What are some interesting questions to ask someone who went through apartheid?

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Apartheid represents an interesting epoch in human history and, while similar periods of race-based political organization have existed in other nations (e.g., the former state of Rhodesia), the South African experience with apartheid represents one of the most recent examples of race-based political and social segregation.

Some interesting questions to ask someone who lived during this period might include:

  • Setting aside issues like political access and freedom of movement, how did your life change on a day-to-day basis in the pre-apartheid era to the post-apartheid era?
  • At the time, did you feel apartheid was a transient moment or did it seem like something that would last forever?
  • Did you ever give thought to emigrating from South Africa?
  • How much of a focus was apartheid in the interpersonal interactions and discussions between you, your colleagues, and your friends during the apartheid era? Was it a primary area of concern, or did it merely exist in the background?
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First, you should be very careful to be polite and sensitive as both apartheid and its ending were quite traumatic. You should begin by trying to get a sense of their situation during the period, as even people of the same color might come from vastly different socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds. An educated man of Indian descent in Johannesburg, who would have been classified as "colored" would not have had the same experience as an agricultural worker of Zulu descent living in a rural area or a white businessperson in Cape Town. Some of the questions I would ask are:

  • How were you legally classified during apartheid (white, black, colored)?
  • What was your ethnic/national/tribal background?
  • What was your religious background, if any?
  • What was your first language? Your second language? How do you feel that one's mother tongue affected one's life under apartheid? Does linguistic discrimination still exist? 
  • Has your economic situation improved, gotten worse, or stayed about the same since the end of apartheid? Has the end of apartheid improved economic inequality? 
  • What do you think was the best thing about the end of apartheid? What has gotten better?
  • Have there been any bad aspects to the end of apartheid? Has anything gotten worse?
  • During apartheid did you have any friends who were of a different race? 
  • What do you you think people from outside South Africa understand least about the system of apartheid?
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The questions I would ask of a person who lived through apartheid would be different depending on the person’s race.  Some of the questions would be similar, but they would change to some degree depending on the person’s race.  Some of these questions would include (person’s race in parentheses):

  1. Did you ever think that the system was evil? (white)
  2. Whites thought that blacks were inferior.  Did the propaganda of apartheid ever convince you at all that this was in any way true (black). 
  3. Did you ever get to the point where you hated white people (black)?
  4. Did you look down on black people or did you not really even notice them (white)?
  5. What did you think of countries that opposed apartheid?  (Either race, though I would try to see if blacks thought those countries should have done more to stop the system.)
  6. Did you think that apartheid would ever end? (both)
  7. What worries did you have about what would happen when apartheid did end? (both)
  8. In what ways is life better now and in what ways (if any) was it better under apartheid?   (both)

I would be extremely interested in hearing the answers to any and all of these questions.

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