I had an experience more than twenty years ago with a white bus driver that profoundly altered my world view. The year was 1996, the month of June to be precise, and I was near the tail end of my second year in graduate school at Harvard. In fact, it was also a few weeks before I was supposed to get married.
I had been invited by People to People International to join a delegation of American political scientists on a wide-ranging trip to South Africa—two years after Nelson Mandela was elected president of the country. Of course, as a graduate student, I didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t afford the cost of the trip on my own. I went to the administrators in the government department and asked if they could help me. To my surprise, they said yes and before I knew it, I was on a very long flight to Johannesburg.
I was joined on the trip by roughly a dozen others, mostly senior political scientists from American universities. I was the youngest and I had, perhaps, the least amount of knowledge about South Africa and its history. I had read what I could about the country and its legacy of racism. I understood and fully appreciated the obvious parallels between South Africa’s system of Apartheid and America’s version called Jim Crow. Despite what I’d read in my books, nothing could truly prepare me for the lessons I’d learn on that trip—lessons that remain with me to this day.
To make a long story short, our itinerary included visits to Soweto and to the headquarters of the African National Congress, as well as the Inkatha Freedom Party. We visited the Tri-Cameral Parliament and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All of these visits made an impression on me and I collected lots of material that I still have today. But there is one visit in particular that is especially remarkable for me during this present chapter of the Movement for Black Lives, and that was my visit to the Voortrekker Monument.
The Voortrekker Monument is South Africa’s version of America’s Confederate monuments. It is a sprawling concrete complex that sits atop a hill overlooking the capital city of Pretoria (Tshwane). As you approach, you immediately notice how much it resembles a fortress—perhaps a fitting symbol of the psychological state of mind of South Africa’s Afrikaner community at the time. When I entered the grounds, I was confronted by the carvings all around me, in the concrete, depicting the Afrikaners’ story from their eyes.
As you will see from the pictures below, the monument pays homage to the early white settlers, most of whom arrived in modern day South Africa in covered wagon caravans. As you enter the building, you see large statues of white women and children, I guess to remind visitors of what was worthy of being protected. Then, when you enter the building, and you look up, you are encircled by the Afrikaners’ version of history. Much like you would see in a storyboard for a Hollywood film, each scene sets the stage for the drama that is literally unfolding all around you.
First, the Afrikaners greet the indigenous Africans warmly and in peace. Then, the Africans betray them, murdering Afrikaner men, women and children. The Afrikaners, left with no choice but to protect themselves, fight back. But they have guns and their superior firepower and tactics soon crush the treacherous natives. Victorious, the Afrikaners attribute their supremacy to God’s favor and they interpret that favor as divine permission to dominate the people, the land and its resources.
As you might imagine, this version of the truth didn’t match mine. It didn’t align with what I’d read in my history books and it certainly didn’t resonate with what we were learning on our visit. The Voortrekker Monument, as one might say, was an early example of fake news.
The insight for me, however, did not come with my visit to the Voortrekker Monument. It came days later, when I casually caught the eye of our white bus driver, a middle-aged white Afrikaner. He’d been largely silent throughout our trip, dutifully driving us from place to place. Our white tour guides did all of the talking and the explaining, and our bus driver largely faded into the background. But he was present when we met with legendary Black leaders like Walter Sisulu and with Sophie Masite (the first Black female mayor of Soweto). He was present when we met with the white-led Nationalist Party and when we visited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was present as we learned firsthand about where South Africa was and where it was headed.
That day, when I casually caught his eye as I exited the bus, I heard him say, “I never knew any of this.” A bit startled, I didn’t know what to say in response. It wasn’t even clear that he was speaking directly to me. It was almost as if he was thinking out loud, hoping someone would hear him. My first reaction was ‘right, that’s hard to believe.’ But as I made my way down and out of the door, his words stuck with me. They are still with me.
“I never knew any of this.”
Twenty years later I have come to appreciate the complexity of how our worldviews are formed and reinforced. The narratives we tell and the statues we erect are done so to remind us of the truth we want to believe. They are the residue left by history. For so many white South Africans, the Voortrekker Monument represented the only truth they’d been taught and that truth was suddenly being contested in the post-Apartheid nation. It represents a truth told, not a truth revealed. This is why the words of that white bus driver cling to me so.
When the truth we’re told is challenged by a truth revealed, it’s often the cause of great discomfort. And truth is revealed when you look in new places and in new ways with new narrators.
I was too young to truly understand what was happening to him and to me in that moment. I remember feeling somewhat shocked and being a little skeptical by his proclamation that he “never knew any of this.” Perhaps, that’s why I didn’t respond. I’m not really sure why, but I kept on moving. In hindsight, I missed a moment to forge a new conversation—to affirm the presence of a different truth. I also missed the moment of reconciliation in his head (and I’d like to think in his heart) as his truth was shattered by the larger truth. Even though we had visited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I had taken away lots of great booklets and pamphlets detailing their process, the real truth and reconciliation process was unfolding between me and my white bus driver.
More than twenty years later, I take away something universal in my visit to South Africa. As the people around us open their eyes to a new interpretation of history, the search for truth will involve some difficult and dark moments. Not only will we all need to reconcile how we interpret what came before us, we will also have to come to terms with what lies ahead.
Real reconciliation comes when we revise what we thought was true and replace it with a more inclusive set of narrators.
Reconciliation requires us to confront our truths and to merge the stories we’ve been told with the stories told to and by others. In many places around the world, there are many people who are being forced to reconcile what they’ve been taught with what they are learning exists. Without an examination of what we “know” to be true, the prospects for meaningful reconciliation are less promising. When we expose ourselves to the richness and the diversity of the narrators around us, resisting that urge to simply reinforce our own worldview with concrete walls, truth and reconciliation can flourish.
Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.