Nuances. If I had to pick one word to summarize my experience and thoughts from our first week in South Africa, that would be it.
I flew into Johannesburg on May 29th with a simplified understanding about the place I would be living in for the next two months. While I did do background reading on South Africa’s history, I now realize that I read that history in a way that fit my own preconceived ideas.
For example, like most Americans, I always knew the simplistic, single narrative of Nelson Mandela as an amazing, heroic, selfless anti-apartheid freedom fighter. That was it. He was on a pedestal in my mind. I could not and still cannot understand how one person could mentally survive 27 years in prison and come out without hatred towards the people who put him in there.
However, within the first day of being in Johannesburg, my roommates and I started to discuss Mandela, his personal life, and the effect he has had on present-day South Africa. For the first time, I heard criticisms of this man. Should he have been so forgiving and granted amnesty to perpetrators of terrible crimes? Should there have been more justice and compensation for victims of the apartheid regime? These questions made it easier to see Mandela as a real, multifaceted, complicated person who must have struggled with his decisions and did what he thought would be best for the time.
Continuing on throughout the week, I noticed the idea of nuance when we went to the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park. The Voortrekker Museum represented a single narrative of the Afrikaner and their claim to South Africa. The tour guide spoke of how the Voortrekkers defeated the bloodthirsty natives as they trekked inland from the coast. This was definitely a single- narrative, biased statement. I remember feeling troubled by that monument and its depiction of history. I was confused how something like that could exist in a post-apartheid state. Lastly, I wondered why we even went to a museum that celebrated colonialism.
But it was all put into context when we went to Freedom Park which is connected to the Voortrekker Monument by Reconciliation Road. Unlike the previous tour guide, the guide at Freedom Park explained how complicated history is and how it is usually told by the side of the victor. He talked about how freedom means different things to different people, so, on their wall of commemorated names, they have controversial names that represent different narratives of history that fought for freedom.
It was an interesting thought, and, in juxtaposition to the single-minded nature of the solely Afrikaner monument, Freedom Park really showed how complex history is and how there is not always a definite right and wrong in how to portray it.
That got me thinking about Mandela again and how he is memorialized. As humans, we want to classify people and movements as solely good or bad. However, it is so important to see people as they are. It is dangerous to adore someone so much that their flaws are ignored. I am still in the process of working on this and accepting the good that people do while also criticizing them on their mistakes.
This idea was further emphasized when Paul Verryn came to speak with us on Thursday night. He is a Methodist minister, and he told us, among other things, the story of a boy named Stompie and the boy’s involvement with Winnie Mandela, the second wife of Nelson Mandela. Stompie was a ten year- old who was forced to be an informant for the apartheid government to report on anti-apartheid activists, and he was staying at the house of Paul Verryn. One day, Stompie was taken from Paul’s home by Winnie Mandela’s bodyguards, and he was murdered for being an informant.
This is something that I grapple with because Winnie Mandela was a strong, influential, anti-apartheid advocate. She helped to end the inhumane regime. She was dedicated, hardworking, and she fought for a long time. But she also is responsible for the murder of a young boy.
The same goes for the ANC which is the party in control of the South African government today. Even though they led the fight against apartheid and helped to bring about political freedom for Africans, they are currently very corrupt, especially the president, Jacob Zuma.
Lastly, my roommates and I discussed intersectionality within the black community in South Africa. Within the oppressed black African community, there is further oppression towards women and the LGBTQ community. Rape and misogyny are still huge issues in South African society, and many black males are perpetrators of this violence towards black women.
Therefore, overall, there are nuances in every situation and with every person. The oppressed can be oppressive. Good organizations can have corrupt members. Powerful leaders can do bad things. History has multiple narratives.
At the moment, my conclusion is that we must take people and situations for what they are, and we must sit with their complexities. We cannot ignore issues simply because the problematic person or organization has also done good. Likewise, we cannot ignore the good someone or something has done even if they have made some mistakes.
It is easy to definitively classify something as good or bad. It is much harder to humbly and vulnerably acknowledge that there may not be a clear answer. Throughout the next seven weeks, I hope to work on recognizing and accepting these complex nuances that are an inherent part of humanity.