Saturday, 7 June 2008

South Africa - First Impressions

It's my first visit to South Africa. I've heard and read a lot about this country, sadly also a lot of negative press lately, as anti-immigrant violence has sullied the rainbow nation's reputation for tolerance.

I'm in Johannesburg for ten days working with South African Journalists on election issues. And we kicked off our seminar at Constitutional Hill, an impressive and inspiring landmark that bridges the country's past and present.

On the one hand there's the old fort, a notorious prison dating back to 1892 with its various sections: the Awaiting Trial Block, which held the 156 treason trialists of 1956 - led by Nelson Mandela; the gruesome Number Four section, which held black prisoners...

...and the Women's Goal, where female offenders - both black and white - were separately incarcerated like animals.

On the other hand, or I should say in the midst of this, there's South Africa's new Constitutional Court literally rising from the ashes of one of the city's most poignant apartheid-system monuments.

The architecture is impressive and full of symbols. The modern structure incorporates the prison walls. The new court's plenary was built with the old red bricks and large windows allow the people inside to see the former watch towers, and the people outside to watch the proceedings.

The ethnic and linguistic diversity is omnipresent. The court's facade is covered with the words "Constitutional Court" in the eleven official languages of South Africa. There're eleven judges hearing cases in eleven languages.

I think I've never seen a landmark concentrating past, present and future in such an overwhelming density. It's all here in one spot. South Africa's cruel and tragic history, making me ashamed of being white. South Africa's hope and dreams of a better future. It really evokes strong emotions.

How did these people survive? Where did they take their strength from? Is it possible to forgive and build a future together? The tour through the prison - especially through the Number Four Section - is deeply upsetting. I'm thinking, how much worse must it be for my South African colleagues?

Some said it provokes hatred, other said patriotism and pride to see what their country has achieved after so many years of oppression and terror.


Thorsten 10 June 2008 at 17:29  

I've never been to Jo'burg, but visited Cape Town and the southern coast. A visit to Robben Island off Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for many years, was just as shocking to us as your visit to the Jo'burg prison must have been to you. After we saw Robben Island, we wondered how black South Africans could ever forgive the Whites. Really remarkable how they were willing to close that book and look forward to building a new country together.

Good luck with your workshop.

Hope you'll have a chance to see some more of that amazing country (the animals, the scenery, the people, the food...)


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