Today I decided to go to the apartheid museum to see if I could track some sort of Chinese history during the 20th century.
To my surprise there was not much to document according to Chinese history. I went on the self tour walking through the museum. I revisited the apartheid regime and the very dark time our country went through more than a decade ago. However, Chinese immigrants documentation was not readily available.
The museum sticks to strictly apartheid affects and the issues that the indigenous people in South Africa faced. There was nothing on the Chinese migrants who came to South Africa to mine. The mining stories were those of the local miners and the torture they faced as miners during this time of apartheid.
The mining stories were documented by Ernest Cole, a photographer at the time who told stories of the miners through his photography, however there was no documentation of any Chinese people.
I decided to keep digging and see what I could find. This is what I came across.
As you enter the apartheid museum, you are greeted by this saying which Nelson Mandela said in 1999. It says “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Photo: Prelene Singh
After proceeding through the specified gate for me which was titled “Nie – Blankes” which means non-white in English. I saw the ID’s of all the non-white people who lived in South Africa at that time. The ID documents were of Black, Indian and Asian people. I managed to spot this poster of an Asian woman’s ID document. This represents that the Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese) people were treated as “non-white” in South Africa and were therefore discriminated against under the apartheid laws. In 1985 almost 1000 people’s race was changed according to their tone of their skin colour. Among them many was three Chinese people were turned to white citizens. They were reclassified from one race group to another by the stroke of a government pen. Photo: Prelene Singh
I took a photo of this man as he had facial features of an Asian man. And the only one that I spotted on the ramp of infinity. This ramp represented the journey of generations passed and presently. The mirrored boards had photo’s of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of some of those who journeyed to Johannesburg following the discovery of gold in 1886. This photo is significant because it represented the far stretched history of Chinese people in Johannesburg. The ramp is built in such a way to represent the mining industry at the time and how miners were treated with the feeling of imprisonment as you walk up the ramp. Through my research I know that the Chinese were brought South Africa early in the 20th century as miners because the locals refused to mine under the inhumane conditions. Photo: Prelene Singh
During apartheid we know that the Group Areas Act of 1950 caused the population of South Africa to be separated on the basis of skin colour, not even race. The Chinese people were separated but however on some of their legal documents they were classified as “white” people because they were fair and could pass as a white person. This photo is a picture of separation which was painted on the walls of caves by the early San people. Photo: Prelene Singh
This photo has nothing to do with Chinese history in South Africa but I took the picture because walking into the room with the 131 nooses hanging from the ceiling gave me shivers down my spine, literally. Knowing that each one of these nooses represents a person who was executed for political crimes in South Africa during Apartheid. On the walls beside the nooses are the names of these people who were executed or was in police detention and subsequently died.
Egoli: A commanding view of the city of Gold greets you when you reach the top of the ramp. The modern skyline is reflective of the accomplishments throughout the decades of Johannesburg. It is important to bear in mind that the Chinese people played a role in the development of our city. Th Chinese helped in the mining process in the early 1900’s when they mined gold. Gold was the key to the establishment Johannesburg and the history of discrimination and segregation in this city. Photo: Prelene Singh
This is a photo of the replica of the solitary confinement cell. Detainees who were held in these cells say that it was the worst kind of torture. Winnie Mandela said: “The mind finds it very difficult to adjust to such solitude. It is utter torture…It becomes so difficult to keep sane with absolutely nothing to do that I would actually hunt for ants. If I had an ant or a fly in the cell, I would regard myself as having company for the day.” I stood in this cell and closed the door. If I laid down flat on my back that would be the size of the entire cell. Photo: Prelene Singh
This is the inside of the yellow army vehicle. You can see the heavy appearance of the seats inside, the torn seats and the rusted metal bars. It is a scary sight and one could only imagine how it felt to be inside this vehicle as a political prisoner. Photo: Prelene Singh
This photo shows you the imposing yellow armoured vehicle which was used by the police and the army called who called it a casspir. This is representative of the constant police presence in the townships during apartheid South Africa. It also became the central figure of the Soweto uprising of 1976. Photo: Prelene Singh
While these pictures are not all related to the Chinese history in South Africa I think it suffices as important context in understanding the state of South Africa before and after the Chinese came to the country. It is also important to understand how the Chinese were treated and why, under apartheid law.
It does not tell the story of Chinese people in particular but it helps to wrap your mind around why the Chinese had such a difficult time in South Africa then and why they still till this day experience discrimination form local citizens.
I have a few meetings lined up this week with people who be able to supply me with more information around the history of Chinese people in South Africa. And if time allows me I would like to speak to people of the apartheid museum about why this part of history is not documented publicly and find out if there is any new information and visuals they could provide me with.
For now 再见 (bye bye) from me.