South Africa celebrated its first Democratic Election today … held a mere 21 years ago April 27, 1994.
That’s nothing … 21 years is no time at all. It had never really occurred to me that this country is so young. And so new to learning to live together after years under apartheid – the very antithesis of democracy – that systematically and brutally segregated this society by race.
We knew very little about Freedom Day when we boarded the ferry to Robben Island to tour the former prison that housed Mandela and most other political opponents of apartheid. It was coincidence that I had chosen this day to buy tickets for the tour. But as we piled on the ferry, and then trooped over to the prison and listened as a former political prisoner described life as a prisoner, I realized how far South Africa had come in such a short time.
Our guide at the Robben Island prison was sentenced for “terrorism” in 1983 and spent seven years in prison until his release in 1990 – when the prison was closed and all political prisoners released. His crime was recruiting members to the ANC – the black nationalist political party outlawed by the apartheid government.
He described how the prisoners work the limestone quarry where they were forced to move rocks from point A to point B … and then back to point A. For years. Meaningless work meant to demoralize. And how the educated prisoners – 70% of the political prisoners were educated and professionals – taught the uneducated to read and write by drawing letters in the sand. They schooled their own followers and trained their ANC leadership on Robben Island.
The striation of apartheid reached into the prison, where prisoners were treated differently according to race. Black political prisoners had to wear short sleeve shirts and short pants, no shoes and socks, even in winter. Even when there was no glass on the barracks wall and they lay on mats on the floor with a blanket for the mat, a blanket for a pillow and a blanket to cover them.
The “colored” political prisoners- defined under apartheid as anyone racially “not white” – received long pants and a long sleeve shirt, shoes and socks. There is a photo of prisoners sitting in a yard in an evenly spaced line, breaking rocks for their daily meaningless labor. Breaking the same rocks. Sitting side by side. Dressed differently. Fed differently. Treated differently, even though they all organized against the same regime that differentiated and gave some better treatment than others.
The systematic racism inside the prison directly reflected what apartheid wrought outside.
Apartheid policies designated neighborhoods by race, and homes were raised and families uprooted to put each race in their designated geographic neighborhood.
All non-whites were forced to wear Dom Badges that identified them by number and clearly classified them by race. Dom meant “stupid” under the old Dutch rule. Letters from women seeking to visit prisoners all made extremely polite and respectful pleas for the right of visiting for one day … and all included the woman’s name and her identity number.
It is remarkable to me that a society can transition from such ingrained and institutionalized racism to a functioning – yet imperfect – democracy today … just 21years later.
Undoubtably this was due to the example and leadership of Mandela and Tutu and others who led a transition that went far beyond elections and the political, and helped a country forgive and heal and start working together.
And Capetown is likely further down the healing road than elsewhere. Though this thriving and diverse city is still ringed by townships where blacks still live in staggering poverty and still struggle to get past the barriers that are apartheid’s legacy. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities that impact daily life here.
Many locals celebrated Freedom Day by fleeing to the beach for the long weekend. There were public celebrations and music with children waving flags and dancing and banging drums.
But the tours of Robben Island – and the education of those who journeyed out – continued today as it had when it was still a prison … educating the next generation of activists and those who care enough to come … and learn … and perhaps to teach.
And I expect this investment in teaching others and bringing people together to understand the past is how South Africa has succeeded in coming so far in such a short 21 years.