Building Blocks of Equality

A couple of weeks ago, Heather and I got the chance to attend a workshop on sexual harassment in the workplace with one of the attorneys, Sanja, from the WLC. The workshop was for members of the Communications Workers’ Union, located at their headquarters about 20 minutes from our office. We educated the union members, all shop stewards in the postal service, about the laws regarding sexual harassment and workplace protections.

At the beginning of the session, Sanja asked the group if anyone had experienced or heard about an instance of sexual harassment in the workplace. No one raised their hand. At first, the group, a diverse group of men and women all having served between 15 and 30 years in the industry, contended that sexual harassment wasn’t an issue within their union. This surprised me, but as the hours went on, it became clear that the workers just disagreed on what actually constituted sexual harassment. Each time Sanja described a form of harassment, one of the workers would interject and pose a “what-if” situation to see if something they deemed as trivial would actually qualify. We engaged with issues like whether a woman is “asking for it” if she chooses to wear tight clothing (she’s not), or whether or not cat-calling or whistling at someone was appropriate in the workplace (it isn’t). While they all agreed that very serious forms of sexual harassment were unacceptable, there was much more disagreement on the other aspects of the law.

What struck me most during the training though was the group’s reaction to a particular one of Sonja’s explanations. At one point, after a bit of disagreement over an issue, she stopped and took out a piece of paper. On it she drew three stick figures, each one a bit taller than the last. She then drew a fence just above the heads of the figures.

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“So let’s say that since we want to help these people see over the fence, we give them each a block of the same size to stand on. Is that fair?”

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The group shook their heads no. Sanja then asked what they could do to make the situation fair. After a bit of discussion, the workers all agreed that they needed to make the blocks different sizes so that everyone could see. Then Sanja drew the picture again.

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“In South Africa, our law values equality of outcomes,” she said. Sanja pointed out that this situation could be considered a form of what they call “fair discrimination,” citing affirmative action as something that operated under the same principle. Some people were given larger blocks so that everyone could succeed. The group seemed to immediately understand the importance of what she was saying, nodding their heads in unison.

“Sexual harassment is a form of ‘unfair discrimination,’” Sanja continued. She explained that sexual harassment deprives someone of their Constitutional right to human dignity, making them feel that they are worth less than others. By sexually harassing someone, you’re hurting their chances of reaching an equal outcome. Even seemingly small instances of harassment serve to effectively chip away at someone else’s block.

From that point on, the tone of the training shifted. The workers stopped arguing over what constituted sexual harassment and started asking what they could do to stop it. By the end of the workshop, every one of them asked Sanja to follow up with a training at their individual workplaces.

I struggled a bit with the fact that her lecture would have been fairly controversial in the United States. While “fair discrimination” may lead to an equal outcome, it impedes one’s access to individual liberty, a capital offense in some parts of America. In South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid is apparent and the memories are still very real, the concept of equality holds a much different weight. There’s a greater sense of collective responsibility to right the wrongs of the past, and an understanding that those inequalities won’t correct themselves.

In light of multiple US Supreme Court decisions this week, it’s important that we analyze the lens through which we shape our view of equality. In South Africa, one might judge policies based on equality of outcomes. Unfair discrimination, in marriage or at the voting booth, chips away at people’s access to a level playing field. Fair discrimination, like in college admissions, attempts to ensure equality where the playing field isn’t level to begin with. The ends of each type of discrimination are at the focus of the analysis, as opposed to the means.

Beyond the courts, this notion of equality forces us to confront the barriers to entry for those who have faced discrimination. It makes you think about the impact of gender stereotypes, access to education, or racist slurs. It makes you think about how policies like paid maternity leave might increase the number of female CEOs. And It’s the reason why 20 union workers could understand why anything that compromised a woman’s ability to reach her full potential was an impediment to justice.


Organizations Taking Action in Cape Town

Here’s links to all of the great organizations we are working with this summer…check out the websites and learn about the amazing things that they are doing for Cape Town and South Africa!

429058_264908503589691_323232992_nAfrican Arts Institute

The African Arts Institute’s vision is for a vibrant, dynamic and sustainable African creative sector that contributes to development, human rights and democracy on the continent, and projects African aesthetics and intellectual content into the international arena.

The mission of the African Arts Institute is to harness relevant expertise, resources, infrastructure, markets, knowledge and information to help develop and sustain creative practice in Africa, and the protection and promotion of the continent’s cultural heritage and assets in line with our vision.

d6museum-bigDistrict 6 Museum

Up until the 1970s, District Six was home to almost a tenth of the city of Cape Town’s population. In 1966, the apartheid government, as it had done in Sophiatown in 1957, declared District Six “white”. More than 60,000 people were forcibly uprooted and relocated onto the barren plains of the Cape Flats. Over a century of history, of community life, of solidarity amongst the poor and of achievement against great odds, was imperiled.

The District Six Museum Foundation was established in 1989 and launched as a museum in 1994 to keep alive the memories of District Six and displaced people everywhere. It came into being as a vehicle for advocating social justice, as a space for reflection and contemplation and as an institution for challenging the distortions and half-truths which propped up the history of Cape Town and South Africa. As an independent space where the forgotten understandings of the past are resuscitated, where different interpretations of that past are facilitated through its collections, exhibitions and education programmes, the Museum is committed to telling the stories of forced removals and assisting in the reconstitution of the community of District Six and Cape Town by drawing on a heritage of non-racialism, non-sexism, anti-class discrimination and the encouragement of debate.

sonkeSonke Gender Justice Network

Sonke Gender Justice Network is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation, established in 2006. Today, Sonke has established a growing presence on the African continent and plays an active role internationally. Sonke works to create the change necessary for men, women, young people and children to enjoy equitable, healthy and happy relationships that contribute to the development of just and democratic societies. Sonke pursues this goal across Southern Africa by using a human rights framework to build the capacity of government, civil society organisations and citizens to achieve gender equality, prevent gender-based violence and reduce the spread of HIV and the impact of AIDS.

tac-logoTreatment Action Campaign

Founded on 10 December 1998 in Cape Town, South Africa, The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) advocates for increased access to treatment, care and support services for people living with HIV and campaigns to reduce new HIV infections. With more than 16,000 members, 267 branches and 72 full time staff members, TAC has become the leading civil society force behind comprehensive health care services for people living with HIV&AIDS in South Africa.  Since 1998, TAC has held government accountable for health care service delivery; campaigned against official AIDS denialism; challenged the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies to make treatment more affordable and cultivated community leadership on HIV and AIDS. Our efforts have resulted in many life-saving interventions, including the implementation of country-wide mother-to-child transmission prevention and antiretroviral treatment programmes. For our efforts TAC has received world-wide acclaim and numerous international accolades, including a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. On 30 August 2006 the New York Times named TAC, “the world’s most effective AIDS group”.


Women’s Legal Centre

The Women’s Legal Centre is a non-profit, independent law centre that seeks to achieve equality for women in South Africa. As access to justice is largely inaccessible to poor women, particularly black women, the WLC plays an important role in litigating in their interest and providing them with access to free legal advice. The WLC has a vision of women in South Africa living free from violence in safe housing, free to own their own share of property, empowered to ensure their own reproductive health rights and able to work in a safe and equal environment.

In order to fulfill its objectives, the WLC will, free of charge: Litigate cases which advance women’s rights and are in the public interest, particularly constitutional cases; and produce briefs to assist courts in constitutional cases which concern women’s rights and gender equality. In addition, where resources permit, the WLC aims to provide women’s organisations with technical legal assistance in making submissions to parliament and other institutions. Our plans include strategies to provide training and capacity building programs for para-legals and women lawyers who wish to conduct constitutional litigation in regard to gender issues. We believe that there is a need to collaborate with women’s organisations in all our activities.

An engineer’s perspective on South Africa

For whatever reason, my pictures are not showing up.  Just imagine that I posted two pictures of South Africa, one with locations of mines and the other with provinces color coded for HIV rate. Now imagine that the mine-containing provinces superimpose perfectly over the provinces with highest HIV rates.  Wow, imagination rocks you guys. 

Although I had heard a great deal about the Duke Engage program before I applied to Duke, I had never once seriously considered applying for one of its programs. I believed that the cultural and social lessons of Duke Engage would not apply to my science and mathematics based education.  Nonetheless, when October came around and Facebook began throwing Duke Engage back into my world, I explored the option.

The Cape Town program immediately changed my mind about Duke Engage, much to my chagrin.

I saw in the program not just an opportunity to gain experience working with health-focused NGOs (such as the Treatment Action Campaign) but also the unique opportunity to experience a nation ravaged by HIV and other infectious diseases, topics which have interested me since before-I-can-remember.

So I applied. I got in. And here I am, an Engineer in South Africa. I put emphasis on my major because it forms the lens through which I have so far experienced South Africa—one of public health, sanitation and disease prevention.

My more scientifically based approach to this trip has given me a great insight into many of the locations we were lucky enough to experience, such as Soweto and Alexandra townships in Johannesburg, Gauteng. Alexandra more than Soweto is a sea of shanty houses intermixed with crumbling buildings and open toilet facilities utilized by too many of its hundreds-of-thousands large population. While others may have connected the situation to a discussion on post-Apartheid socioeconomic outlooks or a conversation about poverty, I was interested more intensely on the public health situation in the township.

Earlier this year, mainly second semester, I began building a much better understanding of public health issues through Dr. Sherryl Broverman’s (Brovvvesss!) course, AIDS and Emerging Diseases. The course emphasized modes and factors of transmission as well as a general understanding of the HIV epidemic in South Africa’s townships.  These lessons helped me a great deal to understand the health situation in Alexandra.

Alexandra has very little if any public sanitation in place that we could see.  The restaurant we ate at had a hole in the wall that customers could use to relieve themselves though I highly doubt the average resident has such a luxury.  We saw surgical centers on the road that consisted of no more than a tarp laid across three wooden poles stuck into the ground. Such a lack of sanitation is a prime breeding ground for diseases like Typhus, Dysentery and Cholera. The sanitary situation in Alexandra only underscores the underlying socio-economic factors of health disparities in South Africa.  Put quite plainly, if you’re pooping into an open sewer, or getting an operation on the side of the road, you’re going to have a bad time.

Continuing aboard this train of thought, it seems that healthcare is almost a non-reality in the townships, from what I have learned through personal experience and discussions. The most shocking part of the story, however, is that healthcare in South Africa is, in most cases, absolutely free.  Yet, the services are still unattainable for residents of the township who lack either the transportation or the education to utilize social services (or both). Moreover, the dearth of health professionals in South Africa forces any patients who make it to these free providers to wait DAYS in order to receive treatment.


The inconsistency of the health system in this country (I understand that my lens is quite narrow and that this situation is present in many other countries as well as South Africa) is incredibly debilitating especially with regard to the management of AIDS here. The ARVs (Anti-Retrovirals) used to hold HIV in check require strict adherence lest HIV build immunity to them (HIV has no replicative error checking proteins, so it mutates rapidly allowing for rapid viral evolution). In a newsletter distributed by the TAC (Treatment Action Campaign), the General Secretary Vuyiseka Dubula notes an epidemic of un-stocked clinics and long wait-times that predispose patients to inconsistency in their ARV treatment. The AIDS epidemic here is a hydra of an issue—there are so many different issues that are not taken care of and that cannot be taken care of with an under-stocked and at times unreachable health system.

In the West, we quite often lose sight of how important sanitation is to preventing disease but South African’s are quite aware of their situation. Just the other day my office workers and I watched a roaring crowd of toilet-bowl-clad protestors march down Adderley Street demanding a revamping of the public sanitation in the main local township, Khayelitsha. The populations within the townships only reinforce the gravity of the situation—the high population densities in South Africa’s townships make them all tinderboxes for infectious disease. All it would take is a small number of infected individuals to start a wildfire infection that would spread throughout the population.

Speaking of wildfires, an incredibly ominous aspect of the townships is the proximity of the houses—they are quite literally on top of one another. The only thought that went through my head, and a thought which still disturbs me to bring up again, was that (and I quote mental-me): “all it would take is one uncovered fire to raze this entire community to the ground, and kill thousands.” I’ll just leave that thought in your minds.

By far the most interesting area of the townships, though, are the hostels, places which Dr. Broverman’s class taught us to view as the ground-zero of the South African AIDS epidemic. One of the compounding issues for the AIDS epidemic in South Africa especially was the mining industry that initiated a phenomenon called Circular Migration

Basically, mining companies would hire migrant workers from the provinces of South Africa and house them in hostel houses. These hostel houses would inevitably attract sex workers keen to exploit the newly introduced source of revenue.  In turn, many large sexual networks formed around the hostels with the miners and the sex workers forming a web of sexual interaction. This heavily branched network made all its participants incredibly vulnerable to HIV when it entered South Africa and quickly spread the virus. So now the miners and sex workers were infected, but how did that impact the rest of the country? This is where the circle closes. The workers returned home, eventually, and entered into new sexual networks there—infecting their families and communities. Knowing the role that these hostels played in the establishment of the AIDS epidemic made me shudder. The day after we visited Alexandra I brought up two maps of South Africa. One map showed the HIV prevalence by province, and the other showed the location of mining deposits in the country. The overlap was reinforcing and disturbing. The provinces with ore-deposits were also the ones most impacted by HIV/AIDS.  Most prominent among these provinces is KwaZulu Natal, the location of a large portion of South Africa’s deposits and also the most HIV-ravaged province in the country.

HIV statistics per province

Look at the two pictures to the left and superimpose them in your mind. It’s quite fascinating.

Mining fields (brown). Compare this to the provincial map.

So far, South Africa has been an amazing experience. Being able to witness places like Alexandra has been an amazing opportunity, especially to put some of my public-health education to use. Yet, I recognize that my experience has been one of a pseudo-tourist, experiencing abject poverty and a dearth of health services during the day and finely cooked meals and hot showers at night.  I recognize also that I just writing down these observations will not change the situation in South Africa. I recognize that something needs to be done.  I’m still not sure exactly how to do it.

Changing Lenses


Michael. Michael from Johannesburg. Michael from Johannesburg who lives in the ghetto on 50 Rand a day. I was sitting today at my registration table for the Arts & Culture Indaba 2013, greeting people and giving them their generic registration packs when Michael walked in through the wooden larger-than-life City Hall doors. He seemed confused, lost, so I handed him a program from the conference explaining the panel of “experts” gathered upstairs discussing ideas to ameliorate the arts sector in Cape Town. I am quite unsure how our conversation got started but before I knew it I found myself listening to Michael for more than 40 minutes, blatantly ignoring my mindless and repetitious intern task.

He talked about poverty,

He talked about the ghetto.

He talked about traveling around Europe & Africa.

He talked about hunger, true hunger that goes deeper than your bones, and what hunger does to people—and he teared up and paused and I knew in that moment that he wasn’t pulling my leg or putting on a pity show.

He talked about violence,




I sat there speechless and completely enthralled by his words, wondering what had brought this man to walk through those ornate doors to talk to me. I listened, because I knew (I felt) that he needed someone to listen to him. This man leaning across my desk was illustrating to me, in simple words, the poverty that permeates townships. Michael was telling me that the reason he didn’t steal or assault or rape was because he had lived and experienced and seen these horrors with his very own eyes. He stared at the wall behind me and told me that his father raped his mother and sisters every night. He said that in the ghetto, entire families go to bed hungry because they don’t have 8 Rand (80 American cents) to buy a loaf of bread. He said that in the ghetto, men get away with murdering pregnant women and justice is nowhere to be seen.

But Michael also told me about the power of smiling and staying happy—and he also told me about the charity he wants to start. I stopped him there, saying that I was at work but would be willing to talk to him in my free time. I asked him for his contact information but since he doesn’t own a cellphone he gave me his boss Nigel’s number, whom he praised endlessly for paying him those precious 50 Rand every day.

I said goodbye to Michael, promising to call him, but not before giving him 3 sandwiches from the conference. He said “God Bless you,” limped away from a mysterious injury, and I knew instinctively that those sandwiches were all that he would have for the rest of the day.

It’s not hard to say that coming into close contact with someone like Michael changes one’s perspective on a beautiful country like South Africa. It is one thing to go to museums and learn about apartheid. It is one thing to hear speakers like Simon Eppel from SACTWU talk about the difficulties of the working class and the conditions they live in. But it is an entirely different and humbling experience to listen (truly listen) to a man tell his story and to see the pain of life distort his face. Being confronted with Michael’s reality—and thousands like him—taught me that South Africa still has a long way to go if it is to become the nation of equality I know it strives to be. We may be living in a post-apartheid society, but poverty has yet to release its grip on the lower working class. 


The Not So Sexy Reality of Sex Work in South Africa

It’s hard to believe that we have already been at our internships for 2 1/2 weeks and even more surprising to see how quickly Stefani and I became integrated into the work of the Women’s Legal Centre. I came to South Africa with pretty negative perceptions regarding the inexplicable rates of physical and sexual violence, especially against women.

Looking at the statistics, you would be pessimistic too:

sex worker

WLC Educational Booklet on the Rights of Sex Workers

  • Studies estimate that 1 in 2 to 1 in 6 women are experiencing domestic violence
  • One woman is killed by her intimate partner every eight hours
  • 27% of South African men have raped a woman or girl
  • 14% of South African men have raped a current or ex-girlfriend
  • One woman is raped every 17 seconds in South Africa
  • Between 28% and 30% of women’s first sexual encounters are forced
  • South Africa has the largest number of recorded child-rapes in the world
  • Each day at least 50 children are victims of rape

Our first project at the WLC only reaffirmed my apprehensiveness about the state of affairs in South Africa. Sara (an awesome intern that just left the WLC) passed on her assignment of researching harmful cultural practices in SA– including witch doctors, satanism, and muti killings. Article after article revealed brutal stories of sacrificial killings for satanism and muti (body parts used in rituals by witch doctors). Satanism has also become an increasing problem among the youth population and many of the killings we read about involved groups of young adults. Needless to say, the problems facing South Africa couldn’t seem more removed from the issues we were used to dealing with in America.

However–*shocker*– I soon realized how wrong my perceptions of South Africa had been. One of the first things that Sara suggested we busy ourselves with was reading the South African Constitution. The Constitution of South Africa is shockingly progressive– perhaps even more so than the United States. The breadth and inclusiveness of the Bill of Rights enumerated in the Constitution mirrored that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As another intern, Erin, pointed out, the SA Constitution is unique in it’s inclusiveness of so many positive rights rather than a focus on negative rights. The expansiveness of the Bill of Rights became even more apparent as Stefani and I began to work on our next project: a position paper on the decriminalization of sex work.

Though I anticipated that our internships would be enlightening in terms of legal knowledge and experience, I didn’t expect it to completely change my perspectives on issues that were also very pertinent to America. Whenever discussions regarding the criminalized nature of sex work come to the table in the United States, the prominent debate revolves around the morality of sex work and preserving American values. Before working at WLC, I had never before seen the debate about decriminalization laid out so blatantly in terms of the rights (or, rather, violation of rights) of the sex workers themselves. While reasons of societal values were briefly cited in many opposition papers, most of these competing perspectives still focused on what was best for the actual sex workers. (Check out the difference between these options of legalization, partial decriminalizaiton, and decriminalization here:

Criminalization doesn’t reduce the number of sex workers, it only subjects them to unsafe conditions and provides no outlet for protection or justice from the police. In fact, the police are responsible for a large proportion of the exploitation of sex workers that occurs in South Africa.  Seven out of 10 sex workers who approached the WLC to report a violation had experienced some form of abuse by the police.

Decriminalization advocates the repeal of all laws against sex work, and the removal of provisions that criminalize all aspects of sex work. In doing so, decriminalization improves the protection of sex workers and reduces violations of their rights as power shifts away from the state and clients to sex workers themselves. Australia and New South Wales are the first two places to pass decriminalization legislation and–contray to the worries of many skeptics/critics– the rates of sex work have not increased. Sex workers in these two places report feeling safer due to the ability to report abuses to the police and gain the protection of employment benefits and fair labor standards. Sex workers are empowered by the ability to challenge unfair labour conditions in court, enforce contracts against employers or clients, and collectively bargain for improved working conditions.  The ability to report crimes without fear of retaliation gives sex workers the agency to refuse dangerous clients and negotiate safer sex practices. Violations to the their freedom and security decrease because police and private actors are no longer able to exploit the illicit status of sex workers to sexually and physically abuse them.

While the morality of selling sex remains contentious, this debate is so disproportionate to the larger problem of the discrimination and extensive human rights violations facilitated by the criminalization of sex work.  Gaining such an informed perspective on the sex work industry and the accompanying laws has challenged my prior opinions based on personal beliefs and encouraged a new rights-based perspective on the subject. (Also, as I begin to consider a topic for my public policy thesis, this issue is starting to look quite appealing…)


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.


Last Wednesday Kerri and co-hosted a tour (alongside Education Director Mandy Sanger) of District Six, as well as the Lwandle Township (a long-time home to migrant workers living in South Africa) for a tour group of students from a Connecticut boarding school that was visiting the District Six Museum where we are working for the summer. After finishing the tour of District Six we took a hour-long drive to Lwandle and upon arriving our boss, who was serving as the primary tour guide, asked the students to respect the privacy and dignity of the Lwandlan residents, for the group was unbundling cameras and video recording devices before we had even driven into the township streets. Nonetheless, a flurry of excited camera clicks and flashes began as soon as the first township resident, a young girl of about six or seven years, wearing nothing but an oversized pink tee shirt, ran barefoot to the edge of the dirt road, waving at our tour bus. “Wow, the people like, love to wave here!” one student exclaimed from the back of the tour bus. At this point, I was chuckling to myself, making note of their childish disregard. But I would soon be knocked from the pedestal of cultural sensitivity I had hoisted myself upon by an experience that followed soon after. We stopped at a museum in Lwandle, the Lwandle Migrant Labor Museum, which highlighted the stories and struggles of the men who had emigrated from various African countries to settle in Lwandlan migrant labor hostels to support their families at home during Apartheid. After exploring the museum, we walked further into town to visit the last remaining hostel, Room 33, which had been converted into a national heritage site, and presumably, a tourist attraction. As we crammed through the doorway and into the damp, dark, low-ceilinged building (which was designed to house as many as 30 male workers yet was about the same size as my Central Campus apartment at Duke, which I share with only one roommate) we noticed a large piece of cardboard, which was framed on the stone wall. It read “We the residents of Room 33 deside to write this notice disagree with you about this room to be a messeum [museum] firstly give us accommodation before you can get this room. Thank you from Room 33” Immediately after reading this statement I realized why I had no rightful reason to judge the boarding school students as naïve for their actions and statements on the bus—at that point I had lived in South Africa for only about three weeks, yet had considered my cultural knowledge and cognizance to be superior to those of newcomers. Sure, I work at the District Six Museum. Sure, I’ve learned a formidable amount of South African colonial, tribal, and Apartheid history. But right then and there, I was nothing more than a tourist, peering into the history and living community of others for my own benefit. Aristotle is famed for asserting that knowledge is nothing with praxis, or action, and that is a notion that I’ve disagreed with. Learning, about anything, is an enriching experience for the self, one that can have positive effects on one’s actions, even those outside of the context of the subject. But in that very moment I didn’t feel like a historian, a student, or a scholar—I felt like a voyeuristic outsider, the type of foreigner who “oohs” and “aahs” at the sights of a new city, the type of tourist who ogles at the poverty in an exotic, faraway land yet drives speedily through the poverty-stricken neighborhoods in his own country. Who was I, a visitor, to come into Lwandle, peering into their society, fully cognizant of their past and present struggles, while doing virtually nothing to alleviate them? I’m sure that one could argue that this sort of tourism is harmless—helpful even, if our group had stopped at the local food market to purchase our lunch. But I urge anyone reading this blog post to envision a parallel scenario: if a group of tourists, armed with digital cameras and backpacks, had come into your hometown, visited a landmark or some area of historical significance, and proceeded with snapping endless pictures of your homes, your children, your community, how would you react? sign remade One of my favorite moments in the Lwandle Township came after we left the hostel, and around 50 local children, alerted to our presence by our big, white tour bus, surrounded us, forming what looked like a parade as we walked through the roads in the township. With at least four children holding my hand on either side, and another five both in front of me and behind me, all singing and dancing gleefully for the “Americans”, I couldn’t have felt more admired. In my carefree happiness, I can safely say that not once did I think of the children’s’ parents, or their opinions on what was occurring. In factEven though I am living and working here, it’s hard to realize what distinguishes an invasive tourist from a casual visitor, a voyeur from a scholar. As I continue my stay here, I hope that I can transcend the boundary that separates those who simply marvel at, photograph, and tell stories to friends and family back home about the destitution and the suffering I have witnessed in so many areas here. I know I can’t change the world that I’ve entered, in fact, whatever I accomplish will probably only help a minute fraction of a fraction of those affected by the problems that exist in such wide range and depth here. And that’s okay. Because so many people that I have encountered, despite enduring struggles that are quite deserving of dropping jaws and opened eyes, are full of life. Children who dance and jump with visitors yet are uncertain of the availability of their next filling meal. Teenagers that spend over two hours travelling by public transportation from the slums of Khayelitsha to the District Six Museum every Saturday to spend their day learning (from me!) how to research and meaningfully present their personal histories, community histories, and collective history of struggle throughout the decades of Apartheid—while so many township kids of similar age turn to drugs and crime to fill their weekends. Cape Town, like South Africa, and the entirety of Africa, isn’t a land to be pitied, or to be ogled, or to be photographed and then forgotten at summer’s end. It is a land full of problems and prides, like any other community, town, or region in the United States. As I meet more people here, luminaries like Desmond Tutu and everyday heroes like Joyce Jonathan, a woman who was forcibly removed from District Six during Apartheid and comes to the Museum every Tuesday to share stories and craft memory-revitalizing art projects, I realize that this world is so much more than the Save the Children commercials one sees so often on American television programming. As I live and learn more here, I’ll keep you updated.

The Time I Was Schooled by Some High Schoolers…

I’m an English major, so this should be easy. But staring at a blank blog page for an hour makes one realize that, for me at least, it’s just not. I think my reluctance stems not from the experience of blogging in general but, instead, from blogging about service. To me, writing or even speaking about service has an inherent danger in it, often appearing as useless fluff. To avoid falling into this trap, I’m going to try in my future posts to be as frank and genuine as possible, so bear with me.

Before Cape Town, we spent a week in Johannesburg that was a sort of ‘crash course’ in South African history and current events. One of my favorite days during this week involved a visit to the Albert School, a secondary school primarily attended by Zimbabwean refugees who were living in Jo’burg’s Central Methodist Church. There, we were given the opportunity to teach (if you could call it that) the freshmen and sophomore classes about American history and its connection to African history. I personally realized how desperately I needed a refresher when I informed a student that the Statue of Liberty’s current color shade was a result of ‘natural rain’ before Brandon mercifully provided the correct scientific answer (*which is exposure to oxygen if you’re wondering*). Regardless, the experience was, for me, unprecedented as we were fired with provocative and quite uncomfortable questions concerning homosexuality, dowry payment, immigration policies and even “are you a racist” (which luckily our program director Bill responded to with his usual thoughtfulness). The difficulty in answering their questions was not lost on me as it illuminated the tension between what I believe is right and what I accept as normal – something that I, as a college student am encountering far too often. These kids were challenging the most fundamental platforms of my societal life, and I was quite frustrated to find that I couldn’t uphold these norms to an intelligent or well-executed standard. Afterwards, Brandon and I stayed to meet the students, comically breaking up into a clear ‘boys’ group’ and a ‘girls’ group’. While the guys discussed sports and politics, we gabbed about boys, celebrities and, inevitably, looks. It was then that the sassiest and – I’m sorry but I have to say – my favorite girl in the group Shamwari (even if she did say I looked thirty-eight) sighed to me, “I wish I had hair and skin like yours because then people would like me better”. My natural response was to point blank protest, insisting in horrible clichés that she was beautiful just as she is. Writing that, I cringe… not because I think she was unattractive, but because I now realize that her comment was not about physical beauty in the way that I understand it, but more or less about race. Shamwari was concealing a definitive and loaded statement about her encounters with race and subsequent racism as a compliment to her new American acquaintance. And I responded with the dreaded fluff – a frustrating fakeness poisoning what I had in my American, white naivety meant as an entirely sincere and convincing denial.

Not to make generalizations, but I think my interaction with Shamwari quite perfectly parallels tourists’ interaction with the undeniable populations of impoverished black and coloreds living in South African townships. I’ll never forget my visits to the Jo’burg township of Alexandra and the Cape Town township of Lwandle – both comparable in their extent of destitution. Visiting these two places, one encounters the most extreme states of poverty. Cardboard shacks meet cardboard shacks, and it’s hard to actually picture human beings living there. Equally as challenging is to divorce oneself from the conventional pitying perspective that often runs congruent to notions of superiority. Parading through Lwandle with an army of fifty children all eager to hold my hand or driving through Alex on a tourist bus, it’s hard to reconcile the rewarding experience that is visiting these townships (and exposing myself to their way of living) with respecting the dignity of their homes and lifestyles. I felt that my visit to these places was a great gift, combatting my naivety and helping to expand my otherwise limited (again) American, white perspective. But, at the same time, I knew I was an intruder, invasively entering their homes and belittling them with my photographing, my videoing.

Enter Mandy. Probably the most original character I will ever work alongside, Mandy is my ‘boss’ at District Six, where I will be interning this summer. Never hesitant to express her anti-American sentiment, she was quick to point out this contradiction in my own theology, offering her proposal of a project where African children tour American neighborhoods with their cameras and buses. It’s not even remotely difficult to imagine what would transpire if ever a project were to take place. And that made me painfully aware of the injustice I was engaging in, treating these peoples’ homes as an opportunity for a photoshoot, as an object to be pitied rather than respected. My biggest fear in embarking on this Duke Engage experience already realized in the first three weeks, I can only hope that the next few weeks will involve the personal growth required to be a better citizen of the world and to make me worthy of this experience. So wish me luck!

– Kerri Brown (because I’m too technically inadequate to figure out my own user name)