Apartheid (and History): Through the Eyes of Children

The death of Nelson Mandela came as a surprise to no one, and yet it brought the world to a standstill momentarily. His long life is so astounding in its depth of courage and breadth of accomplishments that he could easily be misinterpreted as a legendary figure in a tall tale. I hope the well-deserved attention his memorials generate will bring the reality of his life to the attention of the young.

Speaking as someone who lived through the years of the iron curtain, assassinations, civil rights marches, and apartheid boycotts, it pains me to realize that these powerful events and circumstances are now relegated to history. The sad truth is that most history is taught chronologically, with time running out before even the twentieth century is considered, let alone the later decades in which such critical changes occurred. Sadder still is the idea that history is often seen to be “the past” and therefore irrelevant to the lives of young learners.

I can’t help but wonder how kids born into the 21st century will feel when their own children view the events of 9/11, the great recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “history”.

My hope is that teachers, parents, librarians will continue to reach out to young readers and point them toward the kinds of books that make history come alive. I wrote about two picture books that do that for Mandela (in this post)

Journey to Jo'burg  by Beverly Naidoo, illustrated by Eric Velasquez Harper Collins, 1988

Journey to Jo’burg
by Beverly Naidoo,
illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Harper Collins, 1988

As I lived through the years when South Africa’s Apartheid policy was publicly debated and protested, I found it ironic that it was so often compared to our  US history of slavery, but rarely compared to the white supremacist policies Hitler advocated to the point of genocide during World War II.

Today’s outpouring of admiration for Mandela does not reflect opinions at the time events unfolded. Ending apartheid was not a world-wide policy, with financial boycotts resisted in the name of sustaining global economic balances. That, too, reminded me of the way world powers delayed their responses to  Hitler to avoid rocking international boats, so to speak, especially in the business communities.

While corporate and political leaders wrangled and debated, generations of individuals lived through the suffering Apartheid imposed. A book that helps young readers (and readers of any age) experience that viscerally is JOURNEY TO JO’BURG. 

The link above provides more background, but this Indiebound synopsis hints at the  essence of the very real and wrenching story:

If only Mma was here, Naledi wished over and over. . .

Mma lives and works in Johannesburg, far from the village thirteen-year-old Naledi and her younger brother, Tiro, call home. When their baby sister suddenly becomes very sick, Naledi and Tiro know, deep down, that only one person can save her. Bravely, alone, they set off on a journey to find Mma and bring her back. It isn’t until they reach the city that they come to understand the dangers of their country, and the painful struggle for freedom and dignity that is taking place all around them.”

The author paints a portrait of the physical and social conditions (of Naledi’s village, life in Johannesburg, at the clinic) as vividly as she does the inner landscape of children living in abject poverty, of parents forced to work as virtual slaves to provide even subsistence survival for their families. The matter-of-fact way in which the story is told is perhaps its most powerful element.

Hitler’s eventual defeat did not put an end to white supremacists; decades of unchallenged Apartheid is ample evidence of that. Ending Apratheid did not end discrimination or racism either. That’s why it is so critical to encourage reading, discussion, and investigation of these and other historic practices and events. Freedom is never free, and history will repeat itself unless new generations learn from the mistakes of the past and draw strength from the leaders who sacrificed to make the world a better place– for everyone.


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