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.

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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.