Going Back to Go Forward

Our second and final day at the Rehoboth Center today was one of amazement and wonder.  We shared the afternoon with two survivors of the apartheid, John Brandt and Myrtle Christian.  I wish I would have taken notes like I had planned to, because there are so many stories and quotes from them I could used to exemplify their struggles, but then again, maybe there’s a certain poetic irony in remembering what they said, and what anyone this entire trip has said, from memory (and it helps keep my wit and keenness about me). 

Myrtle was a local union leader for a garment factory for women, and I don’t recall John’s role politically, if any, but he was forcibly removed from District 6 and has worked in recreating the memories of D6.  He said a couple noteworthy things today, one of which, when I asked how he feels when people come to South Africa and focus their studies on apartheid when South Africa’s unofficial motto is to move forward, he said we have to go back.  History is history.  We have to go back to learn from it, leave behind the bad memories that apartheid brings, but extract the good.  This is how we learn from the past, forgetting what happened but remembering the lesson.  This is how we recreate District 6.  He said that he does not want to, nor would he live in a reconstructed District 6 because it could not compare to the one that was.  The memories and learning from the past is so much more beneficial than rebuilding a brick and mortar city that was once his home.  “We must go back to move forward,” he said. 

Myrtle has been fighting for human dignity since she was 14, both in the local community and when she was old enough to get a job and organize the workers.  It was incredible that this woman of 84, and even John whose age I don’t recall, are so keen; so learned and intellectual that they can have a conversation with you so frankly about such a horrific past.  “You were nothing.  Absolutely nothing…whites treated their dogs better than you [in reference to non-whites]” she told us.  Whites were afraid to even rub skin with blacks and coloreds for the fear that it would rub off on them.  This kind of paranoia is intrinsic in some whites today, though thankfully, personally I have not seen it (maybe because I am white, I get looks behind my back, I don’t know). 

She cried twice throughout the two hours we were together, once as she recounted the story of Modderdam (sic) as a shantytown of 400 shacks that was home to 800 people, was mercilessly bulldozed as the whites who were operating the machines laughed as they did so. “That was the most horrible part,” she sobbed.  She and the community cooked 4-5 drums of soup to feed to the children as parents indignantly sat on the pavement as every single piece of furniture, silverware and possession was mowed down and crushed.  “My back was breaking, but I didn’t mind…we were there from 7 in the morning to 9 o clock that night.”  Today in discussing Steven Biko and African culture, we talked about how the African culture is so intrinsically emotional, how it puts emotion before rationality and can even reconcile the two in certain situations.  It was interesting to see how Myrtle, a colored woman, could be so emotional, and apologizing for being so when she has every right to be so after decades of recounting the story.  That is what apartheid did to people.  Some are forgiving and have moved on, others have not.  The second time she cried was when she recalled the day Mandela (“I know he’s called Madela, but I call him Madiba” (Madiba is Mandela’s tribal name and is a sign of respect) was freed.  “After 27 years being locked up, he had no hate in his heart…that is why people love Madiba,” harkening back to Mandela’s political and symbolic emergence as a freed prisoner.  Though he was at first reluctant to become president, he was also ready to get to work reconciling the country, a process which has made great strides in 20 years, but South Africa still has a long way to go to being completely reconciled, if ever.  It’s been almost 50 years in the U.S. since the black civil rights movement, and every day you can still see the remnants of the past today.


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