Apartheid’s atrocities should never be forgotten

  • ToniStrasberg
Toni Strasburg, the daughter of anti-apartheid activists Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, recently wrote a book about their experiences. She tells us why it’s important to keep these anti-apartheid stories alive.
by TONI STRASBURG | Mar 12, 2020

Dr Neil Aggett was tortured and died in jail in 1982. He was the 51st person to die in detention. Many more died after him, and many more disappeared or were murdered by the apartheid regime before him.

The new inquest into his death this year has sparked many articles about his death and the struggle. I wonder how many South Africans who were born since apartheid are following the inquest.

We have so much to contend with in our country: failure of delivery, corruption, and the remaining inequalities of the apartheid race system. Why is the past still relevant?

Since 1994, a number of books have been published about the struggle years. Many who took a leading part have written autobiographies or had biographies written about them, their part in the struggle, and what they endured inside the country and in exile during that time.

Is it still pertinent for this sort of material to be written 26 years after the 1994 elections? Do we still need to know what went on during the apartheid years when we have so many new and current problems?

It’s easy to forget what apartheid did and what it stood for now that it’s so long in the past. Under apartheid, non-white South Africans – the majority of the population – were forced to live in separate areas and use separate public facilities – buses, public benches, and entrances to many shops.

From 1961 to 1994, more than 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to the Bantustans into poverty and hopelessness. Black men were forced to carry passes that restricted their movement. No non-white had voting rights. South Africa was divided on racial lines, and the non-white population was considered second-class citizens.

An interesting narrative emerging in South Africa makes the comparison between the failure of the post-apartheid government and the “efficiency” of apartheid. A common line is that things were better under apartheid. This shouldn’t be confused with the problems we face as a democracy today.

Things were always good for the white population at the expense of the majority of the people. In 1973, the United Nations General Assembly defined the crime of apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”, and declared it a crime against humanity.

All this is well known to the middle aged and older generations. What is shocking is that so little of recent South African history is taught in schools. We now have a generation of young people that know little or nothing about apartheid and why it existed.

The failure of education under apartheid and the complete disruption of education in the 1970s and 1980s still affects much of the education system now. This needs to be understood in order to understand what is happening today.

History doesn’t need to be dry, boring, and confined to facts. It can be told in a number of ways. To make it accessible and bring it alive, it needs to tell the stories of the people who lived through it. South Africa has many heroes other than Mandela.

We need these stories to be passed on to the generations who come after apartheid so that they can learn from history and understand it. Personal stories, family stories, and novels are a great way to learn history.

In the same way that the Holocaust and the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia must never be forgotten, so too the iniquities of the apartheid system need to be remembered.

Studying history allows us to understand our past, which in turn allows us to understand our present. It can provide us with a greater understanding and increase cross-cultural awareness. Learning history can help us shape the future. Without history, we can’t know where we came from or where we are going.

  • Toni Strasburg will be speaking with Daniel Browde at the Jewish Literary Festival on 15 March on “Unparalleled access: biographies written by relatives of legendary South Africans”.

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