/ 29 May 2024

Echoes of apartheid: Who were you then and who would you be today?

South Africa Feature 1994
Poster child: A boy holds a Nelson Mandela election placard in 1994 in Lindelani, outside Durban. Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

As we head to the voting stations this week and prepare to honour the youth of the Sharpeville Massacre next month, I have found myself reflecting on what freedom means and how we got here. 

On 27 April 1994 nearly 20 million South Africans cast their vote, most for the very first time, a right denied to the majority of the population until that monumental day. Every South African who voted on what we now recognise as Freedom Day, has a story to tell — where they voted, how they voted, who they went with, the queues, the atmosphere, the emotions, the unimaginable becoming reality. 

I like to think that I, too, played a part in ushering in our democracy. Deeply and safely lodged in my mother’s womb, we walked to City Hall in central Johannesburg and stood in a long, winding queue, feeling the sun on our backs and elation around us. My mum’s recollection of this story always emphasised the excitement and disbelief she and my dad felt and how relieved they were that, thanks to me and her heavy belly, election officials escorted us to the very front of the queue. And so we cast our vote – for liberation, freedom and everything in between. 

For my family and the majority of the population, this day was joy and triumph over a brutal regime, a regime that stifled the lives and stripped the rights of black South Africans. But I can’t help to think about what this day meant for the others. Many white South Africans did not actively choose freedom and equality. It was something imposed on them. The tides had turned.

Apartheid was no longer financially feasible. International solidarity, sanctions and boycotts compounded with local insurrection left the regime and their followers with little room to continue to wage their war against humanity. And so the regime fell. I know we like to skirt around this inconvenient truth in the name of social cohesion but 30 years later, as we reflect on our own past and are confronted with the injustices of the present, it feels important to ask: who were you during apartheid and who would you be today if apartheid hadn’t ended?  

I ask this not because I hope to stir guilt in those who stayed complicit but because even as we celebrate 30 years of freedom, we are confronted with the ongoing brutality of the Israeli apartheid regime and their genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

A 2021 Human Rights Watch report, A Threshold Crossed, systematically highlights Israel’s infliction of apartheid on Palestinians. In South Africa’s opening remarks at the International Court of Justice, our ambassador to the Netherlands recognised the ongoing Nakba of the Palestinian people through Israel’s colonisation since 1948, “which has systematically and forcibly dispossessed, displaced, and fragmented the Palestinian people, deliberately denying them their internationally recognised, inalienable right to self-determination, and their internationally recognised right of return as refugees to their towns and villages…”. 

In March this year, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories reported: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide … has been met.” Just a few days ago the International Criminal Court ordered Israel to immediately halt its military assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah. And even without the mounting evidence from countless, reputable, global institutions, the people of the world have watched as Palestinians have live-streamed their pain and annihilation. More than 36 000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7 — 14 000 of whom are children. 

And so this question — who were you during apartheid and who would you be today if apartheid hadn’t ended? — feels as relevant as ever. For those of us who were not yet born, or too little to exercise agency, we are presented with a moment in time to define who we would have been during apartheid. And for the elders, it is an opportunity to redefine who you once were.  

We often hear Nelson Mandela’s quote, “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”, but I want to reflect on the magnitude of the role international solidarity played in unshackling the chains of apartheid.

As Ronnie Kasrils says in his book, International Brigade Against Apartheid, “the anti-apartheid movement in its various forms mobilised millions of people and governments globally to isolate South Africa’s white supremacist regime”. Since the late 1950s, the solidarity movement flowered in almost every country in the world.

From citizens boycotting South African goods — which saw British imports of South African textiles and clothing falling by 35% in the 1980s — and mass marches, campaigns such as Stop the Sports Tours to governments, universities, churches, unions and civil society standing united in opposition to apartheid. By the 1970s, a number of governments offered material and moral support to the struggle. And so slowly but surely the spirit of ubuntu and solidarity made the continuation of the regime’s crimes against humanity untenable. And much of the freedom we enjoy is owed to the bravery and solidarity of millions of people who stood for something bigger than themselves. 

Yet today, there are too many who have erred on the side of silence. Of complacency.  Many of whom are progressive except for Palestine. And to my generation, perhaps being born into freedom has made us take it for granted?

I’ve been thinking about how my grand-uncle Babla Saloojee was killed and flung from a window by security police. So while some people gave their lives, what were you doing?  And what are you doing now? In the words of International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor, there is no struggle in the world that is won by observation. There is no struggle in the world that is won by inaction. 

Now is the time to amplify the call for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, to mobilise, to organise, to write, to sing, to get involved and heed the call of millions around the world to fight for a free Palestine. And, of course, vote with humanity — for a party that understands that “international solidarity … is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective. The foremost of these objectives is to aid the development of humanity to the highest level possible”, as Mozambique’s former leader and liberation fighter Samora Machel once said. 

Happy election day, South Africa.

Shahana Bhabha writes in her personal capacity as an active member of civil society.