You Can’t Paint A Rainbow on a Monster

I work at the District Six Museum. Like all museums, the District Six Museum works with history. However, there are few ways that make the District Six Museum unlike any museum I’ve encountered on this trip and even at home.

At District Six, the focus is on the people—not the great men that are commemorated in most South African museums (you’d be hard pressed to find an exhibit about Mandela, Biko, or Chris Hani in the D6 halls). Rather, the museum highlights the stories of the everyday people that lived in the multiracial District Six community, owned their homes, and were forcibly removed as a result of Apartheid era laws. Lining the walls of the café and café hallways are posters on which still-living, removed District Six residents have handwritten their stories, wistful memories of waking up in their homes, in a vibrant community between the sea and Table Mountain. Recollections of traditional foods, such as sweet pastry koeksisters and coffee, curried bobotie and snoek fish, can be found on these posters as well, accompanied by hand drawn decorations created by the women themselves. Such is the history that the District Six Museum deals with: the quotidian experience told by those who may not have created anti-Apatheid political dissidence, but experienced the horrors of the Apartheid regime nonetheless.

Tour guides at District Six are not young men and women who have extensively researched or studied the Apartheid era, they are older, ex-residents of District Six who were forcibly removed from their homes and their communities. Take Noor Ebrahim, a 70 year old ex-resident whose story constitutes a large exhibit in the main display room at District Six. Everyday, Noor tells his story to groups of yearning museum visitors and learners, showing photographs of his old home, family, and friends, pinpointing the location of his house on the massive floor map (which displays the streets and street names of District Six before it was bulldozed and reformatted by the Apartheid government), and giving listeners an authentic glimpse into what life was like for himself and his family growing up in District Six before being evicted to the Cape Flats for being a non-white citizen. Being able to converse with and question Noor about his time is the closest thing to experiential learning that one can receive at a Museum. Many of the museums we have visited hire spectacular tour guides, who possess formidable knowledge about the effects of the Apartheid decrees that dispossessed and disenfranchised the non-white majority population of various communities and regions. That sort of knowledge is important, but the District Six Museum is far more attuned to grappling with tales and memories that come directly from the source.

I mentioned earlier that there were posters of ‘ordinary’ women and their stories in one section of the museum. These women are actually part of a workshop group that the museum runs every Tuesday from 9 am to 1 pm called Huis Kombuis (Afrikaans for Home Kitchen). The ex-resident women of Huis Kombuis trek from various outskirts of Cape Town (to which they were removed over 40 years ago) to their hometown of District Six to collaborate and create art pieces and sundries that reflect the residential lifestyle of the pre-bulldozed District Six. Beautiful pillows, featuring traditional blue and white floral designs, crafted with paint and candle wax, are sowed together by the women. Using old photo albums, they create collages of themselves in the city, imposing pictures of their families over photos of their old homes, over panoramas of District Six streets and buildings that were bulldozed and can no longer be found. These creations will eventually be displayed, yet that is not the purpose of Huis Kombuis. Rather, the museum runs the workshop and museum staff such as Tina, who is the head of collections, give their time and effort toward facilitating the workshop so that they may revitalize the these women’s memories, giving them a space where they may be recollected, cherished and shared. These ‘ordinary’ women may not have been a part of the direct struggle against Apartheid; they were not critical cogs of the dissident response that eventually disabled it either. Yet in hearing their personal stories and struggles it becomes clear that these women are extraordinary, everyday heroes. Patience Watlington grew up on Church St. in the pre-bulldozed District Six, in a multiracial environment where her colored skin was never seen as an impediment for her dream to work in the medical field. When her family was removed from District Six to the wastelands of Bloemhof Flats and her home bulldozed, her prospects seemingly disappeared. Yet the proximity to the city center that she lost in being removed didn’t stop her from becoming a midwife/nurse at the Peninsula Maternity Hospital in District Six—though the journey was an arduous one she faced it everyday, dealing with aggressive, racist passbook officers and an unwelcoming new, all white population in order to work out her dreams. In hearing the stories of women like Patience, Joyce Jonathan, Marion Sheppard, and other participants in Huis Kombuis, I now understand a bit more about what makes the District Six Museum experience so unique. Memories, and oral histories in general, don’t possess the same historical accuracy that has come to be respected in academic settings and texts. Memories can wither; they can be reconstructed and transformed. Yet therein lies their beauty and power, the sort that one encounters when reading a novel or fairy tale; these qualities are so often lost in textbook history, which turns the past into a story of the haves and the have-nots in order to highlight power dynamics. At District Six, the process is just as important as the outcome: though Huis Kombuis is a product development workshop and the creations will be sold as merchandise for the museum or be used as features in the exhibit space, the magic happens during the workshop, where laughter and recollections run free—this is an experience that Kerri and I are so fortunate to be a part of.

Though District Six is a museum that works closely with older ex-residents who have directly experienced Apartheid the museum also actively reaches out the younger generation, the ‘freeborns’ who are growing up in the first era of a democratic South Africa. Last weekend Kerri and I worked alongside law students from the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University (who work with an organization that focuses on legal education for the youth, CLASI) to organize a ConCamp weekend for students from various high schools around Cape Town. The 3 day long workshop focused on teaching the students constitutional literacy, stressing the importance of the youth in matters of social justice and reversing the legacy of Apartheid. At the end of the weekend, the students competed in moot courts, debating over cases of land dispossession created by the law students. As an American student, it was an enriching experience: I had the opportunity to watch these young students enter the camp, relatively unaware of the complex issues they would be faced with, and see their transformation as they grappled with problems that highlighted the intricate relationship between identity, land, power, laws, and geography. 16 year old Zainab, a fair skinned ‘colored’ girl told me that she couldn’t understand how people designated as colored discriminated against black Africans despite the fact that both groups were considered inferior during Apartheid and so many black Africans were responsible for its eventual dismantling. This reflection came after we had visited an interactive Apartheid exhibit at the Cape Town International Convention Center on Friday, where actors played roles that existed during Apartheid. Walking in, we were confronted by aggressive passbook officers, who questioned us with racist undertones. I encountered a white woman, sitting on a bench that was marked “Slegs Blankes” (Whites Only), who yelled at me, threatened to call the police, and invited Kerri to sit with her on the bench. Though the experience was quite jarring (to the point of being questionable), the effect was quite profound. Zainab was brought to tears by the passbook officer, but through the anguish she encountered at the exhibit came a increased willingness to confront the sorts of issues related to the social ripples created during the Apartheid Era that still affect everyday life in South Africa today. As a poet who accompanied the museum staff and a large group of ex-residents on a remembrance walk throughout the bulldozed, undeveloped areas of District Six said in reference to dealing with the vestiges of Apartheid, “You can’t paint a rainbow on a monster”. Seeing the young students begin to understand why reversing the legacy of Apartheid was a task that would fall largely upon their shoulders was an extremely gratifying experience.

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I only have three weeks left on my trip but I’m still excited for the coming projects that we will be tackling at District Six. I can’t thank DukeEngage enough for giving me the opportunity to engage with living history in such a dynamic way. And I can’t thank District Six enough for opening their doors to Kerri and I and allowing us to take part in such varied projects and assignments that have not only deepened my understanding of South African history, but also broadened my mental framework in regard to global sociocultural issues. When I return, I will bring these experiences home with me and apply them to my own life, community engagement, and academic pursuit.

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.

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.

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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.

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.