South Africa Journal: Bird Songs and Apartheid Museum

Nelson Mandela is everywhere. His giant statue welcomes you, arms outstretched, at the government buildings in Pretoria, his name is on the street signs, his picture on all the currency.

Of course I knew the painful history of apartheid and Mandela’s role in building the nation, but now that I have seen the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg I understand the deeper reasons why his presence looms so large here.

The day began in the Zen garden of my host’s backyard with 14 distinct bird calls interrupting my morning meditation, and traveled to hell and back before I could hear the birds sing again. Their snippets of melodic arias and guttural rhythmic droning soared above the barbed wire fence and locked metal gate that you find in most well-off homes in Pretoria. Before we left our host warned, “Our country is in transition–apartheid has left a troubled legacy. Hide your fancy camera at the robot (slang for traffic light)– you could be killed for that in one instant.”

Upon entry to the museum you are given a pass that says “White” or “non-white”…separate entrances, separate schools, neighborhoods, drinking fountains. It recalls the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews or the aftermath of slavery in America. Photos and videos recount the decades of enforced servitude and entrenched racism. South Africa’s heinous tragedy of suffering and cruelty surrounds the senses as you march through time, no longer a far-away land residing at the periphery of awareness.

The faces of Nelson Mandela, Steven Biko, racist white authorities, starving school children, black protesters in the townships, angry policemen come to life as the rooms are filled with their cries of hatred, bigotry, courage and heroism. Only at the end of the longest hallway when Mandela walked free and against impossible odds brought his nation together, I dried my tears and raised my eyes in Hope.

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