By Paul sixpence
The collective memory of Apartheid in South Africa carries poignant memories of Africa’s tumultuous political trajectory. Sad as Apartheid might have been it still provides instructive lessons in nation-state building and rich lessons in conflict transformation not only to Africa, but the world. This article will situate Apartheid memorials, namely, the Apartheid museum (2001) at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg, Hector Pieterson memorial (2002) in Soweto, Johannesburg1 and the Apartheid Gallows Memorial (2011) at Pretoria Central Prison within the main commemorative vision of the African Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The significance of the South African experience in sharing lessons in transitional justice and governance is encapsulated in continental social activism by civic society in memorialising human rights violations through the AUHRM. The AUHRM is a signifier of the will of the people of Africa and civic society to remind African leaders and the African Union (AU) of their commitments to good governance and respect for human rights.
Apartheid and Disempowerment
Apartheid as a system of racial discrimination was epitomised by segregation laws and policies against all non-whites and created a divided nation. The adoption of the Apartheid policy in 1948 by the Apartheid Nationalist Party divided South Africa along racial and ethnic lines, with the white community viewing itself in contradistinction to the African, Indian and Coloured (mixed race) communities. Racial segregation permeated through the racial divide and extended to black African ethnic groups. With a divided nation, the national identity of the people of South Africa was lost and power struggles among the dominant black African ethnic groups threatened the ideation of a common vision among the disempowered classes. The lived experiences of the majority in South Africa became denominated by ‘emotional distress, powerlessness, anger and fear.’2 The people of South Africa were not an isolated in their suffering; the case of South Africa was just but a microcosm of the political situation obtaining in colonial Africa. Apartheid just like colonialism dispossessed Africans of their individual and collective self-worth and fostered mistrust among the people who resided in Africa during the colonial period.
Despite challenges faced by the majority of South Africans during this period, there emerged the political will among the victims of the system to reverse the spectre of Apartheid. Social and political activism led from within South Africa opposed the unjust system. Of particular note, is that political activism against Apartheid was not only limited to black South Africans, it cut across the various racial groups found in South Africa. As South Africans were fighting Apartheid, liberation movements across Africa were also fighting for the same ideals of justice, equality, dignity and the right to self-determination. Activism for political reform and democracy in colonial territories was often met with force.
Apartheid government responses to political dissent
The Apartheid government responded to political dissent and political organisation through killing and jailing activists. This sad history is today documented and memorialised through museums and memorials in South Africa. The Apartheid museum captures the tumultuous political trajectory of South Africa from the late 1890s to 1994. This history is littered with sad events such as the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Rivonia trial of 1963 – 64, which is also known as the ‘Nelson Mandela trial’ and the 1976 Soweto uprisings which have been elaborately captured at the Hector Pieterson museum. The history of killings, perpetrated on either side of the fighting camps is also documented. The Apartheid Gallows monument at Pretoria Central Prison was the centre of state sanctioned executions. A total of 103 political activists were executed at this facility before it was closed down after the abolition of the death penalty in 1995.
The end of Apartheid and its significance
The end of Apartheid in 1994 coincided with the period when the world was moving towards the adoption of punitive measures against human rights violations. The 1990s saw the establishment of the United Nations tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In 1998 the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court was adopted by 120 nations. South Africa broke the norm, going against retributive justice and adopting a restorative justice approach centred on human rights.3 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) adjudicated over amnesty applications, human rights violators from across the political and race divides received reprieves for politically motivated crimes.
Informed by the violent history of South Africa under Apartheid, the Constitutional Court of South Africa in an act of judicial activism passed a landmark ruling in 1995 to abolition the death sentence. Delivering its judgment in State v Makwanyane and others the Court held that the death penalty was in violation of the right to life.4 The reasoning of the Court was underlain by considerations of the moral dimension of South Africa’s history and how the new nation-state was to relate with its past.5
At the final analysis it can be noted that the history of South Africa under Apartheid brings to the fore important lessons for Africa, specifically in post – conflict reconstruction, transitional justice and national identity formation. It is these lessons that the AUHRM captures, commemorates and shares with the wider African audience. The AUHRM and the various Apartheid memorials in South Africa denote a structural embodiment of the trauma faced by mostly the collective ‘black’ populations of Africa during slavery and colonialism. By extension and embodying Apartheid as class warfare one may interpret the Rwanda genocide within the same realm.6 Taking note of the submissions made above the significance of the AUHRM is established. Through collective memory the AUHRM brings to the fore the centrality of social activism in leading normative change and promoting a responsive AU. Campaigns by activists led to the end of Apartheid,7 judicial activism led to the abolition of the death penalty in South Africa and the AUHRM is a ‘memory box’ denoting the struggle for human rights in Africa and a call to governments, the AU and the people of Africa to be active defenders of the fundamental rights upon which African nation-states are founded.
Paul Sixpence is a journalist from Zimbabwe who is pursuing his Human Rights studies at the Central European University
1 Darren Newbury, “’Lest we forget’ : photography and the presentation of history at the Apartheid Museum, Gold Reef City, and the Hector Pieterson Museum, Soweto,” Visual Communication Vol.4 No.3 (2005) 259 - 295
2 Josephine C. Naidoo and Devi Moodley Rajab, “The Dynamics of Oppression: A Psycho - Political Analysis of the Traumatic Experiences of Minority Asian Indians in Apartheid South Africa,” Psychology Developing Societies Vol. 17 No. 2 (2005); 139 - 159
3 Richard A. Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimising the Post – Apartheid State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2001:
4 Judgement of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in State v Makwanyane and others (CCT/3/94)
5 Pieter Duvenage, “The Politics of Memory and Forgetting after Auschwitz and Apartheid,” Philosophy Social Criticism Vol.25 No.3 (1999); 1-28
6 Elizabeth Rankin and Leon Schmidt, “The Apartheid Museum: Performing a Spatial Dialectics,” Journal of Visual Culture Vol 8, No 1 (2009); 76 - 102
7 Audie Klotze, “Transnational Activism and Global Transformations: The Anti-Apartheid and Abolitionist Experiences,” European Journal of International Relations Vol 8. No.1 (2002)