You are beautiful …
and so is your enemy
The city church had a large, plain mirror decorated with these words. I smiled to myself, appreciating the self-esteem boost from an inanimate object, while I processed the phrase. It seemed like a stereotypical religious aphorism: love everyone as yourself and appreciate the good within all people. Although I’m not cool enough to have any enemies, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea that everything and everyone is inherently beautiful. The very church that so proudly displayed the mirror was barged into and called out for its hypocrisy of not feeding starving children on its street. The contentiousness of the phrase captures my frustrations but simultaneous respect for South Africa: I continue to grapple with its legitimacy in a country filled with beauty and disparity.
Celebrating a Dark History
On our first full day in Johannesburg, we spent the morning at the Voortrekker monument. Weary-eyed and jetlagged, I didn’t fully understand the implications of the tourist site. We were lead around this hilltop structure and marveled at the picture perfect landscaping and architecture. It seemed to be a heritage site like any other. Inside, it contained incredible paintings, friezes, and artifacts from the Boer settlers. The museum is an Afrikaaner nationalist museum, and it seeks to protect the culture and history of its people. I was then told by our tour guide that this could be the equivalent of a KKK heritage site in the U.S. Now, I started to notice the undertones of supremacy that lined the place. The pamphlets lauded the Boer domination over the Zulu empire. A museum exhibit painted the Afrikaaners as a victimized minority who are now disadvantaged by affirmative action policies. The exhibits referred to apartheid as “separate development.” I began to feel uncomfortable in a structure that sang praises to a people most known for their mass, institutionalized oppression of black and colored people. The popular enemy, the ancestors of the degrading apartheid government, was being celebrated for its beauty. Was that even valid? After years of violence, humiliation, and devastation, do we need to see the merits of a problematic empire?
Compassion and Forgiveness
The following day we went to the apartheid museum, which clearly delineated the evolution of the system. Photos, videos, and testimonies highlighted the dismal lives of black people under a government that dehumanized them. There was no mercy. The fight for liberation was an emotionally-charged war against institutional oppression. After a forty year struggle to end apartheid, Nelson Mandela was elected in the first democratic election. Mandela began his presidency with a call for compassion and forgiveness in the new era of South Africa. Goosebumps prickled up my arms. For a leader to not be vindictive or retaliatory and lead his country into an era of reconciliation is an act of sainthood. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission were designed to help victims of human rights abuses address their grievances. There was supposed to be collective healing with a band-aid of the rainbow nation tenderly placed on top. Mandela saw beauty in his enemy. He saw the humanity of his captors and marched forward as such. But not everyone did. Justice for the victims was lost in the struggle for reconciliation. The tears of the children cannot be dried, the wails of the mothers can never be forgotten. Can their tormentors be forgiven?
In observing South Africa today, I wonder if seeing the beauty in one’s enemy is still valid. What, if anything, is the enemy now? Residual racially hierarchical structures, perhaps? Police brutality against labor protesters? The devastating economic situation? It has become tough for me to conceptualize what the fight is against now, and perhaps that in it of itself is the problem. But the struggle itself: the writers, activists, teachers, and common people who make South Africa one of the most contentious societies on the planet have not given up. And although their enemies: poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, are not beautiful – their hope, that which endures past these evils, is.