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Apartheid survivors share experience with A&T audience

by Jordan Green

Peaceful demonstrations met by police tear gas attacks. Friends and colleagues abducted never to be heard from again. Exile. These are some of the things panelists from South Africa told an audience at NC A&T University they experienced in their struggle to overturn the system of pass laws, separate housing, economic restrictions and black electoral disenfranchisement known as apartheid.

‘“I’m very passionate about South Africa despite the dark past,’” said Winlyn Maneveld, a visiting international teacher at Hampton Academy. ‘“It’s been an amazing experience to have tear gas explode at your feet and then to have [jailed African National Congress leader and future president] Nelson Mandela freed and to be able to vote.’”

Maneveld, who was classified as ‘colored’ under the apartheid regime because of her mixed blood, attended high school in the late 1970s, a period when the freedom struggle was taking off.

‘“I was in college in the early eighties,’” she said. ‘“It was the best time to be in college. There were boycotts and protests. The police did not care if they were clerics; they fired tear gas at everybody. You never knew if you were going to be detained or disappeared.’”

The program, ‘“The American South Meets South Africa: My Life Under Apartheid,’” hosted by A&T’s College of Arts and Sciences and the university’s arts and journalism departments at Merrick Auditorium, explored the parallels between the freedom struggles of black South Africans and African Americans in the US South. A prevailing theme amongst presenters and audience members was that South Africa could be considered a model for the United States.

‘“The truth and reconciliation commission is a good example of the US importing a really good idea,’” said Joya Wesley, the panel moderator and communications director of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ‘“We’re really good at exporting stuff, but this is an example of something where South Africa knows a lot more than us.’”

Bheki Langa, chair of the visual and performing arts department at Bennett College and a member of the anti-apartheid movement going back to his days as a student in South Africa in the 1960s, said black South Africans have also looked to the United States for inspiration.

‘“The collaboration between African Americans and South Africans goes way back in history,’” he said. ‘“When we talk about the Niagara movement, a lot of South Africans were part of the delegation. After the formation of the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], the African National Congress was formed. Going back to the 1950s there was a lot of cross-fertilization. [South African freedom fighter] Steve Biko got a lot of inspiration from people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.’”

Wesley also alluded to the differences between the United States and South Africa, where years of violent struggle preceded dramatic change when the apartheid regime finally crumbled.

‘“There are elements of dispossession and inequality here, but not to the extent that people are willing to go into exile or risk life’ and limb,’” she said. ‘“I also don’t get the sense that people have that same confidence’ that change can take place here.’”

Langa responded: ‘“I think maybe our struggle is different in that we are in the majority [as blacks in South Africa],’” Langa said. ‘“Forging coalitions with Latinos and women will make a big difference in the progress we can make [here].’”

Amaris Howard, a Greensboro poet, asked the panelists what similarities they might see between apartheid-era South Africa and present-day America.

Nalini Dorasamy, a South African of South Asian descent who teaches math to 5th-graders at Jefferson Elementary, said Americans remain bound by self-imposed restrictions of race that don’t torment South Africans to the same extent anymore.

‘“I really believe freedom starts here,’” she said, gesturing to her heart. ‘“I think people here haven’t let go. We’re trying in South Africa. I think we let go of a lot of anger. People suppress themselves here. Once you talk, I don’t think the fear grips you anymore. As college students you should start forming forums where you talk to people of other races.’”

The panelists also said economic inequality has replaced racism as a focus of attention in South Africa, where a small number of wealthy blacks thrive while the majority remains in poverty.

‘“The struggle continues, even in South Africa,’” Langa said. ‘“We’re wracked by poverty, by crime and by HIV.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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