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.)
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.
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.