Apartheid, Examined


Right off the bat, guest speaker Timothy Longman, co-author of "Confronting Apartheid," acknowledged that he was going to cover a lot of ground in his October 26 talk: 2,000 years, in fact.

The political science/international relations professor at Boston University — where he is the director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, and director ad interim of the African Studies Center — is an expert in the 40-plus years of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa, which makes him a resource that Brooks students said they found very helpful in seeking to better understand the topics in this year's All-Community Read, "Born a Crime," by Trevor Noah.

Watch the presentation:

"He has tremendous expertise in this area and he has done a ton of research," said Dean of Community Life and History Teacher Ashley Johnston about Longman, who has been working in, and focused on, South Africa in a variety of ways since 1997, including serving in the office of the Human Rights Watch. "I thought sharing the history of apartheid and its legacy with our students was really important so that they can connect it to what they read with 'Born a Crime,' and understand what happened in the past and then also connect it with the present."

Following dinner with a small group of students and faculty in Wilder Dining Hall, Longman quickly got down to business in the Center for the Arts theater.

"Apartheid was economic at its base and used racism and racial division as a means of securing economic power for a select portion of the population," he told the students and faculty. "Those legacies of economic division have remained. There was a lot of violence that was used in order to keep the apartheid state in power and just a simple transfer of power doesn't eliminate the legacies of violence."

Abby Derderian '25 appreciated Longman's direct approach. "I liked the slides and how it was overviewing what he was saying," she said. "It made it easier to follow along and I feel like all the information went together really well."

"It wasn't just a boring presentation," added Jalyn Colon '24. "I felt I was actually engaged in it. I think the fact that since I had read about apartheid over the summer [in Trevor Noah's memoir], I already knew what it was about a little bit so I wasn't lost so I had an idea and could understand what was happening."

Addressing the legacies of apartheid in South Africa that still resonate today, the professor was also frank in sharing his view that "there is still a lot of poverty in Africa. Even as there are better schools than there used to be, and better access to healthcare, and even as the government has built lots and lots of housing, there are still people living in shantytowns and struggling just to make ends meet."

Katharine Gutkoski '22 "thought it was really interesting that he had so much background information," she said. Longman's work experience in South Africa and Rwanda sparked her interest and "also seemed to back-up his points a lot."

Urging students to really think about the experience of South Africans, Longman praised the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and asserted that citizens in South Africa "have confronted the past in ways that I think is actually healthy and that we can learn from."

And by "we" he meant more than just the Brooks School community.

"The United States has its own history of segregation," he said. "We have our own history of economic differentiation along racial lines, and we have people in the country who want to claim that we should just forget it and move on and start over. [Meanwhile] there are others who want to point out that, in fact, the inequality doesn't just disappear when you grant some political rights. And looking at both cases, one of the things we realize is histories of racism are really hard to overcome. They have deep roots and they continue to shape society in ways that are profound. They shape culture. They shape the economy."

"Violence also has a lasting legacy and is very difficult to overcome," he continued. "Once violence becomes part of the society it's very hard to put that genie back in the box. It's very hard to move on and to rebuild trust and a peaceful society. When you put the two of those together, violence and racism, you get two legacies that continue to shape society in profound ways. So, when we look at South Africa and the United States those are two places where violence and racism have been put together on a regular basis and that we're continuing to struggle with today."

Launching into a lively question-and-answer session after his talk, Longman fielded inquiries about South Africans' tension with the police, the role of religion in apartheid, as well as gender inequality, and what he has learned about his white privilege.

"People asked very interesting questions at the end," said Isabella Soto '25. "There was a lot of information and the questions let us dive deeper into apartheid more."

Aidan Jarvis '22 was grateful for the insight. "I'd never known about apartheid before this, so learning about the history of it, and then its effect and connecting it to America, was really helpful," he said. "I also thought one of the last questions, about his role as a white person ... and then him talking about how when he was in Africa people brought news to him and said, 'We can't convey this, so you have to,' was really interesting."

Longman challenged students to keep thinking about all of the issues that had been raised during his talk and in the question-and-answer session. "One of the things that is hopeful in South Africa is that the population there is much more aware of the legacies of racism and much more willing to confront them," he said. "People realize that their past was screwed up and they recognize that the poverty that still exists in the country is directly related to that and the problems of crime are directly related to it and a lot of the population is willing to embrace that."

Why was Born a Crime selected as this year's All-Community Read?

"What I find in the United States is that there are an awful lot of people who really don't take seriously the legacies of discrimination and the ways in which discrimination continues to exist," he added. "We do a lot of lip service to it, so people who are progressive and forward-thinking will claim to be anti-racist as long as it doesn't really cost them anything and as long as it doesn't really shake things up. Most institutions really, here, are not willing to fundamentally change in ways that address the legacies that we've built. ... There are lots of ways in which we have not confronted our past, and we haven't been willing to."

All told, Longman's insight into apartheid and all of its horrors was certainly a heavy subject, but it nevertheless left Amy Mojica '22, for one, inspired.

"I really enjoyed how knowledgeable he was about the topics that he presented and just knowing that he felt so comfortable talking about apartheid was really comforting because it showed me that there are people who care about racial injustice in a way that is more than just surface-level," she reflected. "And hearing how he responded to questions in the audience also made me feel an incredible sense of peace because it felt like one of the first times this school year that it's been acknowledged that there are racial inequities in a way that truly was constructive."

Watch the Q&A:


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