Alexandra and Apartheid

Joburg Apartheid 099 We didn’t get to spend much time in Johannesburg, but it’s a place that will have a lasting and powerful impact on us.  A couple of weeks ago, we played baseball with a great set of kids in the Wesbury and Soweto areas.  Today, we spent the morning exploring Alexandra, perhaps the poorest urban area in Africa, and the afternoon at Joburg’s Apartheid Museum, a very powerful experience.

Joburg Apartheid 026 We were very fortunate to have Robin Binckes as our guide to Johannesburg.  Robin grew up in South Africa, and has seen the evolution of this most interesting country from its apartheid history to modern South Africa.  He readily admits to being a proponent of apartheid in his early years, but made a dramatic departure in perspective and life focus in 1993, when a black leader here was shot. 

Joburg Apartheid 111 For the past several years, Robin has been involved in many non-profit initiatives in the Johannesburg area, focusing on Alexdrandria.  The area used to be called “The Slaughterhouse,” since so many killings occurred in this compact area.  Today, some 400,000 black South Africans live in one square mile here, and that’s the area we visited.  Unemployment here is well over 50%, and only a handful of the area’s youth make it through high school.  And AIDS is a huge problem for many in this area, with little acceptance of basic measures of prevention (e.g., condoms).

Joburg Apartheid 025 It was immediately apparent that Robin is beloved in Alexandria, and he was greeted by person after person on the street.  He is involved with a pre-school, with a hostel, has “adopted” or sponsored a gorgeous nine-year-old girl, helps some of the local women with a business making jewelry and bowls, and has brought almost 800 bougainvillea plants to the area, each dedicated to a visitor.  He is a great example of one person making a huge difference.

Joburg Apartheid 076 We visited Nambuhle, a hostel that is home for some 5,000 people.  We met with two women selling beautiful things they had made, met many of the kids, and got a real feel for life in a hostel.  We were so impressed with the energy and curiosity of these children, who were adorable.  We could see why Robin is so energized by the work he does in this community.  And we had some extra Red Sox hats, so we gave out a bunch to the children, who were thrilled to get this gift.  As we find over and over on our trip, those with the least are often the happiest and most appreciative.

Joburg Apartheid 101 We then drove all over Alexandra, including where Nelson Mandela lived in this community.  These streets were just alive with the energy of the people here.  We had been warned, and warned, and warned about the peril of being in Johannesburg.  And here we were, the only five white people anywhere in sight (the tourists all go to Soweto, which is much more middle class now), yet we felt welcomed by the people we’d pass by.  Robin said, “If you wave to anyone, you’ll see a huge smile on their face and get a big wave in return.”  And he was right.

Joburg Apartheid 119 We learned about the South African concept of Ubuntu, which is a humanitarian ethic binding together a community.  Bishop Desmond Tutu talked about ubuntu as follows, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”  You could see Ubuntu everywhere in dirt-poor Alexandra.  And, sadly, I realized that ubuntu is what seems to be slowly disappearing from the United States.

Joburg Apartheid 180 After a quick lunch, we went to a spot in a nice section in Johannesburg, and saw where Nelson Mandela lived while planning the resistance to Apartheid rule.  It was such a peaceful spot, somewhat ironic in light of the bloody and horrible struggle that gripped this country for so many years.  In the next six weeks, this site will open as a museum, and we’d love to visit it in the future.

Joburg Apartheid 199 We ended our day with a very powerful trip to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, which illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid.  The film footage, photographs, and artifacts lay out this history in a very powerful way.  After seeing all of the oppression, the many people who lost their lives, and the clear pain of this period, we ended at a photograph of a line of people voting in the first free elections in South Africa (photo above), which were in 1993.  I’m not an emotional person, but felt like crying to see the positive result of years of struggle.

There are clear parallels between South Africa’s history and that of many other countries, including the United States.  But there’s an intensity, compression, and recency to what happened in South Africa that makes it all so tangible.  The country still has a long way to go before the black population is on its feet economically, but the progress over the past 14 years has been impressive.  And it shows what can happen when a people are willing to fight with their lives against an oppressive regime.  All in all, this was a very inspiring day for all of us.

For those interested in learning more about the great work being done here by Robin Binckes, check out his website.

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