Around the World in 80 Hours #14: Apartheid Museum

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I recognize this is supposed to be a live blog, but I have to be honest and let you know that I'm actually writing this while flying over the African continent on the way to Dubai.

I'm letting you know this because the following posts are out of chronological order. Even though it wasn't the very first thing Eric Chiang and I did when we arrived in Johannesburg this morning, I need to start with our visit to the Apartheid Museum because apartheid really sets the stage for any discussion of economics in South Africa.

First things first, this is our guide, Elias:


Elias is amazing. He speaks 7 languages fluently, and is unfailingly polite, upbeat, and savvy. He knows the history of South Africa as someone who lived through some of its most tumultuous periods. He was born in 1976 in Alexandra, probably Johannesburg's second most famous township for reasons I'll get to in just a minute. On the way to the museum he told us about his own experiences with apartheid when he was at a government-run school: corporal punishment, cops shooting tear gas canisters in to classrooms - all really grim stuff. He basically told us that we'd feel terrible when we left the museum, and he was right.

Here's an outside shot of the apartheid museum:


The museum seeks to make an impact before you've even entered the doors... which are segregated. Here's my admission ticket (Eric Chiang's was for whites):


In a lot of ways the museum is overwhelming, so let me try to distill it down to a few key points:

1.    Economics was a big part of apartheid. First, some of its roots start with the Boer War in the late 19th century, where the British colonial force came in and basically tried to wipe out the Zulu tribes and Boer (Dutch) settlers in the area. Why? They found diamonds in the Northern part of the country. This shattered any independence the Zulu kingdoms had and forced them into an uneasy colonial state with the Dutch settlers and the English. Second, gold was later discovered around Johannesburg. South Africa’s capital isn’t a port or on a trade route, it’s a mining town, and gold mines still dot its landscape. Here's one right beyond the soccer stadium built for the 2010 World Cup (the yellow mound):

gold mines.JPG

From here, you can probably piece it together. The white mine owners needed massive amounts of cheap labor to work the mines, which was in turn supplied by the Bantu (term for any native African), because they could no longer farm or support themselves independently under colonial rule.

2.    Apartheid was a codified set of laws: So wealthy [powerful] white mine owners really needed cheap Bantu labor to support the growth the mining industry, but they were concerned about being overrun since population-wise they were in a minority and were forcing deplorable conditions on the labor force. This is a common theme you hear in the interviews of the people who drafted the apartheid laws. As the industry grew, they drafted more and more laws to keep the Bantu population in check (most of which were aimed at keeping them from obtaining economic independence). Here’s a picture of a museum wall depicting all the laws:


Side note: I felt inclined to draw comparisons with Jim Crow laws in the US, but most of these apartheid laws were drafted in the second half of the 20th century. It's all so very recent. Additionally, Jim Crow laws just weren't nearly as extensive or instituted on a national level to specifically keep industry going.

3.    Apartheid was about displacement: Make no mistake, racism was of course the driving force behind apartheid. Wealthy whites did not want to live amongst their Bantu labor force, and as whites grew wealthier and the population grew, they continually forced large segments of the Bantu populations to townships like Elias’ Alexandra and Soweto, where Nelson Mandela was from. Not coincidentally, there were massive housing shortages, and the apartheid government built what were essentially slums to exercise further control over the population.

So those are my takeaways from the museum. I'm definitely oversimplifying things, and I’m not any sort of an expert, but I hope I’ve gotten across just intertwined economics is in all of this.

Up next, we got to the most famous Johannesburg township, home of Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, Soweto.