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.

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Reconciliation and Closure in Joburg

The Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa

The Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa

From the moment of our arrival in Johannesburg, it was clear that the city was unlike any I had ever visited. High walls, barbed wire, electric fences, and guard dogs were just a few of the protective measures ubiquitous among both homes and businesses.  Of course, some of this was to be expected—Joburg is often mentioned as a frontrunner for the most dangerous city in the world because of how commonplace theft and violence have become.   Despite the ominous statistics surrounding the city, our group felt quite at ease during our time there.

The purpose of our week in Johannesburg was to study South Africa’s volatile political history before beginning our work in Cape Town.  Our trip began with a visit to Constitution Hill where the country’s Constitutional Court sits atop an old prison that held activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu at various times during apartheid.  As we would soon learn to be the case with many of South Africa’s post-apartheid decisions regarding monuments and political/judicial institutions, communicating reconciliation and transparency were paramount in the design of Constitution Hill.  The courtroom itself contained windows to reinforce its theme of transparency—this allows passersby to easily observe its proceedings.  The court’s placement on top of the prison that housed so many prominent anti-apartheid activists was also incredibly symbolic of the post-apartheid regime’s search for reconciliation with South Africa’s past.

Such commitment to reconciliation was evident in other places as well.  We drove on “Reconciliation Road” which connects the Voortrekker Monument, an obtrusive tribute to the Afrikaner victory over the native population, to Freedom Park, a memorial to the individuals who have died in the struggle for freedom in South Africa’s history, particularly those involved in the anti-apartheid movement.  The decision to leave the Voortrekker Monument standing after the end of apartheid was a significant one.  It reflects the nation’s attitude towards its past—rather than wiping away unsightly blemishes, South Africa has made a concerted effort to confront its precarious history.  Perhaps nowhere is that effort more apparent than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was established to heal South Africans’ fresh wounds from apartheid—the TRC utilized disclosure rather than punishment in its search for justice.  The truly astounding nature of such a commission is the environment surrounding its inception; in a fledgling nation, the historically oppressed and terribly mistreated group, now with its first taste of authority, chose reconciliation instead of retribution.  I find such an outcome nearly unthinkable in most nations. Indeed, South Africa’s neighbor, Zimbabwe, chose differently with lasting effects.  While South Africa continues to bear scars of apartheid, the prevalent signs of a nation attempting to mend its past are both heartening and in my opinion, indispensable to the country’s future success.  If I came away with anything from our week in Joburg, it is a general sense of optimism for South Africa because in spite of the difficulties that remain, the country has taken the only tenable path towards a more prosperous future.