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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“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”