I started to work in Africa in the mid 1980s. Since I had been admitted to a graduate program that was heavily involved with work in Kenya, it would make sense that I’d work there, but I was well aware of the fact that there would be no work at Koobi Fora until the Koobi Fora monograph was done, since those in charge of that research felt a responsibility to get what they had done published before collecting more data from the field. I had the opportunity to work in South Africa as well, and there were good reasons for me to do that, but there was one very large reason not to: Apartheid. I observed the boycott even to the extent at sneering at Paul Simon, I certainly would not work in a country with the most racist regime in modern history. Fortunately, Zaire was there for me, and for many reasons it was a better place to do research for me than either Kenya or South Africa. So I did.
Then, a few years later, there was Bloomington. Somewhere along the way, an organization called the Society of Africanist Archaeologists formed, I joined it of course, and in 1994 we held our annual meeting in Bloomington, Indiana, at the University. And, it just happened that the first free election to happen in South Africa since it was a country was held during those meetings.
There were a number (about 12 or so) South Africans in the society and present at the meeting. They all smoked, and so did I and a few others. And there were many visits to the smoking area outside the main entrance of the Gothic-looking building where our meeting was held. All the South Africans had cast their vote earlier as absentee ballots. People were laughing and crying and being somber and excited all day, off and on, as we were imagining 35 million people or so who had never been allowed to vote or for that matter, go where they wanted to go outside off small designated areas or be free from harassment by a police state for their entire lives filed into polling places to cast their vote. The New South Africa now existed, where it did not exist before. It was an amazing day for a lot of people, and I’m glad I got to share in it a little more tangibly than had I been home merely knowing it was happening.
And of course, as a colleague of mine who is South African reminded me today, the day that happened is now a holiday in South Africa … Freedom Day … and it is today.
Just to be clear, it is also “Unfreedom Day” … a counter celebration to remind everyone that of those 35 million people or so who gained their freedom in 1994, most are still poor, unemployed, and change for the better is painfully slow there. But there is change, and even with that caveat, it is good to celebrate South African Freedom Day.