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The Stigma of Apartheid Beyond South Africa

by Richard Meckien - published Oct 29, 2014 05:20 PM - - last modified May 10, 2017 02:31 PM

Racismo - foto 3Two decades after the end of apartheid, the legacy of institutionalized racism is still present in South Africa, not only in the form of culturally entrenched discrimination and profound socioeconomic inequalities, but also in the construction of the identity of South Africans, including those who left the country during the regime of racial segregation.

Marked by memories of past oppression and of social relations left behind, and faced with a very diverse sociocultural milieu than the one with links to their roots, these migrants undergo specific psychosocial processes to negotiate a sense of belonging and accommodate their subjectivities.

Social psychologist Christopher Sonn, a professor at the University of Victoria, Australia, addressed these issues in the lecture

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Apartheid Archive: Racism, Memory and Belonging among South Africans in Australia, which IEA’s Intercultural Dialogues Research Group held on September 9. Also attending the event were professors Adriana Capuano de Oliveira, from ABC Federal University (UFABC); Ligia Fonseca Ferreira, from São Paulo Federal University (UNIFESP); and Maura Pardini Bicudo Véras, from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). The event was moderated by Sylvia Dantas, the group’s coordinator and a professor at UNIFESP.

At the conference, Sonn presented the main guidelines of the Apartheid Archive, an international research project based in South Africa, of which he is one of the leaders, that aims to examine the traumatic experiences of South Africans during the apartheid era, as well as the impacts of racism on the individual and collective identities of the victims. The project concerns itself with life narratives of ordinary people, with a focus on everyday racial prejudice and abuses experienced in a discriminatory regime.

Dantas stressed the relevance of the lecture’ s subject to the Brazilian reality: “Tensions in South Africa are very similar to those in Brazil, because here, due to the legacy of slavery, racism is still very present and needs to be brought to light.” Véras also drew attention to the issue: “We didn’t have apartheid, but the marketplace itself took care of creating segregation. In São Paulo, the city outskirts are occupied by blacks and migrants.” Ferreira, likewise, noted that “we imported the apartheid metaphor to describe the situation in our country.”

Sonn’s lecture focused on the work being done with South Africans who migrated to Australia over the period of legalized segregation. In this investigative journey, Sonn discovered his own story. Born in South Africa, he lived under apartheid until age 19, when he left with his family to Australia in search of a better life, away from the State-imposed hierarchical system that divided human beings in four categories: “whites,” “indians,” “blacks” and “colored.” Included in the latter group, Sonn saw social, economic and political rights denied to him, and had his identity imprinted by standards of race, much like the subjects of his research.

The reality of oppression experienced by Sonn and other non-white South Africans during apartheid – the term means “separate lives” in Afrikaans – comprised a series of exclusionary measures, such as mandatory declarations of one’s color; zoning of cities in specific areas for each race; a ban on marriages between blacks and whites; restriction of movement for blacks in certain areas of cities; establishment of separate schools, health centers and neighborhoods for blacks – the so-called Bantustans; denial of access by blacks to certain public facilities, including drinking fountains and bathrooms.


The project was launched in 2009 to collect, document and analyze the life stories of more than 5,000 South Africans who lived through the apartheid period, using them to examine the ongoing effects of the racial segregation regime on individuals and groups.

According to Sonn, it was hoped that reclaiming and recognizing the common memory of the victims would fill the gaps left by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other formal archive projects, “which generally focus on major accounts the past or on the privileged narratives of the academic, political and social elites.”

Sonn said that the Commission, established in 1994 by then president Nelson Mandela, covered the most extreme forms of abuse and serious human rights violations, but omitted the often-routine traumatic experiences of ordinary South Africans. “The historical recovery made possible by the project gives us the opportunity to remember together the experiences left out of the memory of South Africans,” he said.

According to him, it is a matter of “saying the unsaid,” i.e., of recovering stories of racism, even if oftentimes mundane, that have never been told to avoid reopening old wounds. “My parents are in their 70s and are only now beginning to talk about their move to Australia, which was very difficult,” he stated, referring to his personal trajectory. “By telling our stories, we are able to think of the dimensions and the horror of apartheid,” he added.


Also underlying the project is the assumption that, to understand the present and improve the future, South Africa needs to learn to deal with the past. This requires, from the perspective of South Africans, bringing up painful memories and exploring, analyzing and questioning them to channel the psychosocial processes through which the victims, based on their past experiences of oppression, reconnect with their subjectivities and identities.

From the viewpoint of academics and of society as a whole, and with the help of those who are normally excluded from the learning process, we need to develop an engaged social praxis, ethically and critically reflective, that enables people to internalize new ways of thinking and acting in a context of racial diversity. As Sonn stressed, “Our goal is to apply these analyses to question and subvert power relations through their deconstruction and de-ideologization.”

According to Sonn, understanding the present and building the future from the past is very important. Firstly, because of the “recrudescence, mutability and recalcitrance of the racist legacy”; and secondly because of the penetration of the ideology of tolerance and denial of prejudice, widely disseminated in the idea that “racism is a thing of the past.”

Among the manifestations of this segregationist heritage, Sonn noted the continued racialization of social problems (e.g., crime and AIDS) and of subjectivities and inter-subjectivities; xenophobia; the controversies surrounding the empowerment of blacks and affirmative actions that challenge discriminatory labels; and the lack of policies to redeem ethnicities and identities, which are only mentioned at election time.


By turning to memories of South Africans settled in Australia, Sonn seeks to examine how the marks of apartheid manifest themselves in the subjectivities of these migrants; more specifically, how the memories of oppression in their homeland combine with their experiences in the Australian milieu.

According to him, this synthesis implies a process of acculturation and restructuring of the sense of community, involving the sacrifice of social relations and identity roots with links to their native land; the adaptation to a new sociocultural environment; and the construction and deconstruction of labels and experiences.

Sonn was able to observe closely the dynamics of this process in fieldwork and in analyses of the collected stories, which revealed the struggle of South Africans to reframe their identities or, in Sonn’s words, “to try to find out where they came from, beyond the identities imposed by apartheid.”

To explore these stories within the larger context of immigration and identity and territorial displacement, Sonn adopted discourse analysis and critical narrative analysis as his theoretical-methodological strategy. According to him, this approach embraced both the form and the content of the narratives, and made it possible to understand the individuals’ processes of signification and identity building.

“Narratives are never a pure reflection of actions, behaviors and events. They are always places where the personal investments of the narrator, of listeners and of invisible interlocutors, as well as the influence of the social milieu in our interpretations of the world, converge to set up a constructed version of the facts,” he explained, stressing that, because of this, it is wrong to refer to “a story” or “the story”, as if there were a unique, objective story that exists independently from the subjectivity of those who tell it and those who decode it.


The collected reports told of incidents of racism and revealed the impact of apartheid on the lives of the migrants. “These were non-nostalgic, traumatic memories, often unstated, about the forces that led them to leave South Africa and move to Australia to seek a better future for their family,” said Sonn, noting that this was a recurring motivation in the narratives, together with three other factors: crime and the atmosphere of insecurity in South Africa; economic and educational opportunities in Australia; and family reunification.

Overall, the stories dealt with day-to-day episodes of what Sonn defined as “microagressions,” i.e., small routine interactions characterized by racism, reaffirming the privilege of the whites and reinforcing the idea that blacks were inferior human beings.

These remembrances included the police entering one’s home and arresting a black relative; family members separated from each other because some were labeled blacks and others colored; parents who decided to leave South Africa so that their children would not feel inferior or to keep them away from the repression of the anti-apartheid movement; an employee mistreated by a white salesman in the very office of his company; and an individual who worked as an electrician in a mining company where every day his lunch box and his belongings were thrown on the floor by his colleagues.

Asked by Oliveira if the term “microagression” might mitigate the severity of the racist acts, Sonn pointed out that it was not a matter of trivializing such abuses, because they had profound effects and were part of a broader ideological framework. “They might seem like small facts, but they have great significance in the context of the oppression of apartheid,” he pondered.

Among the impacts of these microagressions, Sonn stressed the difficulty of establishing bonds of trust between the races, a trend he identified when he asked the migrants what prevented South African blacks and whites to mingle in Australia. According to him, the responses showed that blacks still felt hurt and thought that whites, believing themselves superior, were incapable of seeing them as equals.


Analyzing the narratives, Sonn noted that the microagressions roused in blacks the feeling that they did not belong to South Africa. In an excerpt that he read at the conference, the narrator stated, “South Africa is my homeland, but has also robbed me. I only discovered this when I came to Australia and saw the enormity of what apartheid did to us. It was overwhelming and it is still painful, a sore point, and I’m still striving to overcome it.”

In another excerpt, the migrant said: “In South Africa, you felt like an alien in your own birthplace, and word alien itself sets forth what it conjures: that you don’t belong, that you’re not wanted, that you’re rejected, which was apartheid did.”

Sonn also mentioned the case of an interviewee who felt she was neither “colored” (a term she considered offensive) nor South African (because South Africa had rejected her), but rather Capetonian [Cape Town-born]. In her statement, she resented having left behind the cultural roots that defined her identity beyond the labels imposed by apartheid. In a segment of her narrative, she observed, “Being a Capetonian, for me, gives me a sense of belonging. That is what happens when you grow up in just one place, understanding its people and getting to know its things. But you have to throw away this guidebook when you go to live with people who don’t share this similarity.”

For Sonn, such a statement indicates that this South African woman feels disconnected in Australia, as the following passage suggests: “I can feel comfortable in Australia, but living and working here does not give me the sense of belonging that I have in Cape Town. Australia has made ​​me a very reserved person, but when I was there, it was all about crowds and community life. Now I really like being alone. This place basically changed me.”

But the narratives also feature some dissonances. According to Sonn, some migrants said they feel at home away from South Africa, as the following excerpt from a report show: “I feel more settled in my soul here in Australia. I feel I am recognized for my skills, not my color. I don’t have to fight for my place here.”


After collecting stories of South Africans who went to Australia during the apartheid period, Sonn is currently dedicated to compiling stories of people who migrated after 1994, when the racial segregation regime came officially to an end. His goal is to understand why people continue migrating. To this end, he will apply thematic analysis to longer statements, which will be obtained through in-depth interviews with ten individuals, three of them colored.

According to him, many blacks still leave South Africa because, although they have attained political power, economic power remains in the hands of multinationals and mining companies, and social inequality is still great. The whites – he noted – migrate because, with the end of apartheid, their privileges were taken from them.

Among the issues to be addressed at this stage are the effectiveness of the South African democracy; the impact of the end the regime on the migratory flow; how people negotiate the idea of ​​home and belonging; and the power that some Australians have to decide who may or may not belong to the country.

The next steps of the project include the development of innovative methods to retrieve personal memories, especially those that never surfaced, and to study the different forms of oppression, resistance and peace building.

With regard to proposals already suggested, Sonn mentioned art and performance as alternatives means to expound the responses to oppression, exposing all the domination and privilege, and thus arouse society’s awareness. For Sonn, one must instill a sense of injustice among the privileged and theorize the position of the listener, because it is only by becoming aware of this position that the privileged will act against oppression.

“The opportunities to connect personal stories and narratives with other archival material, to reinstate these stories through poetry and performance, and to understand the ongoing effects of apartheid’s oppression on the lives of people will emerge as we build new ways of being, knowing and doing, and as we seek to enhance the catalytic, epistemic and political validity of the Apartheid Archive as a process and a mechanism for liberation,” he concluded.


During the debate, when asked by journalist Luiza Paulo Lima, one of the participants of the conference, about how to deal with conflicts between the various ethnic groups that make up the population of South Africa, Sonn said that to tackle this problem one must acknowledge South Africa’s ethnic diversity:

“The country has a complex reality that was masked and simplified by apartheid. How does one change this? Through the extremely hard task of restructuring education and including these ethnic dialects in the curriculum, in addition to English and Afrikaans, which are already part of it.”

On the difficulties imposed by this diversity, Ferreira noted that South Africa is a creation of European settlers who gathered various peoples and ethnic groups in artificial borders, delimited with no regard to affinities of identity. For her, this prevents one from having a real sense of belonging to the country: “The sense of belonging is more local and has to do with one’s birthplace.”

This issue was also addressed by Véras, who questioned Sonn about alternatives to overcome the tension between universalist thinking, centered on universal human rights, and culturalist thinking, aligned with the current of cultural relativism.

Sonn recalled the case of specific health services to indigenous peoples and argued that, although very difficult, it is necessary to combine the two lines of thought. “Part of the challenge is to balance universal rights and, at the same time, acknowledge the special needs of certain groups. But we don’t have to choose one path or another; we can combine them,” he said.


As a preliminary to his question, Oliveira mentioned the case of Brazilians who don’t  perceive themselves as blacks in Brazil, but are confronted with racism when they migrate to countries that were colonized by the English, such as the United States, where they cannot disguise their race. He then inquired Sonn about the origins of South Africans labeled as colored and whether they sought to differentiate themselves from blacks.

According to Sonn, those of mixed race who are identified as colored have their origin associated mainly to Cape Town, where there was a harbor with a large and steady flow of sailors and people from other parts of the world. “It was a place of mixing, hybridization, miscegenation, blending,” he said.

He said it’s a complicated classification system, imposed by the apartheid system and hardly accepted by the people. “Many reject the notion of ​​colored, some still cling to it, while others challenge it and redefine it. I do not personally consider myself colored: I’m from South Africa and I live in Australia,” he said, emphasizing that during the black consciousness movement in South Africa, “It was said: ‘They call us colored, but we have nothing to do with this label; we are black South Africans’.”

“All this pertains to the Apartheid Archive. Part of the project is to understand how people deal with these ideologies and establish their identities within a race-driven structure,” he concluded.

Photo: Sandra Codo/IEA