The long walk…


Today we celebrate the idea of reconciliation and national unity in South Africa. This public holiday was thus named after the first democratic elections in 1994. Before that, it was a significant day across the racial and political divide for different reasons. The Afrikaners celebrate the day as the Day of the Vow to celebrate the victory of the Voortrekkers over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838 and on the other side it is the anniversary of the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) which was established in 1961 as the military wing of the ANC.

But what does reconciliation really mean? And is South Africa truly united now?

I have just returned to Chile after 6 weeks back in SA and what made this trip unique for me was the fact that I was accompanied by my Chilean boyfriend. There is nothing quite as interesting and eye-opening as seeing your own country through the eyes and ears of a foreigner. One of the biggest differences for him between Chile and South Africa is the diversity of people, languages, colours, cultures and religions. Coming from a country where 99.9% of people have the same religion, the same language, the same or very similar ethnic backgrounds, the same culture and pretty much the same looks, to a country where there are 11 official languages, the same or more number of tribes, people of every colour and appearance possible, many different religions and cultures etc etc…polar opposites in every way…

Chileans are generally very inquisitive people and love asking all sorts of questions, even personal ones to people they hardly know or have just met. At first this was a bit strange for me, but now I understand that it is just part of the culture…not wrong, just different. And many of the questions Rodrigo would ask me, made me think about alot of things and most of them I honestly did not have the answers to:

– from something as simple as, What language are those people speaking (asked whilst sitting on the Gautrain)? Response…no idea, it could be zulu, xhosa, tswana, ndebele etc etc

– why do you not have any black friends, even though you are not at all a racist? Hmmm…I have wonderful Zimbabwean and Kenyan friends who are black, but no South African black friends…why?

– why, in a country like Zambia, where apartheid did not exist, is there still no real mixing between whites and blacks?

– why is Africa still so poor and under-developed after decades of independent rule?

Etc, etc…

He definitely gave me some food for thought on my own country and history…

But, besides the differences in diversity between South Africa and Chile, our pasts are not actually all that different. Yesterday was the International Day for Human Rights and I went along to a celebration in Santiago. It was a concert held outside a building called Londres 38. Barrio Londres, is a beautiful neighbourhood in the centre of the city…amazing architecture and quiet cobblestones streets that make you think you are in Paris or Spain instead of South America. But with the beauty, comes a very disturbing history…one of much torture and human rights abuses which happened in Londres 38.

When the military coup occurred in September 1973, the dictatorship expropriated this building which belonged to the Socialist Party. It quickly became the headquarters of DINA (the Chilean Secret Police) and was used for the detention, torture, murder and disappearance of political opponents. Although records are difficult to determine exactly, at least 96 people were tortured and killed/disappeared in Londres 38 in the first 10 months or so of the dictatorship. They even went as far as changing the number on the street to try and hide the place. Many families still have no idea what happened to their relatives and they remain “disaparecido” (disappearred).

Londres 38…the poster shows a Chilean Identity Card (the equivalent of the SA ID Book) all blacked out to symbolise the diseappeared.

The front page of the National Newspaper, El Mercurio, from August 2011. “The whole of Chile demands to know where are they?”.

An up close look at the faces of some of the people who remain disaparecido

Ana Tijoux – a Chilean rap/hip hop musician who is apparently one of the most famous female artists in the genre in South America. I wish I could have understood more of her lyrics as they were quite political and interesting…she also mentioned that some of her relatives were tortured in Londres 38

Juanafe – a very entertaining and energetic Chilean band. In this song there were only about 5 people on stage, but for others they had more than 10 musicians on every kind of instrument imagineable.

So from my home country, to my adopted country…it is interesting to note that we have both had to walk the long and difficult road to reconciliation, forgiveness and unity. I don’t think either country can say they have reached the end of the road though…South Africa still have many ingrained differences which will only disappear with future generations and Chile has still got many unanswered questions even after 20 years of democracy.

But one thing is for sure…our histories make for very interesting presents and hopefully even better futures…

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