"Born free" South Africans confront brutal history

June 17, 2011 - 1:26 PM
South Africa Youth and History

17-year-old Boipelo Ndaba from rural northern South Africa stands beneath 131 nooses, representing the 131 opponents of the regime hanged under apartheid-era anti-terror laws, during a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Friday June 17, 2011. Over two days 250 school children have been taken to the museum and other sites in Soweto, the black township known as a cauldron of resistance to apartheid to educate them on the brutality of the past that all are too young to remember. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — As she began a tour on Friday to learn about the brutality of apartheid, 17-year-old Boipelo Ndaba was skeptical that anything good would come of learning about that dark chapter of South Africa's past that she's too young to have experienced herself.

That cruel system of white rule ended in 1994 with the nation's first all-race elections that put Nelson Mandela into the presidency, but these days even his vision of reconciliation sometimes seems strained. Now, a new generation is growing up, not having experienced the humiliation of laws that required them to have passes to travel in their own country, that deprived them of the vote, that forced men to leave their families to work in distant places, that put those who resisted apartheid into prisons and onto the gallows.

In order for the generation born after apartheid, known as the "born frees," to understand the past and draw lessons from it for the future, the government on Friday and on June 11 brought 250 teens of all races and from all nine provinces to visit the Apartheid Museum on the edge of Johannesburg and to sites in Soweto, the black township that was a cauldron of resistance to apartheid.

Ndaba, who came from rural northern South Africa, told a reporter outside the museum that she was concerned that talking about history could stir anger, making it impossible to bring races together and perhaps leading to a return of the violence of one group trying to dominate another.

"I worry that apartheid will come back," Ndaba said. "Maybe we should forget about the past."

A tour organizer disagreed.

"We need to know our history," said Simon Molefe. "It's your background that guides you. If you can't accept your background, you can't move forward."

Over a hallway in the museum, 131 nooses dangle from the ceiling, representing the 131 opponents of the regime hanged under apartheid anti-terror laws. Some students reached up to touch the nooses. They filed past a wall on which the last words of one of those hanged, Solomon Mahlangu, are inscribed: "Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle. Do not worry about me, but about those who are suffering."

Mahlangu was a member of the armed wing of the African National Congress who was only 22 when he was executed in 1979 on murder and terror charges.

As he examined the exhibits Friday, a teen felt the pain of the legacy of apartheid that has affected his own life.

Marcus Bhengu, a 16-year-old from the eastern coastal city of Pietermaritzburg, said his father left their home in search of work in 1996 and never returned. Bhengu sees apartheid's effects even today, in the poverty that still grips South Africa and leads men like his father to travel in search of work and puts unbearable pressure on many black families.

Bhengu was inspired after visiting the Apartheid Museum to write a poem addressed to apartheid.

"You separated me from my father," he wrote. "I didn't have a chance of having a dad."

But he said his own experience and what he learned at the museum does not make him hate whites. He said he learned from Mandela that if you treat a person who hurts you as he treated you, "you just become like them."

"We must accept the past and deal with it," Bhengu said, showing that despite the occasional eruptions of racial tensions that persist in South Africa today, Mandela's message of reconciliation endures. Mandela had spent 27 years in prison for fighting racist rule.

From the museum, the students were taken on buses through Soweto to Kliptown. In 1955, it was a muddy field where South Africans of all races gathered to adopt the Freedom Charter. Some of the students said they had never read the charter, which proclaims: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white." Today the site is now a paved urban square built in honor of the event with huge concrete tablets containing the text of the charter.

The trip ended at the Soweto memorial to Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old shot to death by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising. Thursday was the 35th anniversary of the June 16 start of student-led peaceful protests against apartheid that were met with police violence.

The day had its lighter moments. When the students rode past Soweto's Maponya Mall, a grand shopping center built by one of South Africa's first black millionaires, there were awed gasps. Some students rose to take photographs.

As for Ndaba, her enthusiasm slowly grew as the tour progressed. She called Mahlangu, hanged in 1979, a good leader who "knew what he wanted." She was impressed with how he had looked to the future for the oppressed majority, even when facing execution.

Ndaba said that despite the sadness that examining history can evoke, it can also be inspiring. She said dates like June 16, 1976, should be commemorated "because of all the people who died."

"I've learned so much," she said.

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Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP