Note – I don’t like the reference to people in terms of race, be it ‘the whites’ or ‘the blacks’ or whatever. Where I use these terms I do so as they are commonly used in – particularly South African – society.
A few days ago two students came into the English room office at my school and asked if they could speak to me. This is by no means an unusual request and of course I was obliging. One of the girls then took out her electronic English Japanese dictionary, and said to me ‘We wanted to know what you think about this…’ and pointed to the word ‘Apartheid’.
‘Where did you hear about this?’ I asked.
‘In world history.’
‘Uh-ha. Well, I’m afraid there is no simple answer to the question “what do you think about apartheid?”’
I did not feel angry about being asked. In fact, since travelling and living abroad, I’ve grown used to people associating South Africa with Apartheid. I’ve found that people have generally heard two things about South Africa – Apartheid and Mandela. They know that both exist – what the relationship is, and in what order they affected control over the country is less known. For example, it is common for people to still ask ‘Are black people allowed to go to any school they want?’ I was once in a conversation with an American and a New Zealander in which the American asked the New Zealander ‘Are Maoris prejudiced against in New Zealand?’
‘Yes’ she said looking over at me, ‘But not as badly as the blacks are prejudiced against in South Africa!’
‘Well’ I wanted to say, ‘How is your third Maori president doing? Is he disappointed that – unlike his predecessor – he missed a two third majority vote from the 78 percent of the country that is Maori and voted him in?’
But I didn’t say that.
I muttered something like, ‘You do know we’ve had an ANC government for sixteen years?’
‘Yay Obama’ said the American guy ‘We now have a black president!’
Well – I wanted to say – but again didn’t – there is a difference between having a single black man at the top and having a country where the entire government – bar a handful – are black, where big business is black, where the mainstream media is black, where popular culture is black, where the economy is driven by the black middle class! Despite their failings, I believe that the ANC government’s greatest achievement (and it is an achievement) has been creating this very middle class that drives the new South Africa. And yet, outside of the country – in fact often inside it as well – this is not acknowledged, not accepted. And so, as a South African living abroad one often has to face down the pre-conceived notion that one is a racist.
It is difficult to explain that ‘We aren’t all that way!’ I would like to tell people that my parents, and grandparents on both sides were strongly anti-apartheid and that my father’s father was one of the founding members of the progressive party – the back then legal alternative to the ANC, or PAC. That my other grandfather, quit working as a public prosecutor because he did not feel it was right to prosecute people found guilty under Apartheid laws. I would like to tell people how distinctly I remember a day as a young child asking my mother who Mandela was, and her telling me that he was a great man! I would like people to know this about me before I have to tell them.
But unfortunately this will never be the case.
And so, I took the two students aside, sat them down and started trying to explain what Apartheid was, writing key notes on one of the student’s pages as I went along.
When I got to the part about the pass book laws, I saw some confusion in their eyes. Without pausing for more than a second I reached into my pocket took out my wallet and removed from it my ‘Gaijin Card’ which as a foreigner living in Japan I am required to carry on me at all times. ‘Kind of like this’ I said.
‘Ah ha’ they said.
To them this was a simple comparison. Using a card to show them what a card was. For me, the irony was deeper. Here I was in the year 2010 living in a country where ‘Gaijin’ have to carry passbooks and display them to police on request, being asked about the famously oppressive laws of my country – that ended before I was old enough to know what they were.
But I smiled and put my Gaijin Card back in my pocket.
What is it about Japan? And what is it about South Africa? And what is it about the world?
Japan has the somewhat dubious reputation as being the most homogenous nation on earth, with 98.5 % of the population being ‘Ethnic Japanese’. The other 1.5 % is comprised of ‘Ethnic Koreans’ and ‘Ethnic Chinese’. These people are legally classified as foreigners even though they were born inside Japan to parents who were born inside Japan, have often never been to Korea or China and speak only Japanese. Short of sending them to live in Bantustans and throwing them out of windows for not answering questions, this is Apartheid！
So how is it that something like this receives relatively little international recognition, while Apartheid is so much a part of the universal consciousness that it has become an adjective, usable to describe situations that are like or represent this oppressive system?
This article is not about Japan’s attitude towards ‘foreigners’ and so I will not dwell on it.
What I would like to know is why and how does the apartheid badge of shame continue to live on? In my estimation there are three answers to this question. The first two have to do with why it lives on it South Africa, and the second with why it lives on outside South Africa.
Firstly, Apartheid was such a horrendous system that the scars it bore cannot disappear overnight. Because we had the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and because we celebrated the re-birth of our rainbow nation in 1994, we thought that we could move on right away, dust ourselves off and get on with the job. As such, there is a resentment (particularly amongst white people) to even speak about apartheid or its affects, and an annoyance at it being blamed for modern day problems in the country. The truth is, that expecting the country to be fine just because we had an election and a commission is like thinking that a rape victim who says ‘all right’ when asked how she’s doing, can be shouted at the next day for not getting on with her life as normal.
Secondly, certain factions within the country (certainly not all or even most people in positions of power, but enough to warrant mentioning) benefit from keeping the memory alive. Any form of new prejudice can be justified by a referral to Apartheid. Arguments can be silenced. Figures can be completely distorted and often not even offered. For example I often read articles and have heard people speak about ‘The white dominated media’. I have produced content for the SABC. They control nearly all the radio and television in the country. They are completely black run. Yes, they are a puppet. But the hand that controls them is black too. The ‘White controlled’ this and that is a very common theme. Often it is true! But, often it is not! And going against it is going against a certain orthodoxy that holds that the white man still runs the South of Africa.
And finally, the reason why it stays alive outside of the country. I attended a thanks giving lunch towards the end of last year, and I was pleased – not surprised though – that a few of my American friends mentioned the dark irony that underlies the ‘Thanks giving’ holiday. That being, of course, that the kind Indians who brought the pilgrims food would later by massacred by the same pilgrims. But, the point is, every country has a dark history. When it comes to the place of European worldly adventures (and Japanese Oriental adventures for that matter) there is no exception.
If we take New Zealand, Australia, America and South Africa, where does the white racist come from? He comes from South Africa of course. He is after all responsible for the oppression of the natives in this country.
All four of these countries had native populations when Europeans arrived. In America the native population was virtually eradicated. In New Zealand and Australia they were stripped of their land and to this day hold very little political power. All three of these countries have white majorities. South Africa does not. Only seven percent of the population is white. They live in Africa, in a black run country, for the most part rather contently. But they are useful – in social terms at least – to the international community. They form a perfect example of the other. The racist. The one who did what the others did not. And by being white but being openly against the racist actions of some other whites – some far off strange different whites who live at the end of Africa – one can reap the benefits conveyed by one’s violent forefathers, and still be a high minded liberal. One can enjoy without conscience. Because, after all, you’re different. And it wasn’t you, it was them!