PEACETALK: Archiving the past to guide the present to forge an inclusive future

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (MindaNews / 08 Sept) — A visit to South Africa should not happen without experiencing the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.   This is a requirement especially if we want to see a more inclusive and peaceful Philippines in the future.

Whoever designed the overall layout and display format of the Apartheid Museum in this city already had in mind to make the visitor embrace emotionally all the pain that thousands of people in South Africa experienced under apartheid rule.

Upon entrance, a visitor is given an admission ticket that automatically classifies (segregates) him or her as “white” (blankes) or “non-whites” – something that jarred me a bit.  I have been to several museums before but this was an unusual experience for me:  my ticket said I am pre-selected to go through the “whites only” entrance; while my colleague  (who is so much fairer than I am) got the “non-white” ticket so therefore we did not enter the museum through the same door.  At a certain area inside the museum both “whites” and “non-whites” are reunited and are made to witness how the struggle against apartheid started, and how it culminated in what is now a more inclusive, “rainbow nation”  –   South Africa.

The beginning of the anti-apartheid struggle is marked with a layout that is both symbolic and riveting:  an elevated ramp displays life size images of both “whites” and “non-whites” randomly selected (my guess, since there are no specific roles stated about these individuals).

Re-tired professor Rufa Cagoco-Guiam visits the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. She says a similar museum ls not only a political imperative, but also a requisite for a more peaceful future, especially in the Bangsamoro.

As visitors slowly go up the elevated structure, they have to pass by, and stare at the pictures of young and hardy looking Africans working in the mines during the country’s colonial era (of course it was the “whites” who owned and managed the mines).  They lived in cramped living quarters, with very poor ventilation.  I correct myself:  those were not “living” quarters; even animals would have a hard time surviving in them.  Truly the young Africans of those days were hardy and strong enough to endure such sordid environments to stay in, even only for their brief moments of sleeping and rest.  The elevated ramp is a symbol of the uphill struggle that the anti-apartheid champions went through, but the structure of the ramp is but a faint shadow of the life threatening experiences of those who dared to oppose the segregation policies and laws (hundreds of them, listed in one of the museum walls) of their colonial government then.

The next part that I saw really pulled my heartstrings and practically choked me:  one whole section of the exhibit was devoted to the display of replicas of the very small, windowless detention cells of those who dared question or advocated against segregation.  On the ceilings of these cells were hung more than a hundred huge ropes in knots – these were the “instruments” that snuffed the lives of young Africans who dared to fight for their freedom and to claim their human rights, as natives of their country.

In the same exhibition area is a wall-sized collage of pictures of those who sacrificed their lives in the anti-apartheid struggle.  Of course, among the prominent characters on display are the images of internationally known anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela, and the feisty Bishop Desmond Tutu.

A huge LCD screen repeatedly showing videos of the hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is the main exhibit of the museum.  The TRC was an interim body tasked to ferret out the truth of all the recorded complaints on human rights violations, torture, and other crimes committed by members of the South African police and security officers against “dissidents” – anti-Apartheid activists.  But the videos did not only show the ruthless actions of the SA police and security forces but also hearings of incidents showing the blacks as perpetrators of random killings.

One hearing was truly heart rending.  A shooting incident took place in an Anglican Church in Johannesburg sometime in the 1980s, where several white South Africans, including the wife of one of the church ministers, were shot at and killed.  Perpetrators included a small group of young black Africans who were with both long and short firearms.  This group allegedly fired at the all-white crowd indiscriminately, making sure that almost all the churchgoers fell.  Only a few survived.  This was an interesting twist in the apartheid narrative, as the perpetrators were arrogating to themselves the right to vindicate the deaths of their fellow blacks, the target of apartheid policies.

During the hearing, the husband of one of the victims tearfully cross-examined one of the perpetrators and asked him why he killed the defenseless churchgoers.  The young man, with remorse on his face, was shaking as he mumbled that he did not know who he was firing at, all he can remember, he said, was that he was firing away like his fellow angry young men, venting their anger at the innocent white congregation members.  But the heart wrenching part of the hearing was when the husband of the victim, still crying, remarked repeatedly: “Why is it that I cannot get truly angry with you?  Why is it that even if you did something horribly wrong to my family, I cannot be angry with you?”

The museum exhibit is capped by a video showing the series of events that led to the historic banning of apartheid and the start of the transition to democratic rule.

The President at that time, F.W. de Klerk, began to meet with the imprisoned leader of the biggest anti-apartheid organization then, the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela, as early as December of 1989.  The following year, President De Klerk announced on national television the lifting of the ban on ANC, and other similar organizations like the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).  On February 11, 1990, Mandela was then released from long time incarceration, and events followed one after the other toward the final announcement of the total lifting of apartheid in 1991.

In 1993, both Mandela and de Klerk made history as they were jointly declared Nobel Peace Prize winners for their efforts to put in place democratic reforms in South Africa.  That year also marked the first time South Africa elected a black President – the anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela.

Upon getting out of the museum, I felt empathy for the valiant anti-apartheid champions of South Africa’s bitter past.  At the same time, I also realized that those who have committed massive human rights violations against them were also in a way, products of their flawed upbringing of generations of white supremacy and chauvinism that their ancestors considered the reality of their existence then.  This does not mean I absolve them of their crimes against humanity.  I just tried to understand the logic or (il)logic of their actions.  I think it is because of the way the museum was designed:  the artifacts and documents were presented in a way that did not elicit hatred from first time visitors to the museum.  Instead, it showed the importance of seeing reality from the perspective of both victims and perpetrators.

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a concrete fulfillment of one important pillar in the quest for transitional justice:  the right to know the truth about the past.  This is the archiving of documents, artifacts, videos, radio clips and other pertinent material that recorded the events in the past for the future generations of South Africans to know.  It is important for future generations to know their past to avoid re-writing or revising history that includes fictive narratives of groups with vested interests.

Unfortunately, in the Philippines, revisionist tendencies are slowly creeping in our social media, and even on mainstream broadcast and print media.  Efforts are rife to revise history about the truth of the wealth of the Marcoses – that their father just kept and not stole the country’s wealth in money and gold, for safekeeping.  And no less than President Duterte (a good friend of the Marcoses, as he himself admits), has reinforced this flawed narrative.

This has happened because we have not put up an archiving system that will give us the guarantee that the truth will not be twisted to serve the ends of political vultures and other opportunists.  This is why the putting up of a museum like that of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is not only a political imperative, but also a requisite for a more peaceful future, especially in the Bangsamoro.  (The envisioned museum may not be as sophisticated as the one in Johannesburg, but it could be similar, especially as far as the system of presentation of artifacts and documents is concerned).

What South Africa has become is the result of a bitter past, but it is one that led to the resolve to carve a better future.  Systematic archiving, and careful presentation of events that show the spectrum of human nature, both at its most desirable and most despicable heights, can guide the present generation to work toward a better future for everyone.  It may not be perfect, but it could be one that encourages inclusive and workable, durable peace, which is now a reality in that country.

I wonder when we can realize the value of this type of archiving – to guide us in the present to carve an inclusive future for all of us.  I hope this happens before those of us in the pre-departure years of their lives (like me) will finally depart from this world.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Rufa Cagoco-Guiam has just “changed tires,” or re-tired from being Professor, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Mindanao State University – General Santos City.  Presently she is busy doing what she likes best – social development work/research on the side while tending to a very playful cat, Princess Naddiyah, for lack of a grandchild, most of her time at home)