaving not only the United States behind, but also my initial understanding of South Africa and its history.
He was learning to see the country with a more complete view of history that considers how the present was shaped by centuries of racism and subjugation through the projects of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.
When considering the history of South Africa, many people unfortunately ignore the extent to which slavery, with legislation such as the Cape Slave Law, shaped parts of the foundation of society. From 1658, when the first group of human slaves arrived in Amersfoort, until 1834, when it was abolished in the Cape Colony, slavery stood out. That’s 176 years – or the amount of time between 1834 and the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
Although colonialism began in 1652 with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company, the period after the abolition of slavery saw the expansion of a colonial mentality.
This period encouraged land grabbing and reinforced the legislative infrastructure first imposed during the slavery project with laws like the Native Lands Act or the Immortality Act – which would have made it illegal for me and my wife to be together – helped to promote a system of racialized paranoia and neglect.
When the National Party took over in 1948 and implemented apartheid, they inherited an infrastructure of white supremacy. Despite the intrinsic illegality of apartheid, one of the most poignant exhibits at the Apartheid Museum is a collection of the different laws that made up the system.
While the number of laws illuminates the extent to which South Africans have always resisted oppression, defending the legality of white supremacy requires many “laws”. There is no morality in such a system, so governing parties must try to legislate to dispel any sense of moral conviction.
The belief that South Africa belongs to all who live in it is revolutionary because, for more than three hundred years, through projects of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, South Africa was projected – in many ways, violently – for failure.
Therefore, overcoming this story in 1994, after negotiations and a democratic vote – in a country that preferred violence to conversation and the restriction of participation – is worth celebrating.
Whether the transition was revolutionary is not a redundant topic – there is great historical significance at stake. Instead of thinking in terms of uniqueness – of what South Africa was – of the future open to plurality – of what South Africa could be.
The emergence of the possibility engendered by democracy – in a country in which, historically, the possibilities were fixed, limited by race and legislated to remain in place – constitutes a major revolution.
This belief changed the lives of South Africans; it also changed my life. The courage and sacrifices of South Africans to fight for a better life and future not only made a new country possible, but also what made my life possible.
The country changed in 1994 because people believed it could change and believed it was worth changing. We cannot change something that we do not believe we are capable of or worthy to change.
Without knowing it and before I moved to South Africa in 2013, my way of life was determined by people and events in South Africa, many of which happened before I was born, far from the United States.
Looking back on my first visit to the Apartheid Museum, I realize that it was a mistake to assume that South African history could not be mine. History, whatever our perception of it, does not conform easily to the forms we desire. It has a shape of its own, like the shapes of people in line to vote in 1994.