Day Four: Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

It's so rare for me to have an "off day" while traveling on business that I'm remarkably lazy about preparing an itinerary. My usual plan includes: find some entertainment in a local casino and/or Hard Rock Cafe, if they exist (I'm a creature of habit); look for local Jewish historical culture (I've been to the synagogue in Shanghai); explore a museum with unique local significance.

I wasn't mentally prepared for my trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg; it's a moving and intense experience that could have easily taken four hours to absorb fully. I was drained after two hours, and I described the intensity of the exhibits and story-telling as similar what I felt in Yad VaShem, the Jerusalem museum and memorial to the Holocaust.

I had a two-part reaction to the timeliness of the museum -- first, it's remarkable that a museum has been developed and gained popularity in less than a full generation since the deconstruction of apartheid, and yet the museum chronicles the roots of issues going back two or more centuries. Second, some of the intensity derives from many of the events chronicled occurring in my adult life; from mid-1980s on-campus protests for universities to divest of holdings in South Africa to the freedom of Nelson Mandela and the victory of his African National Congress. Others, like the death of Stephen Bantu Biko, I had heard about in song (Peter Gabriel's "Biko" was ringing in my ears) but for them I had little context until I walked through the story personally. It was at that moment that I drew the parallel to the Yad VaShem memorial, which exhorts us to continue to "bear witness" so that we develop a collective history and resistance to broad-scale human rights and dignity issues. Those of us who witnessed the joy of Mandela's release from prison have a responsibility to re-tell the context of the basic human rights issues that made it the literal turning point in a museum gallery. The Stephen Biko Foundation puts a simpler point on it: "a foundation of ideas; a memory bank for the nation." Discussion and respect.

However, my first hint that I was in over my jet-lagged head came when I bought my ticket and was handed a card that said "Whites" on it. Approaching the entrance to the museum, guests are separated into two turnstiles clearly labeled "Whites" and "Non-Whites". The first exhibit as you proceed through the turnstile explains the racial classification system that was the basis for enforcing apartheid.

Classification is something we take for granted in the social networking space; we use hash tags on Twitter and Technorati tags to better provide context for our content. Just as my encounter with the Mozambique hawker made me think of technical opportunity in a positive way, seeing the effort put into classification of people for the purpose of deciding their rights made me shudder. Not to dismiss Richard Stallman, it's not just about software being free; it's about software enabling freedom.

Comments:

I am so moved by your observations. They reflect the compassionate and wonderful person you are.

Posted by Beverly Stern on April 21, 2009 at 06:06 AM EDT #

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