• Ticket to the Apartheid Museum allocating a non-white classification. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
OPINION: A visit to South Africa's Apartheid Museum teaches an Aboriginal woman the value of ugly truths.
Rhanna Collins

16 Nov 2018 - 2:12 PM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2018 - 3:11 PM

When we think of South Africa, a few things come to mind: safari, Springboks, beaded jewelry, Nelson Mandela. And, of course, apartheid and a country divided by race.

While the African nation, with its road side slums, domestic servitude and high rates of violent crime, might seem a world away from our own southern land, we actually have more in common than you think: beautiful Country, many proud First Nations culture and languages, deep rooted traditions and spirituality and the many other ethnicities who make up our diverse societies.

I pondered the complex idea of where Australia stands next to our international brothers and sisters on First Nations issues during my recent travels to South Africa, where Indigenous groups represent approximately 1 per cent of South Africa’s population.

While many might know that the South African cricket team beat Australia in the three day series last week or that the Cheetah is one of its most endangered species, what many don’t know is that the country’s Constitution (established in 1993) is highly regarded across the globe. It contains guarantees of equality, more extensive than anywhere else in the world.

But this constitution has been hard won by its citizens. Like Australia’s First Peoples, the African people lived under the rule of foreign colonisers; the Dutch in the mid-1600s and later the British in the 1800s. By the 1940s the political leadership of the nation was led by Afrikaners, the Caucasian population with namely Dutch ancestry, who created the policy of apartheid in 1948, the regime of racial segregation that lasted until early 1990s.  

In practical terms aparthied meant non-white people never sharing any resources or space with Caucasian people. Anyone considered non-white was barred from official political participation. While this, again, might seem a world away from Australia, these policies and rules based on race were not dissimilar to the many policies in our recent history which discriminated against Aboriginal people. During the Aboriginals Protection policy years, the Queensland Chief Protector of Native Affairs (1913 – 1942), John W Bleakley strongly advocated for the segregation of non-white and white Australians, especially when it came to romantic relationships.

I can’t imagine a society where I would have to actively place myself below others, but this would be an all too familiar story for my ancestors from Eagle Hawk Neck in Southeast Tasmania.

Like the Tasmanian tiger, my people were thought to be extinct. This is obviously not true, with my family being living proof. Our palawa community in Tassie has always been not only, large, but also strong.

When I was growing up— and to this present day —many believed that Tasmania’s Aboriginal population had died out, with the legend of ‘the last Tasmanian Aboriginal’, Truganini. Like the Tasmanian tiger, my people were thought to be extinct. This is obviously not true, with my family being living proof. Our palawa community in Tassie has always been not only, large, but also strong. However, for many many years we lived our cultured life on the edge of polite Tasmanian society, not allowed to speak our language or showcase our culture in fear of having our kids removed.

The genocide of the Black War in Tasmania is deeply under-recognised in our country, as are the Frontier Wars. The Tasmanian genocide was famously described by H.G Wells as a “war of extermination waged by European immigrants”. Mr Wells later went on to write the science fiction novel The War of the Worlds in which Martian colonists exterminate Europeans.

In Tasmania, we are reclaiming our culture – our language palawa kani was never lost, just sleeping, and is now taught in preschools in Tasmania and proudly spoken by many palawa people.  

When you come from a place where it’s not polite to talk about race, it was certainly a culture shock to see the way South Africans, from all walks of life, openly discuss race relations, national identity and their bloody history over a cup of tea, a Castle Lager or lunch.

These topics were not confined to hushed whispers in corridors or quiet conversations with select audiences, as is often my experience as an Aboriginal woman in Australia. But I recognise that there are situations in which I can opt into a conversation about my Aboriginality, which is a luxury many from my community do not have. Because of this, I always choose to declare my Aboriginality. It is my truth. I have an Aboriginal father and mother with European heritage and I don’t fit into the stereotypes of Aboriginality perpetuated by mainstream media— I am a fair skinned Aboriginal woman, living in a city with a tertiary education and a professional career.

I always choose to declare my Aboriginality. It is my truth. I have an Aboriginal father and mother with European heritage.

When I talk about my Aboriginality these facts are difficult for many Australians to fathom, comments such as “but how Aboriginal are you?” or blank stares of confusion are not uncommon responses for me in Australia.

This was not my experience in South Africa at all. When I first met our tour guide Charles he asked me ‘where I was from?’  When I told him I was Australian he looked quizzically at me. I explained that I am Aboriginal and my nation is palawa— Tasmanian Aboriginal —his big bright smile lit up and he responded, “of course, you are coloured, I knew it!”. As Charles showed our group through Johannesburg he would take time to explain to me what my experience would be in certain situations as a “coloured person” living in South Africa prior to 1994 during the apartheid years.

I explained that I am Aboriginal and my nation is palawa— Tasmanian Aboriginal —his big bright smile lit up and he responded, “of course, you are coloured, I knew it!”.

You’d think my light skin might have afford me some kind of privilege in a society that affirmed whiteness, but I was told that the South African government would have administered my race at birth, which would classify me for years to come— in everything I did. Charles showed me his old pass book, a document given to black and coloureds, which controlled and restricted their freedom. It was bleak, but it was the truth; Charles’ truth. And my truth, in another life.       

Truth-telling is central to racial justice, as Nelson Mandela championed when he was released from prison. I saw his words memorialised on the walls of the Old Fort prison during my travels,

You must know your past and the cruelty that was committed to your people. But don’t keep this too much in mind because we are here to build a new South Africa.

That is what you must commit yourselves to. You remember what has happened in the past so that, in future, you can avoid it.

I later visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. It was a deeply moving experience. Not only because of its emotional content, but contextually, the fact that South Africa has been brave enough to look at their history and showcase its horrific details for anyone to see. This is truth-telling in its most unapologetic form.

The museum director, Christopher Till told me that the museum serves as a reminder for South Africans that the freedom they have is not free at all. The country experienced violent civil unrest for over 50 years during the apartheid regime.

“Blood was shed,” Mr Till said. “We need to begin the journey towards healing and reconciliation.

[It’s about] honouring those who died and celebrating the emancipation of the African voice, our culture, heritage, religion and practices.”

In the museum, the apartheid regime is emulated from the moment you receive your ticket. Like Charles’ pass book, you are classified either white or non-white.

I was classified non-white. And no, the irony was not lost on me as a woman of both European and Aboriginal descent; often feeling that I don’t quite belong in either world. Unlike others in my ‘non-white’ group, being classified as black or coloured actually made me comfortable. After all, it’s true. I’m not white.

I was handed a ticket and entered through the ‘non-white’ door and proceeded up a steep slope, then to climb many flights of stairs. When I finally reached the upper floors of the museum, the others in the tour who had been classified as white were already there looking down on us as we walked to meet them. Through the ‘white’ entrance, they were able to take the lift.    

I wasn’t aware of how hard it was going to be, seeing raw cruel discrimination up close; images of children malnourished, people protesting.  

I watched a video that showed the country’s truth and reconciliation commission and, astonishingly, recognised a young Charles in the film, our tour guide who was hosting our group through Johannesburg. In the video he was just 14-years-old, pleading with the men who murdered his mother to tell him where to locate her remains. They refused to tell him. 

I imagined what it would be like to grow up like Charles did, without his only parent, in a society where his race defined his every part of his lived experience— where he could go, where he could live and what he could do for work.

Charles later told me “There was no justice.” He felt the commission was not long enough, where only “just enough truth came out”.

“You can’t set a timeframe for healing,” Charles said.

While healing is still ongoing in South Africa, the experience of going through its Truth & Reconciliation process has made truth-telling their normal daily life.

Walking outside on the grounds of the museum, I saw the seven defining pillars of the South African Constitution: Democracy, Equality, Reconciliation, Diversity, Responsibility, Respect and Freedom.

These concepts, embedded in the Constitution were born from the people. In 1993 there was a process to pass power from the Afrikaners back to the people.  Democracy was their aim. The ideal was born from the 1955 Freedom Charter, written by the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies after extensive consultation with communities living in townships in which black and “coloured” South Africans were directed to live on the outskirts of towns, areas not dissimilar to missions in Australia.

Drawing another parallel to my home country, this process to develop the Freedom charter is very comparable to the exhaustive consultation process administered in Australia to achieve the consensus of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations represented in the Uluru statement

It inspired me to think how demands of disadvantaged people for freedom helped shape their first Constitution.

South Africa held its first non-racial democratic elections in April 1994. At the time, foreign correspondents arrived to report on the chaos only to find South Africans patiently queuing for hours to vote – the majority for the first time in their lives. Shortly after, the announcement was made that the ANC had won over 19 other political parties with 62.6 per cent of the vote. This historic moment was broadcast around the work with revelers and supporters pouring into the streets to celebrate. On the 10 May 1994 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was inaugurated as the first President of a democratic South Africa. 

There was a long journey to get to the historic moment in which Nelson Mandela, a black man who had spent 27 years in jail for political offences, had became the first President of South Africa.

In 1995 the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission was established to reconcile those affected by apartheid. 

While Mandela was able to broker peace from a state of chaos and violence, it should be noted that many criticise his work in national reconciliation, and feel it didn’t compensate non-white South Africans of the despair they had endured under apartheid. Charles is one such individual.

The South African political model, has its imperfections, however the fact remains that the South African Government and society openly acknowledge and discuss their history and failings. From this, Australia can learn.

The 2019 NAIDOC theme has just been announced and next year we will be focusing on Voice. Treaty. Truth: Let’s work together for a shared future.

The theme invites all Australians to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a movement of the nation for a better future. Other countries can talk openly about their histories and unpack some of the parts they are by not proud of. This conversation is not beyond us in Australia. This theme is encouraging a conversation about truth in Australia and maybe it will enable people like me to speak my truth and for our country to have a sophisticated conversation about our national identity, so we are not lagging behind in denial and shame about our history.


Rhanna Collins is a proud Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) woman and NITV Project Manager. Follow Rhanna @rhanna_collins

Rhanna's trip was funded by South African Tourism as a part of the Nelson Mandela Centenary celebrations.