They Know South Africa’s Struggle. They Say America Has a ‘Silent Apartheid.’ 

A split image of Soweto Uprising and Black Lives Matter protests in Brooklyn.
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People took to the streets demanding equal rights. They denounced the government and the systematic racism they had faced for generations. The movement spread around the world as activists used their collective voice to call for an end to a racist system. All of this helped bend the arc of justice further toward equality.

This isn’t a description of America in 2020 following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, but of South Africa and what Black South Africans did to put an end to apartheid. Some of those who lived through and have studied South Africa's apartheid regime, which lasted from 1948 until 1994, see a “silent apartheid” in the United States, a country that sees itself as a beacon of freedom.

“In the past few years, I have turned down a few work opportunities in the U.S.A. out of a genuine fear for my safety after seeing so many murders of young Black men by police officers go unchecked,” Nthato Mokgata, a 35-year-old artist, filmmaker and musician from Soweto told Inside Edition Digital. “Being from South Africa, a country that has a terrible reputation for its crime, I know that there can be a big difference between media presentation, public perception and reality. That being said, it will be a long time yet before I feel safe to go to the U.S.A.”

Ndaba Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black and democratically elected president who spent 27 years as a political prisoner, told Inside Edition Digital that what is happening in America today and what happened in South Africa is “because we have a leadership that has become unresponsive. A leadership that is no longer in touch with the citizens. It's a leadership that is all about self.”

As protests in America, with some turning violent, continue, to those who witnessed the end of apartheid, things in the U.S. feel familiar.

“To witness such brutality is traumatizing and very painful,” Mokgata said. “It’s inhumane to have to watch so many people die on camera, and, sadly, I think that the videos are a form of violence of their own.”

Author and history professor at Michigan State, Peter Alegi, who lived and worked in and out of South Africa between 1992 and 1998, says large groups banded together from student unions, churches, trade unions, to protest the systematic racism throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

“They all came together this disparate coalition to fight against apartheid, to overthrow apartheid and bring about democracy. And in some respects, the common enemy of apartheid was the glue that kept these diverse groups together in the same way that what you're seeing today, triggered by the awful murder of George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis,” Alegi recalls.

“As South Africans we have always been educated on the history of America and even drawn a lot of inspiration and strength to power our own liberation struggle. It greatly pains us to see the continued repression and unfettered murdering of innocent citizens by state agencies,” Mokgata added.

Colonial Oppression

But the struggle of Black Americans and Black South Africans for civil rights is not the only thing that unites the countries: a shared history of systematic oppression does as well.

Mandela noted that inequality is built into America’s founding texts.

“People who are not whites are only three fifths of human beings,” he says, referring to the Constitution’s language that three-fifths of the slave population counted for the purposes of taxation and congressional representation. “Only three fifths! That it still exists. And that is still being taught by schools in the American society!”

“We have seen Western democracies hailing the value of democracy. Universal suffrage — one man, one vote — but they have not actually adhered to that. And the world has realized that we have actually seen through the veil that they have presented to the world, and we are at that crossroads where the Black people have been fighting for recognition of their existence, recognition of their rights, from the first time the slave trade began, from the first time that the boats arrived in America, across the Caribbean,” Mandela said.

Apartheid came to rule in South Africa in 1948 when the minority white citizens and government placed strict restrictions on Black citizens and people the government classified as “colored.” The extreme segregation forbid non-white citizens the right to vote, and controlled where they ate, worked, got treated, and which public facilities they could use.

In the 17th Century, Dutch explorer Jan Van Riebeeck landed in Cape Town and began to colonize it on behalf of the Dutch East India Trading Company. Many of his countrymen soon followed, claiming it was God’s calling for them to live, settle, and colonize across South Africa. They would enslave or kill native tribes and take their property as their own.

The Dutch transplants, known as Afrikaaners, were a minority in the country, but would become the majority in government. The British took control in the 19th century, but by the mid 1930s, the Crown gave South Africa to the Afrikaaners to govern. Similar to how colonizers acted in America’s early days.

“Both countries owe their origins to white settler colonialism. Both countries were, to a large extent, built on slavery, on violence, on racial prejudice and economic dispossession of indigenous people,” Alegi added.

America had proto-apartheid-like laws of their own, such as the Jim Crow laws that took effect in the South in the early 1890s following the emancipation of slaves 30 years prior. Historians say these laws were designed to oppress Black Americans so they could not advance politically, financially, and socially.

“The U.S. in many respects was a model for white South Africans as they started to build up their country again, before apartheid,” Alegi says. “Well before the rise of apartheid in 1948, there were white South African elites, including many intellectuals and policy makers, who were looking to their American counterparts for ways to address what in South Africa was being called the ‘native question.’ In other words, how do you cope with the reality that the vast majority of people in South Africa are not white?”

The apartheid regime used what happened in America as a blueprint to craft their systematic separation.

Shared Blueprints

“White supremacy entrenched itself in both countries through a monopoly on political power, a need for cheap labor, a fairly deep-seated belief in kind of the cultural superiority of white people, and partnered with that, a fear, a kind of psychological fear of the other — in this case, people of color,” Alegi said.

The U.S. also had the system and stance of “separate but equal” to describe and justify segregation. The apartheid regime adopted the phrase and idea, according to Mandela.

During the apartheid regime, South Africa became a police state. Black citizens were displaced and saw some of their villages destroyed forcing them to relocate to either government housing or townships.

Mokgata’s family was forcibly moved to Soweto in the 1950s and stayed until 1994.

“The year that I was born, a state of emergency was called into effect, which meant widespread police brutality, and military occupation of many places where black people lived,” Mokgata explains. “As a child, the sight of soldiers and tanks in our neighborhood was a common occurrence and my childhood nightmares were filled with the political terror of right wing extremists and the like.”

Mokgata says that “by the time that I was born, some laws were loosening up, but the violence and repression only intensified in the years leading up to the 1994 elections.”

“That experience has always given me perspective on exactly how much we have gained in our struggle for justice, liberty and democracy,” he added. “The experience motivated me to always try to speak truth to power, and not be afraid to deal with consequences of saying or doing what is unpopular, for the sake of justice. It was a very intense experience, which was quite traumatic.”

But as America moved past segregation that was defined and approved of by law, alternate systems of separation, ranging from tacit segregation by white homeowners to federal redlining to deny the availability of mortgages, expanded in importance. Black communities in America were also displaced by government planners like New York’s Robert Moses, whose highways tore through black neighborhoods. Black Americans often found themselves with underfunded school and support systems, and blocked from accessing better ones.

“We had to travel to the white suburbs to study at the recently integrated ‘multiracial’ schools where racial abuse and systemic racism were common fair,” Mokgata said. “Much of the time we had to trade our pride and dignity for the chance at a better education. I constantly had to fight racist teachers, priests, nuns as well as other learners.”

“Government divestment from social welfare since the 1980s in particular, I think is a form of silent apartheid in the sense that the United States is a country like South Africa where poverty and race, as well as gender, are closely connected,” Alegi said. “So when you're cutting food stamps, when you're cutting housing assistance and so on, you are de facto discriminating against a good chunk of the poor, who are Black and brown. I think one could characterize many aspects of this system as a kind of silent apartheid.”

Of Police and Prisons

The South African prison system under apartheid was brutal for those who broke the law and spoke out against the government. It was a mechanism placed to silence critics, opposition leaders, and hold back equality.

America’s justice system continues to be fundamentally unequal, disproportionately sending Black people to prison. While Black Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau, 38.2% of the prison population is Black, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

And while white Americans make up 76.3% of the population, according to the Census Bureau while 58% of the prison population is white according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“I think the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and too many men and women of color clearly demonstrate that the criminal justice system in the United States that's created the world's largest prison population disproportionately targets Black and brown Americans. It's the ‘New Jim Crow’ as Michelle Alexander famously put it, right?” Alegi says.

The prison population numbers in America go in tandem with policing.

A Black person is five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than a white person, according to the NAACP, who also say that a Black man is twice as likely to be stopped without just cause than a Black woman. The NAACP also says that 65% of Black adults have felt targeted because of their race.

A series of apartheid-like systems have been used in American policing in major cities relatively recently. New York City’s “broken windows” enforcement theory under Mayor Rudy Guiliani and his and Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s “stop-and-frisk” policy flooded poorer, disproportionately nonwhite neighborhoods with police.

In South Africa, the apartheid government implemented a policy for all Black citizens to carry passbooks in and out of major cities when they left their homes in the townships in order to work or go to school. If you did not have a passbook you were jailed.

“It was the most hated symbol of apartheid because it was the chain that really prevented people from moving around freely,” Alegi said. “It was an instrument of control and oppression and repression.”

The passbook philosophy was adopted by the San Francisco Police in the 1970s as they implemented it during the era of the Zebra murders of 1973 and 1974, when four Black men were killing random white citizens. Local government and police forced Black men in San Francisco to carry a passbook called a “Zebra Card” at all times until the crime was solved.

Catch a Fire

The 1976 student uprising in Soweto, was one of many which led to bloodshed in the streets outside of Johannesburg as police officers opened fire on demonstrators leaving 332 people dead. Chris Hani, the head of the South African Communist Party, was killed in his driveway in April 1993 by white supremacists. The event pushed South Africa to the brink of civil war. Mandela, who was not yet president, appeared on television and urged for calm.

Protesters in the U.S. south were met with police and extrajudicial violence all through the Civil Rights movement, with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most infamous and impactful act. And in America in 2020, there have been shootings at protests. Cars have rammed into protesters, killing them. And as people took to the streets to protest the killings of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of police and white men, President Trump issued an order to push peaceful protesters in D.C. away in order to pose in front of a church.

“When you see a Donald Trump separating people for a photo op, it's a complete, utter disrespect. And you are not acknowledging that these people are people that you're here to serve,” Ndaba Mandela said.

Moving Forward

Mokgata, who has traveled to the U.S. and has performed in various cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, San Antonio, among others, says he had “a pretty diverse experience of the many micro and macro aggressions that the U.S.A. has to offer, from the outright verbal attacks of NYC subway system, to the toothless ‘Common boy, you're not really from Africa’ at a truck stop in Utah. My cup runneth over.”

“I would say that the first micro aggression experienced with the U.S.A. is with TSA at the airport. They clearly have a mandate for who they stop and how they speak to them. As a Black person who travels extensively, this is not a unique bias,” he added and said this is not just in the U.S. but in airports across Europe, Asia, Australia and North Africa.

“I was warned about the spaces that we were entering and duly prepared. I spent my time in the U.S.A. finding comfort in safe spaces and the wonderful people who generate and maintain them,” he added.

As for Ndaba Mandela, he understands that his status of who he is and the business he does in America is fortunate enough to not have to experience that sort of behavior, however, says “if I wasn't speaking the way I'm speaking or dressed the way I am, that [people] might look at me in a marginalized situation. And that's the problem.

“If you're a Black man and you're walking towards the store, don't look at the watch that you have to look at the shoes that you have. And they'll determine whether you deserve the respect or not, number one. Number two, whether I need to allot the security to follow you in the shopping in case you might steal something,” he added.

Much like how protests took place across the world calling on Western governments to help end apartheid in the 1980s, demonstrations across the world began taking place this year for Black Lives Matter.

The 2020 protests in Johannesburg were led by Ndaba Mandela, who said “it shows us, this is not only a Black Lives Matter issue, this is a justice issue that actually has effects on all humanity.”

For Mokgata, the protests in the streets of modern South Africa are also a rally cry for what is happening in his country.

“I see a parallel between what is happening in South Africa now and what is happening in America now,” Mokgata said. “I see disturbing inequality on both sides, with opulence matched by large populations of the destitute and homeless. I see irresponsible money grabbing and corrupt governance on both sides. I see two countries with incredibly brutal police forces who have contempt for the populations that they are charged to serve and protect.”

When Nelson Mandela took office in the spring of 1994, he began the long and arduous process of forming the Truth and Reconciliation Trials with close friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Truth and Reconciliation Trials were broadcast throughout the world and was a way for all sides to come together and come clean about apartheid’s atrocities.

“Mandela believed that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a better path forward for South Africa than say a Nuremberg trial,” Alegi says. “Mandela was a true believer in kind of colorblind democracy.”

The idea could be something America could adopt to help heal tensions and Mandela believes “it’s not going to be easy, but in order for us to move forward, we're going to need to have those difficult conversations.”

The history of these two countries echo each other, both in repression and injustice, but also in protest and the fight for liberty.

“America can and will only find hope, through honesty about its history and roots,” Mokgata added. “You need to know yourself in order to know exactly what needs to be fixed and transcend.”

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