Letter to the Editor | We must learn lessons of apartheid


By Billy Keniston

“'(In) the South Africa of the 1970s … the security police could come in and … handcuff you without explaining why, and take you away to an unspecified site and do what they wanted to you … any journalist who reported such a disappearance might be arrested and charged with endangering the security of the state.’

‘All of this and much more, in Apartheid South Africa, was done in the name of a struggle against terror.

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I used to think that the people who created these laws … were moral barbarians.

Now I know they were just pioneers, ahead of their time.’”

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (2007) p. 171


Dear Daily Illini Editors,

I’m writing from Johannesburg, South Africa. I will be here for nine months, doing dissertation research, funded by Fulbright-Hays. You are likely aware of my trip, because an article was printed by your paper about this last week. However, I feel that the nature of my project, and the significance of it, needs some further explaining.

You see, South Africa is, in a sense, a very young country. That is to say, it is now only about 25 years since the country held the first election where the entire population was allowed to vote. Before 1994, only the small white minority population (less than 20 percent) was allowed to vote, or to hold a position of power in the government. For many decades, white people were legally guaranteed high-skilled jobs, and were paid much more than their black counterparts. Black people were forbidden to spend more than 72 hours in an urban area without police clearance.

In short, apartheid was a system run entirely by white people, for white people. The white politicians that ran the country spoke of “South Africa first,” and it was clear to everyone that this meant “whites first.” These men justified the system by saying, “if we let go of our power now, we will never hold power again.”

This entire system was kept in place through a tremendous amount of violence.

My research project is looking into the story of a young white woman, Jenny Curtis (Jeannette Schoon), who spent her life fighting against racism and inequality, and was killed by the apartheid state. The security police sent a package to her home, and when she opened it, she was blown to bits — along with her six year old daughter, Katryn. How could a government decide to murder one of its own citizens in this way?

Jenny Curtis’ story is just one of thousands of people that were killed during the apartheid years. Her case, like so many others, was investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was established because apartheid has been widely acknowledged as a “crime against humanity,” and it was understood that the various crimes of apartheid must be dealt with.

In the United States, we are only just beginning to understand the full extent of the crime against humanity that is coming our way, under the current president. Like his South African counterparts, our president is a white nationalist. When he says he believes in “America first,” we ought to all see that he means “white people first.” Motivated by the racist fear of president Obama, and the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the United States, thousands of white people throughout the United States are rallying together under the old apartheid cry: “If we let go of our power now, we will never hold power again.”

Already it is becoming clear that these politics have tremendous dangers, with Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, letter bombs targeting prominent opponents of the government, people being slaughtered in synagogues, children locked up in detention centers and troops at the border.

What we are living through now is a crime against humanity. I’m doing my research because I hope that we can learn the lessons of apartheid South Africa and make it through to the other side. In South Africa, the struggle against apartheid took over 40 years to finally end the brutality. If we in the United States can face what is happening, and if we refuse to let go of our power to speak up against these crimes, we may not take quite so long.

Billy is a graduate student in LAS.