Picture 1: One of the only Apartheid era signs left in downtown Johannesburg
Picture 2: Constitution Hill- the Supreme Court of South Africa
Picture 3: “Let the Struggle Continue” in Portuguese
Picture 4: Isolation cell from the Old Fort Prison on Constitution Hill
So this morning we took an inner city tour of Johannesburg, which was guided by a fantastic woman named Jo. As an avid lover of Johannesburg, its distinct neighborhoods, its culture, and a passionate advocate on their behalf, she was able to fluently describe the history of the city, how apartheid shaped the city, its degeneration, and the very recent regeneration. I was able to discuss with her about the several parallels I noticed between the United States, such as white privilege, the differing views on cultural appropriation, gentrification, and the evidence left behind of a segregated era. One of her true loves is for graffiti art to which she explained the political significance and contrasted it to the American suppression of this radical art form. We have been reading about the wealth disparity in South Africa, but it was only until this tour that we truly experienced the polarization and how grotesquely it manifests. For instance, one side of a street would be considered a slum while the other side of the street harvested a glass skyscraper. Her passion and emphasis on the people and their cultures is what truly made the tour unique, but also personal. Her tour forced me to view the problems of South Africa through the point of view of the people. I was challenged and shocked by the truth of their lives.
Our next site, Constitution Hill, the location of the South African supreme court and the remains of the Old Fort Prison, changed my view of myself. First I should note that tour guide did not say much, but encouraged us to guide ourselves through the exhibits built into the remains of the prison. It was interesting that they had a whole section dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi who was briefly imprisoned there. As someone who knows the shortcoming of Gandhi (MAJOR rape apologist), I’m not a person who is swept up in his teachings, but it was interesting to see gobilized solidarity within social movements during an earlier period. After the tour of the prison we entered the court, vastly different from our supreme court as it was overflowing with art and symbolism, and were later discussing justice selection and party affiliation with another tour guide.
However, the most influential moment of my day was when I walked into an isolation cell. Prisoners, mostly political or resistant of apartheid, such as Nelson Mandela, were locked in these cells 23 hours of the day. This paired with the disproportional maltreatment of “nonwhite” prisoners, unsanitary conditions, and torture methods, made this prison one of the most inhumane examples of the apartheid era. As a person who identifies strongly as an advocate for causes I believe in, I was disillusioned by the cramp, dark, isolated cell. I questioned my passions. I questioned what I was truly doing to impact the world. I asked myself if I would go this far. I felt overwhelmed by the fact that I was standing, in such a privileged standpoint, in the same place where so many men and women were willing to go that far to resist injustice and oppression at the price of their lives. That truth is what so dauntingly confronted me. As I shallowed a sob, I was able to freely step out of that cell, but that experience and perspective will always be with me.