“The unbearable whiteness of being”

Dave Steward on the one-sided view of history being depicted in the Apartheid Museum.

In a recent article on the alienation of Afrikaner youth, Prof Jonathan Jansen, the black former Dean of Education at the University of Pretoria, wrote that the only way that “racist sentiment could be overcome was if we stopped reinforcing the idea black was good and white was bad, and to recognize each other as human beings.”

He then asked “Can you imagine what it is like walking through the Apartheid Museum as a white child? To have the knowledge of what your fathers did – it’s the unbearable whiteness of being.”

I thought that I would visit the Apartheid Museum – to see for myself whether I would also experience this ‘unbearable whiteness of being’. After all, I was one of the ‘fathers’ to whom Jansen referred: for the whole of my career I served the government that instituted apartheid; then tortuously tried to reform it, and finally – thank God – abolished it.

It was a wrenching experience. The museum graphically conveys the awful alienation caused by apartheid. One enters through prison-like portals marked ‘nie-blankes’ and ‘blankes’ – and is then confronted with giant racial ID cards in heavy wire cages. Inside everything is stark: naked brick and steel bars.

One is led up a ramp depicting the first violent contact between whites and San hunters (nothing about similar clashes between the San and migrating black tribes).

There is a large black and white photo of the devastation wrought to Boer farms during the Anglo-Boer War – (but, strangely enough, nothing of the 26 000 women and children who died in the concentration camps).

The general impression of our history is of the depredations wrought by white colonialists that disrupted the peace-loving heirs of the ‘glittering’ civilization of Mapungubwe (I saw nothing about the wars of Mfecane). There is a temporary exhibition on the life of Steve Biko (clearly a remarkable man) – and the callous reaction of Jimmy Kruger, to his death in police custody.

The museum makes effective use of TV monitors with repeating films containing statements by Hendrik Verwoerd, sweetly explaining how much blacks benefited from apartheid; PW Botha, wagging his finger; and Paul Sauer, referring to most blacks as ‘barbarians’.

There is a flickering film produced during the 30s to depict Afrikaner history – showing happy Malay slaves, the Great Trek and the massacre of Piet Retief. A panel on education highlights the early-50s quote by Verwoerd that blacks should not be educated beyond a certain level (but there is no explanation why there were more black tertiary students than whites by 1989).

Everywhere there are images of unrelenting black poverty and repression (but nothing about the fact that the gap between white and black incomes had been closing by 10% each decade since 1970).

All the material is carefully selected to reinforce the points that the Museum has set out to make. One walks through a gallows chamber with hundreds of hangman’s ropes depicting those executed under apartheid – juxtaposed nearby with a continuous video of Barbie-doll white children attending church.

There is a panel illustrating the allegedly hateful relations between white families and their black domestics (Gosh, did dear old Sally who for decades was part of my parents’ family, really hate them?) and a giant photo of dehumanized naked, black mineworkers undergoing a medical examination.

Due homage is paid to ‘good’ whites who supported the struggle – the Braam Fischers, Neil Aggetts and Ruth Firsts – to avoid any accusation that the exhibition is in any way anti-white. But there is nothing about the contribution that the ‘bad’ whites made to the development of the country; very little about the factors that motivated successive generations of white voters; and hardly anything about the global context within which all of this took place.

Perhaps the most riveting part of the exhibition is a 20-minute large screen film of the unrest of the 1980s. It includes many of the images of the turmoil that we have now largely forgotten; riot police chasing protesters over barbed wire fences; soldiers firing tear-gas from Caspirs; undulating seas of chanting and toy-toying demonstrators.

Young black veterans of the struggle explain with almost religious zeal the necessity of ‘necklacing’ informers. The film ends with the claim that it was all this that forced the apartheid government to the negotiating table (there is no possibility that there might have been any worthy motive).

After that it all changes. F W de Klerk is given credit for his role in the process and Roelf Meyer boyishly explains how the transition liberated whites as well.

Then one emerges into the brilliant sunlight of a highveld winter day, onto a plaza dominated by giant pillars representing the values in our Constitution – including one proclaiming ‘reconciliation’.

One wonders what emotions are stirred in the busload after busload of black school children who pass wide-eyed through the museum (perhaps someone should do research) – or in Prof Jansen’s angry young Afrikaners.

It is a genuinely moving experience – in the same way that a Palestinian museum on the history of the State of Israel might be. But it has nothing to do with objectivity or reconciliation.

It has everything to do with perpetuating racial stereotypes and entrenching perceptions of racial guilt. In multicultural societies that can be a recipe for disaster.

*Dave Steward is the Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation


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