On a Friday I took a visit to the Slave Lodge with my upper-intermediate class. I was curious about the place, having never been there myself. Apparently, the rest of the class didn’t share this feeling as only three of them showed up. We walked through the Company Gardens to get there, a pleasant stroll on this sunny but crisp day. The high-ceilinged building is impressive; the entrance room contains painted scrolls of historical facts. I was surprised to learn that not only had the slaves come from East and West Africa, but also Sri Lanka, Ceylon and Indonesia. We walked on into a space that simulated conditions on the ships that had transported the slaves to the Cape. It was dark and dank with piles of thick brown rope resting on the wooden bunks. It reminded me of a dungeon, cramped and windowless. In the next room, a movie was playing, filling the air with ominous-sounding Dutch voices condemning African slaves to imprisonment for minor infractions. In those days, the laws were unforgiving. Slaves were not allowed to make sounds or meet other slaves. If you were born to a slave, you were automatically a slave yourself. The incessant sound of water dripping added to the menace of the scene. Then we entered the room with a tall, white column engraved with the names of the slaves at the time. The column turned continuously in remembrance, the shape a testament to the inevitable connectedness of human lives across time: a tribute to the nameless who were in fact responsible for the entire infrastructure of the Cape Colony.
We moved on into the room filled with “cultural echoes,” wall-length visual testaments to various traditions: the Angolan dancer, Madagascan warrior, and earnest-faced Javan puppeteer. The quote on the wall said it all: “This great contribution of so many men and women, our ancestors, has for too long been blotted out by over-amplified colonial narratives.”
I discovered that the eventual “abolition” of slavery had actually merely translated into forced apprenticeship. The journey to the next room involved passing a wall on which various sayings had been painted. The phrase, “Never doubt what a few committed human beings can do to change the world,” re-inspired me by reminding me of where change always starts. “We were made to reach for the stars” and “Joy in spite of everything” spoke to the infinite potential and resilience of the human spirit.
Entering the Steve Biko exhibit was a world all on its own. Each room was a memory of the Black Conscious leader’s unflinching courage and pride in the face of apartheid repression. A quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed it up as follows: “He didn’t have a flashy car or a big house. He did not even have a university degree and by rights should have been consigned to oblivion. In this universe, extraordinary greatness is measured by how much the person has served others, how much altruism they have shown.”
I stood in front of the mass of information, noticing out of the corner of my eye, the day he died. I read it again, “12 September 1977.” He died on the day I was born?! A strange sensation went through me. I wondered if this fact somehow connected us. Ever since I was young, I’d felt the injustice of apartheid strongly. I identified deeply with South Africa and wanted more than anything for the country to be a place that enabled all who lived in it to have lives of freedom and dignity. He died when he was thirty? Thirty was the turning point when I decided to return to South Africa after 14 years in Canada. I couldn’t resist the yearning inside any longer, and came back as a volunteer with a non-profit organization in Limpopo, to do what I’d always needed to: contribute towards the building of positive future for all in South Africa.
I stood for a while lost in the links, intangible, unexplainable but unmistakable. I felt for the children he’d left behind, his own and all of those who’d looked up to him as a role model, father of the movement that aimed at true liberation of black South Africans, body, mind, heart and soul. I took in the quote by SWAPO Publicity Secretary “We regard your struggle as our struggle and your loss as our loss. It is better to die for an idea which will live than to live for an idea which will die.” I silently acknowledged the level of commitment people needed to have to sacrifice their own life for the greater good.
I left the museum moved to the core by Biko’s dedication to the struggle and his unjust, untimely end, but I was glad that, at the very least, the preservation of the Slave Lodge as a public monument would ensure “the space to break the silence on these ties that bind us.”