the end of Jo-Burg
27.02.2011 - 02.03.2011
Now that I have switched continents for the third time and am beginning to get over the next wave of jetlag, I found this the perfect time to retell my South African adventures.
The last couple of days for me were spent by day in the museums and other cultural landmarks of Johannesburg and by night with family.
One of the days I spent going to Constitution Hill (picture here) , which was originally a Boer fort and now houses both relics from that time period along with the Constitutional Court and the men's and women's jails that were used in the time of Apartheid. The Court for me was a must-see experience from both a historical and architectural perspective. What makes the Court itself so interesting is that it incorporates important cultural cues into a modern and visually stunning facility. The interior is built with bricks from the original fort and adjoining prison, as well as an exterior pathway called the "Great Walk of Africa," the entrance labels the court in the eleven official languages, and the interior has an art gallery with local artists, a library, and the court itself, which is appointed with local hides and has windows for the public to view inwards. In regards to the Constitutional document itself, which is proudly displayed in an exhibit inside, it serves as a study into such a recent democracy and tries to encapsulate all of the best characteristics of its predecessors. The other major component of the Hill was Number Four, which was a prison that was in use until 1983 and housed political prisoners including Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. Inside the showed how everyday citizenry, the vast majority of which were non-white, were imprisoned for such petty acts as not carrying a pass (under the pass system in Apartheid all people not considered "European" had to carry a pass in order to cross into "European" areas during restricted times). Inside of the prisons, conditions were bleak and changed depending on whether someone was "white," "colored," or "African." Overcrowding, abuse, and extreme rationing were endemic in the cells of non-whites and only got worse for "Africans." I think the most jaw-dropping part of the tour was walking inside of one of the solitary confinement cells, which was slightly bigger than a public bathroom stall in the US and had no windows. On the back of each door still remains the graffiti that still serve as a testament as to what the people their unfairly went through.
The same day I also visited the Origins Centre located on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand, known widely as Wits (picture here). As indicated by its name, the centre chronicled the development of mankind, especially in Africa, from its earliest instances to the presence. One thing I did not know was that some of the earliest instances of art and creativity were discovered in Africa in the form of marking on the side of the tool and date back thousands of years before those later found in Europe and Asia. Additionally, the oldest known fossil of man known was found in the region, confirming that at the end of the day all major developments in the human race can be traced back to Africa. Some of the more experimental exhibits in the museum were done by modern artists and focused on re-interpreting "native" art with a focus on the themes of development, urbanization, and the sense of cultural transition.
The next day I went to the Apartheid museum, situated between downtown Johannesburg and the mine dumps that cover up Soweto. From the very entrance of the place, you had the feeling that it was going to be a real moving and informative experience. Entrance cards came out at random and specified you either as a "European" or "Non-White," meaning that you could only enter into the museum in a specific and unique way (picture here. From here, in excrutiating detail, the museum catalogues the development of population dynamics that eventually led to the implementation of Apartheid. This went from the original European settlers that disturbed the Bantu people of the region with the discovery of gold in the area around Johannesburg to the Boer Wars during 1880-1881 and 1899-1902 between the independent Boer Republic and the British Empire to the establishment of British and later government thereafter and the appropriation of laws and rules that went to place the various ethnic groups within the country into almost a caste system. What was most disturbing was that race was the only distinguishing factor and that the laws the Boer government eventually set up around it and continued from the 1960's onward looked to inhibit and severely punish every single freedom held by "non-whites." More than anything, the minority that was in power in the country governed with a sense of fear, using their perceived sense of superiority in order to subjugate those around them and continue to enjoy their freedoms for as long as possible. Combined with the experiences I had in Soweto and Constitution Hill, the museum helped to complete the picture regarding what really happened.
All in all, I am very happy that I got to go to Jo-Burg during the trip. In addition to getting to get to reconnect with family after roughly 6 or 7 odd years, I got to see the city in a new light. Before on family trips, it felt almost like a stopover in between the US and either East London, where my grandmother lives, or another part of South Africa. In staying there I saw it as more than that, serving as both an important commercial and cultural hub in the area. Beyond the sheer economical output, there are numerous experiences, from Soweto to the museums, to remind both citizenry and outsiders of the struggles that occurred and are still going on within the new South Africa.