Ten Days in the Homeland of Humanity – A Study Visit to the Republic of South Africa
A group of 11 peace activists from the former Yugoslavia visited the Republic of South Africa from 29 January to 8 February. The trip was significantly aided by the Nelson Mandela Foundation (Johannesburg) and the Human Rights Media Centre (Cape Town), who agreed to be our hosts. The idea to visit RSA was born long ago, and the planning of the trip took almost a year.
Apart from the physical distance, the social conflicts, so different and yet in many ways reminiscent of those familiar to us, were reasons for our apprehension about the outcome of this visit, but also reasons to go there. At the end, when we had returned from the visit, I quickly concluded: this was one of the most important journeys and experiences in my life. Multi-layered, difficult, painful, exhausting, but also powerful, beautiful and motivating.
(This report will not follow a chronological order, but will instead be divided into three sections: PEOPLE, MUSEUMS, COUNTRY. The report will also include various impressions of the visit participants and a photo gallery by Nenad Vukosavljević and Nedžad Horozović.)
Thanks to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and our friend Verne Harris, we met people whose personal stories from the time of apartheid, and their present-day activism, helped us understand this period of South African history, as well as the nuances of the problems they face today. Apart from making sure we had someone to talk to, Verne and the Nelson Mandela Foundation were also kind enough to provide us with a conference room, for which we are particularly grateful.
At the start of our visit, Verne introduced us to the broader context of South African society, which, according to him, is still deeply divided and where the white minority still has control over the majority.
“Essentially, we are still a colony,” he said, indicating a thread that would run throughout our visit: from the “settlement” of Africa by the pioneers until present day, when the legal and state system are bound by democracy and respect for human rights, but these remain inaccessible for the majority of the country’s population.
The places from which black people were banned during apartheid are open to them now, but they do not have the money to visit them, said one of our interlocutors, and if you had to describe the situation in the country in one sentence, that would be it.
This is by no means an attempt to relativise or justify apartheid, and it goes without saying that the end of this shameful period in world history did much to improve daily life for those that were oppressed by it, with the disenfranchised gaining rights and a country, but there is still much to be done in many fields and the products of such efforts often lie far in the unforeseeable future.
Khulumani is an organisation whose mission is to “build an inclusive and just society in which the dignity of people harmed by apartheid is restored through the process of transforming victims into victors.” It brings together some 100 thousand victims and survivors of apartheid-era torture. It was started by survivors testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). For the past 20 years they have been working on truth, memory and healing. We spoke with Dr Marjorie Jobson, the organisation’s director, and her associates: Nomarussia Bonase and Danisile Mabanga, who work with women survivors of sexual violence; Thabo Shabangu, president of the Khulumani Men’s Forum; veteran Dick Mokoena, Dr Charles Hlatshwayo, former fighter who survived torture and is now working with traditional healing techniques to help families resolve numerous cases of violence that were not recorded by the TRC.
In the second part of our meeting, we watched a documentary together, produced by the Khulumani Centre and called “Bloody Christmas” (link) about the transformation of Stefaans Coetzee, a member of the right-wing, who in 1996 set off a bomb in a crowded shopping centre, killing four and wounding 67 people. The film recounts his personal transformation, the forgiveness he sought and received from the victims, the process they went through, he – sentenced to life imprisonment and they – left to live with a lifelong loss.
After the film, a discussion developed within our ex-Yu peace group about the honesty of the transformation of perpetrators. From our context, which is unfamiliar or does not recognise the notion of spiritual healing, we saw the transformation as the perpetrator’s attempt at a trade-off – if I am transformed, they may reduce my prison sentence. But after a long talk, we arrived at the conclusion that if the victims gave their forgiveness, who are we to question it?
Leon Wesseles is a human rights lawyer, a university professor, and someone you are unlikely to ever forget even if you only meet him once in your life. He is the son of a police officer and was a police officer himself, but if you were to hear him speak without seeing him, you would think he was black. During the period of apartheid, he was a member of the government and negotiated the transition process with the ANC. Then, at the end of that process, he stood by Nelson Mandela for the signing of the new Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, but this will not be the main thing we will remember him for. We asked him how it came about that with such a family and personal history, he experienced a transformation and devoted himself to fighting apartheid.
“Reinventing yourself is not a onetime event,” Wesseles told us.
He calls the situation in RSA “unfinished peace” and it was good that we met him at the beginning of our visit because his insights encouraged us to view what we saw later from one more perspective.
Yasmin Sooka was a human rights lawyer during apartheid. She later became a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and was one of the three persons who wrote the Commission’s report. She gave us a brief overview of developments in RSA after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its work. Although the Commission left a number of recommendations about what the state should do as part of its legacy, these were not completely implemented. She told us about the case of 23-year-old Nokuthula Simelani who was tortured and killed by members of the special police during apartheid. Her body was never found and this crime that dates back to 1983 reached the prosecutor’s office only last year when the four police officers were charged with murder. She also talked about the student protests in RSA that are seeing participation by members of the first generation in this country without any direct memory of apartheid.
Contemporary capitalism is the long arm of segregation: what used to be inaccessible to black people due to apartheid is accessible today only if they can afford it. And they cannot. The wrath of students is directed at changes that did not happen: the university curricula are Eurocentric, the steering board is white, financial and social support to black students is poor. They demand, in particular, a new history that will not glorify the creators of apartheid, the heroes of colonialism, but will introduce a new perspective of these parts of history and a new creation of national identity. 60% of the population of RSA is under 25 years of age.
Shirley Gunn is a revolutionary, a resistance fighter, a white woman who fought on the side of the ANC (African National Congress) and was imprisoned with her new-born son. Today, she runs the Human Rights Media Centre. She was our host and guide in Cape Town and it was thanks to her and her reputation in the community that we were able to visit places that would have been inaccessible otherwise. Shirley is engaged in changes, prepared to criticise the current government for which, as a fighter against apartheid and a victim of that system, she suffered much in the past. Her organisation strives to continue where the TRC left off and amend where it erred. They collect life stories, not storytelling.
At the organisation, we heard much about an event from 1985 referred to as the Trojan Horse Massacre in which 5 young people were killed and 12 wounded. We met Gordon Mali, the twin brother of one of the boys that were killed and visited his grave and that of another killed boy in the Gugulethu township. We then went into the township itself and there, beneath a tree, after we had been received as guests with all the accompanying customs, having washed our hands in the basin in front of the house, we spoke with Zodua Gogo and her daughter Anastasia, Gordon’s mother and sister.
We spoke about life, loss, pain, showing interest and amicability for each other. They do not often have white visitors from Europe prepared to hear the human side of their story, and for us it was a singular opportunity to see how people who have survived one of the most repressive regimes in human history live and think, how they see the future for themselves and for society as a whole. Gogo is not optimistic as far as her personal fate is concerned: she can expect to get a brick house soon, part of “phase three” of the resettlement of the population from their unsuitable tin sheeting homes into small brick houses. But, Gogo says that at the end of her life’s journey, without her child that was killed, it means nothing.
In a part of Johannesburg rarely visited by white people, we were hosted by Sifis, owner of the Roving Bantu Kitchen restaurant.
“I am not a black man, I’m an African. I became black when the whites decided to be white,” he says, as he tells us his life story, how he lived in exile, worked for the United Nations, lived in Canada, in order to return to his homeland after the changes, where he lives today, though there is still much he does not like in it.
Our guide through the Republic of South Africa, it’s two major cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, its history and present, and the various issues faced by its society today was Haroon Gunn-Salie, a young artist. His work, created in Brazil, we saw on display at a gallery in Cape Town, and our daily meetings gave us a chance to discuss and ask many questions that would crop up as we tried to understand the many aspects of life in this country. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for his patience and effort to fill our time with as much varied content and help us meet other interesting people.
The Constitution Hill Museum is located in Johannesburg and on the one side is a prison where numerous political prisoners had been detained, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Walking through the prison cells, preserved as they were in the past, visitors can get a sense of how the prisoners lived and the attitude of the authorities towards them. People were not equal even in prison, their life there depended on the colour of their skin. It determined the type and quantity of meals, when they would be allowed to wash, and even the number of blankets they would be given.
A special section houses an exhibition opened in 2016 and dedicated to the most famous prisoners: Gandhi and Mandela.
The second part of the former prison is the new building of the Constitutional Court with its imposing wooden doors. The Republic of South Africa officially has 11 languages and the art exhibition in the building is dedicated to the country’s diversity.
Pretoria – the museum’s name can be translated as “Museum of the Pioneers”, which is the term most often applied to the European conquerors of Africa. It glorifies their journey, various figures, the way African land was conquered and its people enslaved. The museum celebrates the “light of civilisation”, as white history describes the import of its cultural, economic and life model into Africa.
From the point of view of human rights, the museum celebrates the white race that “civilised” this part of the world, without any reservations or examination of its relation to the domestic population, their culture, customs, the exploitation of natural resources and people for the benefit of the European conquerors.
Located on a hill next to the one with the Voortrekker Museum, it represents the other side of life on the African continent, focusing on human rights. It depicts the development of life from the first humans in Africa to present day, with all the elements that influenced that development. Slavery, apartheid, wars, destruction, mass killings. Also, it celebrates the liberation and development of democracy with a view to contributing to reconciliation in RSA. They say that it was long debated where the museum should be located and that it was finally decided that it should be near the administrative centre, Pretoria, “because every inhabitant of South Africa will have to come there at least once in their life, to visit relatives, undergo medical treatment, for administrative errands…” However, our impression from the visit was that, apart from the few tourists, not many people come there.
In fact, museums throughout the world, and perhaps most visibly here, are shrines frequented by those with enough money and education, for the purpose of expanding the latter. It is a sad truth that they are still practically inaccessible to the majority of the world’s population. And especially to those for whom such a museum was originally intended.
When paying the entrance fee for this museum, you will receive a ticket. It will say: for whites or for non-whites, and will determine the entrance you are to walk through into the museum.
Since we were in a group, the very fact that we did not all get the same ticket and had to separate at the entrance created a sense of discomfort. Although we could see each other through the bars, walking through the lobby of the museum intensified this feeling of discomfort and claustrophobia. The most drastic forms of segregation are shown at the very entrance, depicting how people were marked in their personal documents and thus distributed into different legal categories.
The museum follows the rise and fall of apartheid through various media: archival documents, films, depictions, artworks and installations, documentary depictions, maps, photographs, weapons and equipment used by the state forces to protect the apartheid system. As in all other museums we saw in South Africa, the archival documents are combined with the spirit of indigenous religion and art, which helps visitors understand the most horrible periods of life in this region. One thing that left a particular impression on us, coming from this part of Europe and aged 40 on average, was the documentary about the 80s in the rest of the world, at the time when the fight against apartheid was at its peak. The special exhibition on display at the time of our visit was dedicated to Nelson Mandela, and on some of the photographs we recognised people we had met during the previous days, such as Yasmin Sooka on the large photograph of the first session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presided over by Desmond Tutu.
The museum is located in the very centre of Cape Town, in the part of the city that used to be called District Six and was inhabited by people of different skin colours, nationalities, religions. It was the trade and crafts centre of the city where people lived in peaceful coexistence and mutual solidarity. But in 1966, the authorities decided to change the purpose of that part of the city and forcibly evicted more than 60 thousand people from their homes. Despite the bans, they kept persistently coming back to their churches and mosques, and the museum is located in one of the churches. We were guided through the museum by people who used to live there and who had been forcibly removed. They told us about their fate, their life before and their life today. The irony is that this district is now almost deserted, so one gets the impression that few people live there, while just a few hundred meters away is the bustling centre of a city with a population of four million.
Our guide through the district was a man who was able to return to his old neighbourhood with the help of reparations. However, his memories, his neighbours, the spirit of the neighbourhood where he grew up cannot be substituted by the small brick house.
This island was initially a leper colony and a prison for political prisoners dating back to the 18th century. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there from 1964 to 1982 in one of the cramped solitary cells, while he had to work together with the other prisoners in the quarry during the day, without any protection, which is why his eyesight was impaired for the rest of his life.
Our guide through the museum was Thulani Mabaso, himself a prisoner, who can barely speak due to lung problems and has trouble moving about.
Already at the start of our meeting, tears flowed down his face. Retraumatisation and constantly going back to the difficult years of imprisonment have taken their toll on him. He does not emanate hatred, anger, the need for justice or revenge, but instead a deep sorrow that is painfully touching. He took us through the cells, showed us what the days were like, spoke with undisguised pride about the solidarity among the prisoners who helped each other in education, learning languages, hunger strikes that they organised to make their living conditions on the island at least fractionally more bearable.
Although for us, coming from the other end of the world, this testimony was immensely useful, it still left us wondering whether we, unaware of our skin colour, impose a new kind of harassment on people who have already suffered so much. Emotionally, it is very difficult to walk through that prison and that island and as a visitor from a different cultural context, it is difficult to even imagine how gruelling it must be to relive the Golgotha that left such deep traces on this man. On the other hand, living testimonies are invaluable in giving history a human face and conveying suffering and pain.
Gugulethu and Mashipumalele
A township is a suburb or part of the city inhabited by black people, designated for them during the apartheid period. It is not a ghetto – because then the greater part of the city would be in the ghetto. It is not the city’s periphery, for that would change the perspective – if the majority of people live in such townships, is the centre of the city where the authorities say it is or where people actually live? In any case, we were not entirely unfamiliar with the concept of such neighbourhoods, they are also to be found in our cities where poverty leads to people living in homes made of tin sheeting. But this was the first time we encountered such settlements inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people, in each township, and multiply that with the number of townships… Concretely, according to the latest available data, which cannot guarantee accuracy, in the Gugulethu township, there are 100 thousand people living in an area of 6 km², or 15 thousand per 1km². (For the sake of comparison, population density in Belgrade is 500 people per km².) The people are born in the township, their children and grandchildren live there, and these places have been their home for generations. On the other side, what is called the economic-trade-commercial district of the city resembles the most developed cities of Western Europe. New and imposing glass buildings, shops selling expensive ware, new luxury cars.
The discrepancy and the visibly unfair distribution of wealth, what with South Africa being the richest country in Africa, are deeply distressing.
As a contrast to its highly complex and difficult social relations, South Africa grips the visitor with its magnificent natural beauty. It is a feast for all the senses, while you look upon with your eyes and try to understand with your mind all the tragedies of the past and their extensions in the present, you are also exposed to enticing scents and mesmerising music. Our bodies are relaxed, as if our feet were firmly grounded at their source. And so we smile and cry at the same time, shudder with sorrow and sing at the top of our lungs. It is as if Africa awakens all the senses that have been in us since time immemorial, cleanses them of everything that is superfluous, and you feel like walking barefoot and singing, swaying to the rhythm, you feel like laughing while you cry.
We left the winter in the Balkans and arrived into summer, we changed the season, but not the time zone, so that made it easier. Our hosts took us to the Smitswinkel Bay beach south of Cape Town, lower even than the Cape of Good Hope. Thereabouts the Indian and the Atlantic Ocean meet and it is as if they each brought to South Africa a trace of the shores they touch elsewhere. This is where seals, sharks and penguins swim together (there is a special beach near Robben Island which is their habitat). We also visited the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden where a concert was being held by a very popular local group, so the Garden was full of people picnicking and concert goers. Still, having learned to be aware of our skin colour – something we are usually not – we noticed that the patrons were predominantly white, just as we noticed that none of the waiters, sellers, drivers, cleaners were… but almost all the patrons and consumers were white. Having been saddled with a legacy that we do not feel as inherently ours, but still conscious of how we may be perceived exclusively based on this one characteristic, we tried to understand the deep-seated codes of behaviour between people. Just as the first associations at the mention of Africa in our part of the planet would (most often) be: poor, backward, famine, the first association about a group of people coming from Europe is: rich, white people. And as much as this is a characteristic we cannot do anything about, we are white through no merit or fault of our own, we were born like this, the fact is that skin colour and the privileges that come with it in today’s world, even if you come from the Balkans, is something we need to think about.
The very awareness that there is no equality, that we live in a world of inequality, and that we are members of a small privileged group brings with it the responsibility to think about, to be conscious of and to react against the violence people are exposed to. Again, through no merit or fault of their own, but just because of the skin colour they were born with.
Photo gallery – here
In my heart, in my thoughts and under my skin
The heart –
They say is the most important organ.
What we hold in our hearts,
Some say is our identity.
A big heart, I would say, is a choice.
A small heart, I would say, is a choice.
The brain –
They say is the least explored organ.
The structure of thought,
They say is our identity.
Being open, I would say, is a choice.
Being closed, I would say, is a choice.
The skin –
They say is the largest organ.
Skin colour –
Some say is our identity.
White skin, I would say, is not a choice.
Black skin, I would say, is not a choice.
Reinventing yourself is not a onetime event.[¹]
And just one event will not change your life
Some say change indicates instability
Some say changing yourself takes you away from our identity
Change, I would say, is my choice.
Reinventing myself is part of my identity.
Africa is both –
One more event that changed me and gave me reason to find myself again.
 Leon Wessels
As I watched her speak these lines
There was something golden behind her turban. As she moved her head, the strip of gold glimmered. I checked my eyesight: there was no sunbeam, it was not a stray thread from the turban cloth, for no gilded strands could be seen in its weave.
What was it?
As she spoke, she held her palms together in front of herself, as people do in prayer.
She would part them from time to time, inscribing a wide circle in front of herself.
It was a soft, full, whole circle in whose centre, though it looked empty, a fire was burning, a fire of the hearth, of warmth, of embraces and solace.
She spoke of reconciliation, repatriation, difficult topics and you could see the legal language was unfamiliar to her.
I wanted to hear her speak a poem, a lullaby, a consolation.
Mother Earth spoke from within her in a warm, slightly hoarse, determined but soft voice.
The Colour of the Heart
The palms of our hands, what made us human, what we put on our hearts when we pray, what we use to caress, to touch the world around us – are the same colour.
The soles of our feet that keep us grounded, that connect us to the Earth, are the same colour.
And our eyes.
Our eyes that look upon sorrow, injustice, divisions, killings, death, birth, love, life, are the same.