Lessons from Apartheid. Will we learn?

At a recent class reunion here in South Africa, we were reminiscing about the bad apartheid days in Medical School. It is difficult to imagine, today, the evil conditions under which those not privileged to be clothed in a white skin had to suffer.

Labelled negatively as “non-white” automatically implied that in some ways they were incomplete persons. No “non-white’ medical student could teach a White person, or examine a White patient. They were not even permitted to attend a post mortem on a White corpse! When possible the hospitals were separate for the different races. At the very least the patients were segregated in different wards.
When, in a “breakthrough” created by a critical shortage of nurses, Black nurses were permitted to be trained, they were not allowed to attend to White patients or have a White nurse as a subordinate.

At our reunion, one of our graduates, (now a highly skilled Paediatric Intensivist), remarked that, while much of the apartheid was legislated, it was all too easy for us Whites to allow ourselves to be shaped by the culture of the day when we should have resisted. As an example of how one could insist on justice even within a society of legislated injustice, he honoured Chris Barnard. When the genius surgeon operated on babies with congenital heart defects, he nursed them all in one small postoperative Intensive Care ward irrespective of their race. The relatives of these little children mixed freely as they visited their beloved offspring in that little ward. When the authorities objected, he threatened to stop operating. Nothing further was said and the status quo remained.

I concurred. When the Pietermaritzburg Craniofacial Unit started performing complex operations on children with gross facial deformities, it proved impossible for us to move from hospital to hospital (depending on the race of the patient) with all my complex anaesthetic equipment and with all the surgical instruments required. We quickly obtained permission for them all to be done at St Anne’s — a so-called White hospital. There were ways of opposing the system and letting justice prevail.

As we reminisced, 20 years down the line, there were conflicting emotions among those present. I’m sure many of us had twinges of conscience about things left unsaid or undone. The pervading sentiment, however, was a satisfaction– almost bordering on self-righteousness — that that particular evil is no longer with us.

Yet there is an evil that plagues us right now — not only in South Africa — every bit as foul as apartheid, with the same diabolical modus operandi.

Apartheid made a certain population group non-persons. Labelling them “non-whites” gave licence to “Whites” to treat them inhumanly. Today, another population group is labelled “non-person”, giving carte blanche to “”persons” to slaughter its members in their hundreds of thousands, and tens of millions. Like the Blacks and other “non-whites” who had to succumb to the selfish whims of the privileged powerful and have their lives destroyed because of their skin colour, the members of this group are declared non-persons simply by virtue, not of their skin colour, but of their location.

Nurtured in what was created to be the sheltering dark warmth of their mother’s womb, they are betrayed by the rulers of the land and by the very ones from whom they gain succour, to be torn violently from their place of safety and “terminated”.

Can we, who said, over 20 years ago in the midst of apartheid, “I know it’s wrong, but it’s the law, so what can I do?” and who now have to live with a conscience seared by passivity in the face of evil, repeat history? What will be said of us 20 years from now? What will our conscience say to us then, when the world agrees with what every scientist will confirm today — that these little miracles are truly human?

Let’s prove that we have learned from the dark apartheid years and speak out against the same injustice in veiled form.

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