THE BLOG
12/12/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

The Banality of Evil: Lessons From South African Apartheid

It was December of 1980, and I was trying to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town. In the height of the South African summer -- imagine Christmas on the 4th of July -- every train, bus and plane was completely booked. I decided to hitchhike. I assumed the 900-mile trip would take several days, but each time I put out my thumb, I would get a ride within minutes. I spent the last eight hours of the trip riding in a truck with a group of construction workers going home for the holidays. They could not have been more welcoming as they quizzed the first American they had ever met about all aspects of life in the United States.

A couple of hours into the drive, when we stopped for gas and food in a small, dusty town, I followed them to the take-out window. One of them corrected me and told me I had to go to the other window, the one marked for "Whites." When they picked me up I was aware that they were of mixed race but didn't know much at that time about what life was like to be "Coloured" in South Africa during apartheid, facing specific restrictions different from those imposed upon "Blacks" and "Indians."

After the food stop we spent much of the rest of the drive to Cape Town talking about the apartheid system. They talked about the system -- the only one that they knew -- very matter-of-factly. As an American, it was surprising to me that not having the right to vote wasn't a major concern for them. When we discussed changing the system, their highest hope seemed to be that it would just improve and become less burdensome. The banality of evil in the system of petty apartheid obscured what one would think would be deeper concerns about fundamental human rights. It was also disturbing that they seemed to find some comfort in the fact that they were relatively higher in the pecking order -- a sadly universal truth.

South Africa had had to create an ever-evolving behemoth of laws and regulations in order to enforce the system of apartheid. To allow for international trade, they had to make Chinese and Japanese people "Honorary Europeans" so they could stay at "White"-only hotels on visits to South Africa. One of the very light-skinned construction workers in our truck had to go to a government office when he got home to Cape Town to change his designation. His Pass Card said he was "White," while in this system he was actually "Coloured." I asked if he was tempted to stay "White" to have more rights. He looked at me quizzically and explained that he would then be away from his family and friends, so at his first chance he was going in to make the change. My traveling companions showed me the notice section in the newspaper that reported all of the names that had been reclassified. If it wasn't real, it would be like absurdist theater. That week the court declared which "Whites" were actually now officially "Coloured," which "Coloureds" were actually "Black," and which were now officially "Indian."

I had arranged a place to stay in Cape Town, but since we got to town early, my new friends generously insisted that I stay with their families. I did for several days; only later did I discover that my staying with them was strictly illegal. It was a glorious few days of being shuttled from home to home and wined and dined from morning until night as they asked me about our system of government and I asked them about theirs. It was an unforgettable experience that has informed my activism since then.

The lengths to which South Africa's government had to go to maintain this regime of discrimination and subjugation were astounding, but, unfortunately, not unique to South Africa. The web of often contradictory laws that our own country has concocted to disenfranchise voters, create a patchwork of LGBT inequality, or bar some immigrants from any path to legal status come to mind as examples of the intentional effort it can take to suppress the individual rights of entire communities.

The passing of Nelson Mandela brought back to mind many of the lessons of that experience and what they mean for us today here at home. No system, however evil, is ever permanent. And no system, no matter how righteous, just continues to be so without eternal vigilance. South Africa went relatively quickly from the notoriously despicable apartheid system to adopting a constitution in 1994 renowned for its clarity and inclusiveness regarding human rights. In 1980, if anyone had told me that South Africa would guarantee race and gender equality before the law and even allow gay marriage when the U.S. still struggles to do the right thing, I don't know that I would have believed them.

Mandela's decades of struggle are an important reminder of how much there is left for us to do in our country, the importance of taking on these struggles, and working tirelessly to win them. Half a century after the end of Jim Crow, we're still fighting efforts to limit the right to vote. We face astounding, and growing, income inequality, including a stark racial wealth gap. Nativist politics continue to marginalize American immigrants. In the United States, we are still facing long-term injustices that we can only combat with persistence, hard work, and uncompromising vision. It's time to get work.