By Osamu Kumasaka
While we were trying to find the right mini-bus through Johannesburg in early August, I asked several residents of the massive Soweto slums where the Apartheid Museum was. They had no idea what we were talking about, though we later discovered the slum is directly adjacent to the museum, a ten minute walk at most. Pointing to it on a map was no help. I was confused. Maybe I had referred to the Apartheid Museum by a name unfamiliar to locals? Did they find my accent indecipherable? Looking back on our experience, I doubt either of these explanations. Something about the way its stark “international award-winning” design completely blocked all views of the surrounding slums from any windows, or the pricey tickets we paid to get inside, made me doubt that any of the black Africans we had asked for directions had ever been there. It is possible they didn’t even know the museum existed. As a whole, it did not strike me as a testament to the oppression of those you stood for, Madiba. The museum felt more like a trap created by a casino and validated by the South African government. The former can milk tourist dollars and the latter can pat itself on the back for having come so far.
This story illustrates that, despite the struggle it took to reform South Africa into the democratic republic it is today, the chasm between white and black has hardly diminished. These days, it frequently and conveniently coincides with the gap between the haves and the have-nots. In this way your prison, the prison of your people, has changed in practice but not in effect. Some would point out that it has been fewer than two decades since the day you were set free and the official end of apartheid. Anyone my age was born the same year. Not that I am ancient, by any means, but is it too much to expect more improvement?
But look at me, looking down on your country. Fifty years have passed since my own country was dragged, kicking (protestors) and screaming (racial epithets), into some kind of ugly self-recognition, and we continue to act out the same patterns of ignorance every day, though our discrimination has weathered from an obvious black stain to a more devious, everyday-sort of brown prejudice. As the wealthiest nation in the world, what’s our excuse for allowing cycles of incarceration, unemployment, low education, drug-use, and teenage pregnancy to run its course in a particular subset of citizens? The most annoying thing about cyclical poverty is that some of the ‘least vulnerable’ Americans can refute the very existence of this disadvantage in our country. Instead, they attribute it to a lack of character on the part of the impoverished. If these people are correct, and poverty is purely the product of one’s laziness, I am amazed the streets of South Africa are not clogged by piles of apathetic people who spend their days contentedly napping and picking their noses.
Actually, many of the poorer South Africans we encountered seemed incapable of apathy. Most seemed to spend the majority of their time caring a lot about something: finding a job, getting their child through school, catching the next bus. They also cared about you: your worsening condition, your coma, your legacy. These were daily topics of discussion while we were among them. While I had always heard your name cited as a model of integrity, I am glad that I had an opportunity this summer to learn about your resilience and eloquence among the people who loved you. Calling the deceased courageous can sound trite in other contexts, but it rings true for you. South Africans found in you a powerful symbol for everything they needed as apartheid was ending.
May you rest in peace.