Rape: South Africa’s Other Epidemic

I would hate to be a woman in South Africa. That’s a bold statement, I know, but let me explain. Even before this trip, I knew a little about this country’s history of marginalizing its women. For my final in a class I took on social movements last semester, I wrote a 14 page essay on the impact of the anti-apartheid movement on the role of women in South Africa – about how many lacked basic rights before apartheid’s fall, and how even after their pivotal role in the movement, recognition and elevated level in society were not quick to follow. This is not an issue unique to South Africa, but it is an issue all the same, and now, after spending almost two months here, I am again made aware of the fact that there are still many problems here surrounding feminism and women’s rights.

We talk a lot about the HIV/AIDS epidemic here in South Africa, and in many other countries across the African continent as well. But there’s another epidemic, and it’s just as ugly and creating just as many victims. Rape – or as I’ve learned as my time as an intern at the Sonke Gender Justice Network, any type of gender-based violence – is another huge issue facing this country. Quite simply, this is a country that is at war with its women, prompting the ANC Women’s League to go so far as describing the extreme gender-based violence running rampant in the country as “femicide.”

While extreme, the use of the word femicide is not entirely incorrect. Research done by the Medical Research Council, in a study of data between 1999 and 2009, shows that the rate of female homicides in South Africa was five times higher than the global rate. On average, a woman is raped every four minutes and one is killed every eight hours by her partner or relative. One third of all South African men have admitted to committing rape. Think about how many more there must be who would never admit it. In the halls of Sonke Gender Justice Network, where I’m lucky enough to be working this summer, there are entire bulletins filled with newspaper clippings concerning these very issues, reminding the employees what we’re fighting for, or more importantly, what we’re fighting against.

To truly understand the epidemic of violence against women in South Africa, I’ll ground this issue in an actual experience I’ve had this summer. Many conversations I’ve had with people here confirm regressive views on women and their rights. For example, a man charged with showing us around Sonke’s health clinic in the township of Gugulethu, made casual conversation about the not-so-casual topic of rape and where the culpability in those situation lies. Even if it was not his intention, what he was telling us lets me know that he supports victim-blaming. He talked about how rape and sexual assault is often the girl’s fault, and as he spoke, I saw at least two other men in our group nodding their heads in agreement. “They drink too much,” he said. “So much that they don’t even know where they are.”

…So what? The only cause of rape is rapists. It has nothing to do with how short their skirt may be, how much alcohol they’ve consumed, or whether or not they’ve been flirting and sending “mixed signals”. (Hint: there is no such thing as a mixed signal, there is only consent and lack of consent). There are obviously steps young women can take to avoid as many of these situations as possible, but it is ultimately never their fault. Society is teaching women “Don’t get raped” rather than teaching men “Don’t rape.”

Signs condemning victim blaming

Signs condemning victim blaming

In fact, he says that they give girls female condoms and encourage them to put the on in the morning, just in case they get raped.

Just in case. Think about that, really. Because I heard it a week ago and it’s still unsettling, still making me uncomfortable. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the idea that there are women and girls who expect rape, prepare for it even.

The problem is not everyone finds it unsettling. Many don’t even find it weird. Much like HIV/AIDS ten years ago, people don’t want to discuss it. Specifically, important people, people who could actually make a difference and have an impact, don’t want to discuss it. Earlier this year, South African athlete Oscar Pistorious, the incredibly tenacious runner who inspired thousands world-over as he competed in last year’s Olympics on his mechanical legs, murdered his girlfriend in their home. Coincidentally, the same day, South African President Jacob Zuma gave his State of the Nation speech. He decried the rampant violence against women, without announcing any serious new measures to fight gender-based violence. It’s hard to fight a war with a government that is more interested in words and not actions. A government that, in fact, is led by a man that was charged with rape in 2005 and put on trial for his crime. That feels relevant, doesn’t it?

I know that it’s unfair to make broad generalizations about the entire South African male population, and I’ve tried not to do that, especially because I’ve met many great men this summer who denounce the old-fashioned patriarchal views and are determined to fight for a better, more equitable society for their daughters (and sons). I know that rape happens all around me in the United States, too, and that gender-based violence is a huge issue there as well, especially when it comes to hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. I know that South Africa is a country crying out for a real conversation about violence against women and rape, and I know that, eventually, that conversation will happen. But until it does, I know that, as much as my friends and I joke about how we’ll one day come back to live in South Africa and enjoy the beaches, mild winters, and malva pudding, until there are some major societal changes in this wonderful, confusing country, I probably won’t.

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Close Encounters of the Familiar Kind

Nearly six weeks after our departure from Johannesburg, I continue to find myself grappling with the lessons of our visit.  During our time in the city, we ventured into the Soweto and Alexandra townships in order to better understand the lasting effects of apartheid policy.  (Townships, in the apartheid era, were living areas designated for non-whites.  I use the term were tenuously because describing residential segregation by race as a relic of the past belies the reality of contemporary South Africa.  Indeed, during our time in the townships, I did not see one white person—a finding that has been reaffirmed by my work in the Cape Town township, Gugulethu.  Such lack of diversity suggests to me that the playing field, far from being leveled, has remained severely skewed since the end of apartheid.)

Homes in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg

Homes in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg

As our van made its way through the neighborhood’s narrow streets, cameras clicked accompanied by audible expressions of astonishment.  Periodically, our driver would decelerate or come to a full brake in order to allow better observation and, of course, photography.  The entire van took in our surroundings, rapt by the environment we were seeing and our tour guide’s comments.

It was the sort of reaction one expects from a safari rather than a visit to an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood.  Indeed, such a reaction strikes me as inconceivable in the United States.  Here we were peering in on the lives of South Africa’s most destitute citizens with an almost perverse fascination.  (My roommate, Brandon, labeled it best when he referred to the act as voyeuristic: https://ctdukeengage2013.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/voyeur/).  Meanwhile, the general rule when driving through America’s inner cities and projects is “drive faster.”  Somehow, the exotic locale made such abject poverty worthy of our attention; conversely, such consideration falls by the wayside in the US despite the inescapable reality that certain neighborhoods are subject to comparable conditions.

Shanty town in Fresno, California (via NYTimes). Not a far cry from the informal settlements witnessed around South Africa.

Shanty town in Fresno, California (via NYTimes). Not a far cry from the informal settlements witnessed around South Africa.

I say this not to dismiss the importance of community work in places like Johannesburg and Cape Town but rather to emphasize our (myself included) occasional failure to recognize the need to extend such work to our own communities.  When the DukeEngage motto reads “Challenge yourself. Change your world,” it is stressing this essential point.  Through my interactions in South Africa, I have found myself repeatedly dissatisfied with my level of engagement in my own communities.  The fact that this discovery required a trip to Africa is not lost on me—it’s absurd.  But regardless of the impetus, I am grateful for the experience.  All too often, I allow my humdrum, collegiate routine to obscure the more consequential issues that surround me.  Some have aptly described this phenomenon as the “Duke bubble,” but regardless of its title, my experiences here have demonstrated the need to involve myself more fully in the communities I inhabit (whether it be Durham or Las Vegas).

As we enter the final week of our trip (a fact I’ve tried unsuccessfully to ignore), I find myself frequently returning to a single question: how do we translate the lessons we are learning in South Africa into meaningful conduct back home?  Indeed, the more I learn here, the clearer it becomes that the challenges plaguing South Africa are by no means unique to the country.  The US is particularly not exempt from difficulties such as abject poverty and residential segregation along racial lines, which continue to pervade South African society.  Nearly half a century after the official end of Jim Crow laws and de jure segregation, de facto residential segregation and legal discrimination are still very much alive.  Most recently, The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the section of the Voting Rights Act requiring certain states to gain federal approval prior to changing election laws illustrates our country’s willingness to ignore the reality of racial discrimination in contemporary society—a concern that Texas was quick to justify by putting its controversial voter identification law into immediate effect.  The denial of this reality reinforces the “post-racial” narrative that parts of our country have unfortunately chosen to embrace.  On the contrary, my stay here in South Africa has demonstrated that we are still struggling with a racial past and present that is not so dissimilar from South Africa’s.

Although my experiences here have been fraught with confusion and uneasiness, a large part of this anxiety stems from my travels accentuating these unpleasant truths about the US.  Coming to South Africa, I expected to examine the nation’s remaining obstacles post-segregation, but I never imagined I would unearth so many of America’s.  In all honesty, I am still searching for an answer to the question of how to effectively translate these lessons into worthwhile involvement at home.  Fortunately, I am beginning to ask the right questions—questions about a nation’s shortcomings, successes, contradictions, and potential.  And, most notably, what my responsibility is as a citizen of that nation.

That awkward moment when your weeks have been “eh, alright I guess”.

 

Warning: The blog post you are about to read is so incredibly nondescript that it may seem almost out of place on a blog like ours.  Please remain calm.

 

The past weeks have been by all accounts extraordinarily…ordinary.

 

Two Saturdays ago we travelled to Robben Island to tour the Robben Island prison where Madiba spent the majority of his prison sentence.  I had expected the experience to leave me with more emotional after-effects than it did. After all, this was the location where Mandela spent 18 years (let’s re-read that: eighteen years) in prison as a political detainee.  The prison itself, though, is not much to look at. It looks just like any other prison.  It feels like any other prison.  That’s because it is just like any other prison.  The experience was not what I had expected because I anticipated an awesome (by that I mean, Extremely impressive or daunting) site.  It was nevertheless a great opportunity to see one of the most important historical sites in South Africa. What’s more, the next day, President Obama decided to take a leaf out of our book and visit Robben Island as well. I felt pretty good that day knowing that we had, obviously through our visit, inspired the President to learn more about Madiba’s time in prison. I hope he learned a great deal and, if he wants, we have an entire list of other locations for him to visit if and when the opportunity presents itself to him.  

 

On to the workweeks.

 

Work has recently centered on research tasks for a woman named Lieve, at TAC, who helps manage the research department.  We have been spending our days informing her on issues ranging from TB in prisons and associated architectural factors to Human Papillomavirus and its affiliated vaccination program in lower quintile schools. Personally, I found it refreshing to break back into a repertoire of cold, plain and pedantic scientific vocabulary after weeks of using a vernacular filled with far too much emotion, investment and Pollyanna for my taste. For the first time of my stint at TAC I find myself using words that really speak to me like “polyadenalated monocistronic mRNA” and “cell”.  After spending weeks entering membership data (question of the internship: The form says female, the name says male…what. do. I. do?) even the most basic of research tasks can placate me. It’s been really fun, actually, to research almost random infectious disease topics all day long without knowing exactly why we’re being asked to do it. But you know what, the science aficionado within me is starved to the point that I don’t even care what the motive of our work is right now.

 

This past weekend has been, if anything, extraordinary.  On Saturday we toured the wine country outside of Cape Town called Stellenbosch. Its sprawling hills and beautiful vistas aside, Stellenbosch has reinforced my assertion that Cape Town is actually San Francisco in disguise. Both cities have a large immigrant population (Malay/Indian vs. Chinese), both have their own prison island (I mean HELLO, is it not obvious?), both are built into hills, their climates are *basically* the same and, after touring Stellenbosch, I realize that both have a gorgeous wine country just hours away.  You might as well call Cape Town the San Francisco of Africa (or should we call San Francisco the Cape Town of North America?). Regardless, the trip to Stellenbosch was incredible.  

 

The next day, our group had a celebratory Braai (barbecue) for the 4th of July (ok, we were a few days late cut us some slack. Cape Town time is about 4 days slow). I came in touch with my grilling side, and our entire group worked together marvelously to produce a feast of chicken, sausages and grilled veg.  We all went to sleep as happy and as bloated as can be expected with over a kilo of food in each of us.  

That’s my update for the past two weeks–and we only have two weeks left here. 

 In the words of the great philosopher, Nelly Furtado, “Why must all good things come to an end? 

Photo Memories

From Right to Left: Cape Point, Botlierskop Safari, Top of Table Mountain, Kloof Street, Cape Point, Hout Bay

From Right to Left: Cape Point, Botlierskop Safari, Top of Table Mountain, Kloof Street, Cape Point, Hout Bay

LIONS

LIONS

Elephants

Elephants

From Left to Right: Salmon, Bacon-Wrapped Prawns, Kudu Fillets, Burger, Parma Panini, Alligator Steak

From Left to Right:
Salmon, Bacon-Wrapped Prawns, Kudu Fillets, Burger, Parma Panini, Alligator Steak

Tapas

Tapas

Fish tacos

Fish tacos

Behold O Cape Town, Here Comes the Sun

The past few weeks have brought an array of different experiences, emotions and adventures. Our program director Bill left, and the group welcomed Bob, our director for the latter portion of our stay. We met Denis Goldberg, Desmond Tutu and Tony Ehrenreich. Brandon and I helped orchestrate a Constitutional Literacy Camp for Cape Town’s youth. We’ve been horseback riding, great white shark diving, ridden elephants and walked with lions. And we’re all realizing, I think, that we’re in the final stretch of our time here in Cape Town, and with that realization comes a certain level of anxiety. So I apologize in advance for the stream of consciousness that is this blog post.

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Last weekend, Brandon, Ella and I were driving through Hout Bay, a beautiful port town that enjoys both mountain and beach views. Our taxi driver was a white British man who had spent the last ten years living in Hout Bay, and described to us the demographics and landscape of the area. He was pleasant to talk to, and I was excited to learn; so at first I was grateful for his presence. Pointing to the cardboard and tin shacks of an informal settlement, he designated this section of Hout Bay as where Africans (meaning blacks) lived. Across the way by the mountains was the coloured area. And then there were the white homes in the heart of Hout Bay, where he lived. The frankness with which he described this racial separation was chilling. The justification he offered was disgusting. Coloureds, blacks and whites, according to him, preferred their separation because it meant they could keep their communities with their unique traditions and cultures in tact. It also hindered violence, and kept the ‘spirit’ and ‘charm’ of Hout Bay alive.

IMG_2876Hold up, what?

There, in our cab ride to go beach horseback riding, I received probably my best lesson on the pervasive and inescapable legacy of apartheid. Our driver, I perceived, did not consider himself a racist. And that to me was the saddest part. Here was a man that wasn’t even from Cape Town… who was friendly and helpful and whose company I honestly enjoyed. Yet that same man was propagating and justifying the very same ideals we vilify the apartheid system for creating.

I was reminded of this experience the other day when Brandon and I were working at a Constitutional Camp that District Six was hosting. Twenty-five kids from schools in Cape Town and its surrounding townships came to dissect and learn about constitutional laws dealing with land restitution and dispossession. There, we had ample opportunities to gauge the perspectives and experiences of Capetonian youth who were more than eager to share their political and social views. One in particular, I think, gives voice to what is happening (sadly) in Cape Town today: “I don’t know why we discriminate against black people nowadays even though they gave us what we have. We have to thank so many of them”. That voice belonged to sixteen year old Zainab who, when asked to reflect upon her impressions of a ‘Reversing the Legacy’ exhibit we attended, ended up identifying that, in many ways, the legacy of apartheid has yet to be reversed. Later that afternoon, our group visited Robben Island where we learned more about just how much black people did for South Africa. A day later, President Obama also visited the ex-prison and wrote that “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island”. Juxtapose Zainab’s statement to Obama’s and you’ll find yourself unbelievably frustrated. Because the extent of the coloured population’s racism (coupled with the fact that the racial designation of ‘coloured’ is an apartheid-construction) is just that… frustrating. And heartbreaking.

Reading this blog over, I realize that the tone is a bit downtrodden, which is not a fair representation of my experiences on this trip. The general rule of thumb, I’ve found, is that for every tough or sobering encounter I have, two glorious ones follow. Meet Revina. The coffee shop attendant at the District Six Museum, Revina is a resident of the primarily black township Langa. I don’t normally like to exploit people’s stories to achieve emotional or dramatic appeal, but I think Revina’s story is too important to ignore. Revina is the mother to five or six children (I’m sorry I can’t remember which). Her eldest son died in a shelter in Langa that lit on fire. She cares for his surviving daughter. Her other sons left home. She provides the only income for the family as her husband is a pensioner. Yet, it is for the sake of her two ‘baby girls’ (her sixteen year old daughter and her granddaughter) that she works so hard and remains so positive. Last week, Revina asked me, her ‘tall lady’, for help. Her daughter hopes to attend American university and Revina wanted me to talk to her. The next morning, we met and I found a sharp, curious and realistic peer in front of me, questioning financial aid, asking what standardized scores were and what she needed to be doing as a second year high school student. Completely unprepared, I did a sub-par job attempting to explain the conundrum that is the college application process – a process throughout which I had supportive parents, two guidance counselors and countless teachers to help. Revina’s daughter doesn’t have Internet. But she promised to e-mail me once school resumes, and I have a feeling she’ll follow through.

The point I’m trying to make is elementary, but I’ll say it anyway. Cape Town may still be plagued by the legacy of apartheid, which is completely understandable but nonetheless upsetting. But it is also bolstered by an engaged and politically aware youth who spend their winter breaks at constitutional literacy camps and come to their parents’ work to discuss college opportunities with a nameless American student. That’s inspiring and uplifting. With Madiba in the hospital, things in Cape Town are a bit on edge. But as the floor map at the District Six Museum reads:

“Behold O Cape Town, Here Comes the Sun”

– Kerri

You Can’t Paint A Rainbow on a Monster

I work at the District Six Museum. Like all museums, the District Six Museum works with history. However, there are few ways that make the District Six Museum unlike any museum I’ve encountered on this trip and even at home.

At District Six, the focus is on the people—not the great men that are commemorated in most South African museums (you’d be hard pressed to find an exhibit about Mandela, Biko, or Chris Hani in the D6 halls). Rather, the museum highlights the stories of the everyday people that lived in the multiracial District Six community, owned their homes, and were forcibly removed as a result of Apartheid era laws. Lining the walls of the café and café hallways are posters on which still-living, removed District Six residents have handwritten their stories, wistful memories of waking up in their homes, in a vibrant community between the sea and Table Mountain. Recollections of traditional foods, such as sweet pastry koeksisters and coffee, curried bobotie and snoek fish, can be found on these posters as well, accompanied by hand drawn decorations created by the women themselves. Such is the history that the District Six Museum deals with: the quotidian experience told by those who may not have created anti-Apatheid political dissidence, but experienced the horrors of the Apartheid regime nonetheless.

Tour guides at District Six are not young men and women who have extensively researched or studied the Apartheid era, they are older, ex-residents of District Six who were forcibly removed from their homes and their communities. Take Noor Ebrahim, a 70 year old ex-resident whose story constitutes a large exhibit in the main display room at District Six. Everyday, Noor tells his story to groups of yearning museum visitors and learners, showing photographs of his old home, family, and friends, pinpointing the location of his house on the massive floor map (which displays the streets and street names of District Six before it was bulldozed and reformatted by the Apartheid government), and giving listeners an authentic glimpse into what life was like for himself and his family growing up in District Six before being evicted to the Cape Flats for being a non-white citizen. Being able to converse with and question Noor about his time is the closest thing to experiential learning that one can receive at a Museum. Many of the museums we have visited hire spectacular tour guides, who possess formidable knowledge about the effects of the Apartheid decrees that dispossessed and disenfranchised the non-white majority population of various communities and regions. That sort of knowledge is important, but the District Six Museum is far more attuned to grappling with tales and memories that come directly from the source.

I mentioned earlier that there were posters of ‘ordinary’ women and their stories in one section of the museum. These women are actually part of a workshop group that the museum runs every Tuesday from 9 am to 1 pm called Huis Kombuis (Afrikaans for Home Kitchen). The ex-resident women of Huis Kombuis trek from various outskirts of Cape Town (to which they were removed over 40 years ago) to their hometown of District Six to collaborate and create art pieces and sundries that reflect the residential lifestyle of the pre-bulldozed District Six. Beautiful pillows, featuring traditional blue and white floral designs, crafted with paint and candle wax, are sowed together by the women. Using old photo albums, they create collages of themselves in the city, imposing pictures of their families over photos of their old homes, over panoramas of District Six streets and buildings that were bulldozed and can no longer be found. These creations will eventually be displayed, yet that is not the purpose of Huis Kombuis. Rather, the museum runs the workshop and museum staff such as Tina, who is the head of collections, give their time and effort toward facilitating the workshop so that they may revitalize the these women’s memories, giving them a space where they may be recollected, cherished and shared. These ‘ordinary’ women may not have been a part of the direct struggle against Apartheid; they were not critical cogs of the dissident response that eventually disabled it either. Yet in hearing their personal stories and struggles it becomes clear that these women are extraordinary, everyday heroes. Patience Watlington grew up on Church St. in the pre-bulldozed District Six, in a multiracial environment where her colored skin was never seen as an impediment for her dream to work in the medical field. When her family was removed from District Six to the wastelands of Bloemhof Flats and her home bulldozed, her prospects seemingly disappeared. Yet the proximity to the city center that she lost in being removed didn’t stop her from becoming a midwife/nurse at the Peninsula Maternity Hospital in District Six—though the journey was an arduous one she faced it everyday, dealing with aggressive, racist passbook officers and an unwelcoming new, all white population in order to work out her dreams. In hearing the stories of women like Patience, Joyce Jonathan, Marion Sheppard, and other participants in Huis Kombuis, I now understand a bit more about what makes the District Six Museum experience so unique. Memories, and oral histories in general, don’t possess the same historical accuracy that has come to be respected in academic settings and texts. Memories can wither; they can be reconstructed and transformed. Yet therein lies their beauty and power, the sort that one encounters when reading a novel or fairy tale; these qualities are so often lost in textbook history, which turns the past into a story of the haves and the have-nots in order to highlight power dynamics. At District Six, the process is just as important as the outcome: though Huis Kombuis is a product development workshop and the creations will be sold as merchandise for the museum or be used as features in the exhibit space, the magic happens during the workshop, where laughter and recollections run free—this is an experience that Kerri and I are so fortunate to be a part of.

Though District Six is a museum that works closely with older ex-residents who have directly experienced Apartheid the museum also actively reaches out the younger generation, the ‘freeborns’ who are growing up in the first era of a democratic South Africa. Last weekend Kerri and I worked alongside law students from the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University (who work with an organization that focuses on legal education for the youth, CLASI) to organize a ConCamp weekend for students from various high schools around Cape Town. The 3 day long workshop focused on teaching the students constitutional literacy, stressing the importance of the youth in matters of social justice and reversing the legacy of Apartheid. At the end of the weekend, the students competed in moot courts, debating over cases of land dispossession created by the law students. As an American student, it was an enriching experience: I had the opportunity to watch these young students enter the camp, relatively unaware of the complex issues they would be faced with, and see their transformation as they grappled with problems that highlighted the intricate relationship between identity, land, power, laws, and geography. 16 year old Zainab, a fair skinned ‘colored’ girl told me that she couldn’t understand how people designated as colored discriminated against black Africans despite the fact that both groups were considered inferior during Apartheid and so many black Africans were responsible for its eventual dismantling. This reflection came after we had visited an interactive Apartheid exhibit at the Cape Town International Convention Center on Friday, where actors played roles that existed during Apartheid. Walking in, we were confronted by aggressive passbook officers, who questioned us with racist undertones. I encountered a white woman, sitting on a bench that was marked “Slegs Blankes” (Whites Only), who yelled at me, threatened to call the police, and invited Kerri to sit with her on the bench. Though the experience was quite jarring (to the point of being questionable), the effect was quite profound. Zainab was brought to tears by the passbook officer, but through the anguish she encountered at the exhibit came a increased willingness to confront the sorts of issues related to the social ripples created during the Apartheid Era that still affect everyday life in South Africa today. As a poet who accompanied the museum staff and a large group of ex-residents on a remembrance walk throughout the bulldozed, undeveloped areas of District Six said in reference to dealing with the vestiges of Apartheid, “You can’t paint a rainbow on a monster”. Seeing the young students begin to understand why reversing the legacy of Apartheid was a task that would fall largely upon their shoulders was an extremely gratifying experience.

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I only have three weeks left on my trip but I’m still excited for the coming projects that we will be tackling at District Six. I can’t thank DukeEngage enough for giving me the opportunity to engage with living history in such a dynamic way. And I can’t thank District Six enough for opening their doors to Kerri and I and allowing us to take part in such varied projects and assignments that have not only deepened my understanding of South African history, but also broadened my mental framework in regard to global sociocultural issues. When I return, I will bring these experiences home with me and apply them to my own life, community engagement, and academic pursuit.

History Lessons

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Last week, in our group reflection session, I raised the question, “What is something you were not expecting to get out of this trip that you actually have?” I was interested to hear everyone’s answers because, regardless of situation, I always find this a difficult question to answer, since it requires a level of introspection before and during an experience that I usually lack. I was looking forward to many things about this trip – including exploring Johannesburg and Cape Town, making new friends, and having my first full-time internship; however, something I completely undervalued at the beginning was how much I would appreciate the educational aspect of this experience.

In Johannesburg, we had a whirlwind week spent delving into South African culture and history, trying to learn as much as we could through museums and tours. The history crash course was amazing, and I enjoyed being able to hear many different stories and perspectives on apartheid, whether it was through the interactive exhibits at the Apartheid museum or going through the township of Alexandra with one of its former residents. Even now, some of my favorite moments come on Monday evenings when we have speakers come and share their experiences. So far, my favorites have been Minister Paul Verryn, a former anti-apartheid activist who also preaches at the Johannesburg Central Methodist Church, which doubles as a place of refuge to thousands of Zimbabwean refugees under his direction, and Denis Goldberg, one of the primary white activists who worked alongside Nelson Mandela to end apartheid. We were also able to meet with the legendary Allister Sparks, who as a writer, journalist and political commentator, was very involved with the anti-apartheid struggle.

In fact, it was after our conversation with Mr. Sparks that I committed myself to journaling this summer, lest I forget all of the great things I’ve been learning. Now I find myself scribbling in my Moleskine all throughout the day, capturing the many different comments and statistics I encounter about South African life. I expected to increase my knowledge of South Africa and its fascinating, torrid history just by virtue of living and working here for two months, but there’s something else I’ve been learning a lot about that I was not expecting to, and that frankly I’m a little embarrassed to admit – American history.

One of the things that drew me specifically to the DukeEngage Cape Town program was the opportunity to examine the parallels between the United States and South Africa, along with the existing differences – the most obvious similarity being the countries’ shared history of racial segregation. In learning more about the horrors of apartheid, I was surprised by the amount I was also learning about the American civil rights movement. I knew (or thought I knew) a lot about civil rights already, having grown up in an African-American household that always emphasized our culture and roots, but time and time again on this trip I’ve encountered new information regarding a struggle I thought I knew so much about. Before this trip, I had always thought of Rosa Parks as the courageous woman who refused to move to the back of the bus, but knew nothing of how she had been at the forefront of various civil rights and feminist movements for decades prior. I also made it through my entire high school career without any mention of the Wilmington race riots or the Greensboro sit-ins, even though they were both key events in American history.

I have to attribute a lot of the knowledge I’m gaining to the incredible Duke staff accompanying us on our trip. Our much-loved leaders include Dr. William Chafe (Bill), a history professor, Dr. Robert Korstad (Bob), who teaches in both public policy and history, and Anne-Marie Angelo (Ama), who just graduated with her Ph.D in history. It’s a wonderful experience to be able to receive this wisdom from people who have actually experienced some of the things we learn about and are still actively engaged in the conversations surrounding them. For example, Bill, who we spent the first four weeks of the trip with, doesn’t just write books about gender and racial equality – he started the women’s studies department at Vassar and actually participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964. And you can watch a video here of Bob explaining why he recently got arrested for civil disobedience as a part of the ‘Moral Monday’ campaign in North Carolina, which protests the recent Republican-backed regressive agenda on social programs, voting rights, education and tax policy – actions that all disproportionately hurt the poor and minorities.

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Shoutout to the great Bill Chafe, aka Colonel Sanders from KFC

Thanks to them, I am getting my questions answered, the gaps in my knowledge filled in, and encouragement when I ask in bewilderment “How could I not have known about this?” All of this goes to show that there truly is always more to learn, and even while learning about another country’s rich history, I can’t forget to acknowledge my own.

Sunglasses and Reconciliation

In the twenty years since the end of apartheid, South Africa has tried to reconcile its past of racial discrimination while also build a country in which the various peoples and races celebrate their diversity yet feel a common identity as South Africans. At this time in particular, many individuals find themselves reflecting upon their past and speculating what it means for their future. First, people are recognizing the centennial of the infamous Natives Land Act of 1913. Passed by the Union Parliament, the legislation prevented the majority of South Africa’s population from owning land and concentrated all valuable property in the hands of the white minority. The Land Act was the first segregation law passed by South Africa and would remain a cornerstone of what would become the apartheid system until the 1990s when a land restitution program commenced. Second, on a somber and historic note, as South Africans come to terms with the fact that Nelson Mandela, the country’s first Black president, will leave them sooner rather than later, people are examining not only his legacy but wondering whether the “rainbow nation” he and other freedom fighters fought to create can survive without Madiba (the term of affection by which Mandela is widely known in his home country). Those ruminations also come at a time when a new generation of South Africans who have not lived under apartheid—but are still suffering from the vestiges of the state-sanctioned discrimination—is coming of age.

I attended a book reading that sought to raise awareness of a local organization’s efforts to build a library in Khayelitsha, a Black township in Cape Town. While the program organizers had planned for the day to focus on the need to provide literature to youth in the township, the discussion quickly turned to the political atmosphere of South Africa and the country’s “attempts” to move beyond the vestiges of apartheid. The man who opened the program railed against the injustices of the former Afrikaner government but he decided to also highlight what he perceived as the failure of the African National Congress to rectify the situation. To explain his point, I was unexpectedly used as an example: The man took the pair of sunglasses I had worn to the event and told me that although he had my sunglasses, we were still friends and that I should feel no ill-will towards him. When I told him that I needed my sunglasses and that he can buy his own pair, he “compromised” and said that he would give them back eventually, but at a time of his own choosing. As he continued to talk to me and the twenty people assembled, it became increasingly clear that he was drawing parallels to the Land Act and its effects. The sunglasses represented the land and, in his opinion, the government wanted the races to live peacefully and reconcile despite the fact that nearly all of the land was still in the hands of the whites.

Many Black South Africans are coming to the conclusion that although they now have the ability to vote for their elected leaders, their lives—i.e. their economic conditions—are largely the same as they were under the days of minority rule. Some people fault Mandela as being too conciliatory toward the white population and some even wish he had followed the example of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe by implementing a widespread land redistribution with the goal of removing the wealth out of the hands of the descendants of those who profited from the Land Act. The man at the book reading said that there can only be peace when what is rightfully theirs is returned to them. However would that bring the peace and prosperity that so many South Africans desire? Or rather, will it only increase tensions between the races? For better or for worse, I doubt that question will ever be answered.

“It’s a Devil Being Born With a Conscience”

When asking Denis Goldberg why he became so passionate about the ANC’s liberation movement, he explained that “it’s a devil being born with a conscience” and he simply couldn’t ignore the injustices that were occurring in apartheid-era South Africa.

Staring at the elderly white male sitting before us, most Americans would not guess that he was one of the leaders of the ANC’s military branch (MK) and worked right alongside Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid. Goldberg served 22 years in prison after being arrested at Liliesleaf alongside other prominent ANC leaders and being found guilty at the Rivonia Trial. Yet, he explained in our discussion last Monday that “to be a human being, you have to serve human beings” and this often requires sacrificing ourselves for the greater good. Goldberg knew that people had to take a stand against the injustices of apartheid and he, along with other courageous white, colored, and black South Africans, took the risks that were necessary to make strides toward justice and equality.

How does this apply to us, you say?

Denis was clearly proud of the progress that has been made over the past two decades, but he noted that, though the legal provisions of apartheid no longer remain, the remnants of this past discrimination are still evident in the persisting inequalities between race and class in South Africa. The gap between low paid and skilled workers continues to grow and, while only about 6% of white South Africans are unemployed, rates are as high as 40% for black South Africans. The economic gap continues to grow as inequalities are inherited generation after generation. Nowhere is this stark contrast between poverty and wealth more apparent than in Cape Town.

As Stefani and I walk down Kloof Street and Long Street each morning, we pass an array of expensive cars lining streets filled with designer boutiques, cute, trendy cafes, bars with specialty cocktails, hostels filled with foreign tourists, and beautiful homes with a view of Table Mountain. Yet, these same streets are home to those with no more than a sleeping bag, people digging through trash cans eating whatever scraps they can find, and children pleading for money from tourists like us that pass by. As Anne-Marie, one of our program coordinators, noted, these blatant displays of poverty may make us uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing– it should make us uncomfortable that people continue to live in such unfathomable conditions. Seeing these displays of poverty everyday serves as a reminder of the injustices that persist in society –and will continue to persist until someone does something about them.

Now we come into the picture.

As has been pointed out in our group reflection sessions (and previous posts by Brandon and Reed), it’s so easy to come and notice economic inequalities in South Africa and want to do something about it, yet we fail to address and continue to ignore the inequalities that persist in America. With the top one percent of households owning ⅓ of wealth, the US faces similar issues of disproportionate wealth distribution and persistent poverty. While it is great that we are recognizing these social problems during our time in Cape Town, we must not forget these realizations when they are less apparent and tangible in our everyday lives back in the US. This issue was brought up by Reed in our reflection session last night and left me wondering how I can continue to incorporate the lessons and understandings we’ve gained here into our lives back at Duke. Bob encouraged us to seek out different service learning and community service methods to continue addressing the social problems we’ve become invested in during our time here, and I’m eager to start researching opportunities back at Duke.

To bring it back to Denis Goldberg, “it’s a devil being born with a conscience” and we can’t continue to ignore issue of poverty and economic inequality in Durham and the US. In his parting words, Goldberg reminded us that change will not happen on it’s own:

“This is our burden & our task”