How Much Patriotism is Too Much?

During our trip to Johannesburg, we had the opportunity to meet with Allister Sparks, a prominent journalist and author who has actively spoken out against apartheid throughout his career. Although many have contrasting views about him today (mainly that he is too conservative), many of his arguments bring to light interesting comparisons. The main thing I took away from our discussion was that the ideology and motivation behind apartheid are not unique to South Africa, but are present throughout the world. He discussed the similarities between the apartheid regime and other cases of institutionalized discrimination based on race. I found this argument to be unique because we often discuss apartheid as being a thing of the past, when examples of the same type of blatant racism are present in modern societies all over the world today. This made me realize how we tend to forget about current struggles for equality when discussing past issues, and how ironic and even harmful that can be.

One of the particularly striking comments Sparks made was that “Patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel.” Although this comment was clearly meant to make us think and trigger a controversial conversation, I do believe that it underlines a very important argument about the potential negative impact of excessive nationalistic sentiment. Intense national sentiment often emerges from hardship or oppression of a certain group or minority. This national sentiment can drive populations to then attempt to secure their power and position within society once they have overcome oppression. Many times they even end up reproducing behaviors that were inflicted upon them to be able to maintain a new position of superiority. The memories of past hardship become a motivator to assert their particular national identity. However, differing populations are therefore seen as a threat to this particular group. This leads to racism and oppression, which enables the group to maintain a higher position within society and ensure that they are not subject to the difficulties they faced in the past.

In South Africa, this narrative played out within the Afrikaner population. The Afrikaners felt that they needed to assert their national identity in the face of the English, who were imposing their authority in a land they had inhabited since the 1600s. This led to a series of violent conflicts that further reinforced Afrikaner national sentiment. Even though they were a minority, they were able to rise to power in 1948 in part thanks to this nationalism. The National Party (NP) then instated apartheid, which strengthened the position of Afrikaner culture against increased urbanization.

Another example Sparks used was that of Palestine. I think this example is particularly interesting in that many Americans are not used to hearing a different side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He hinted that the Israeli population could be seen as a previously persecuted group of people that was maintaining their position and national sentiment by oppressing the Palestinian minority.

Even though I am aware of the simplistic nature of this analysis, I do find this trend to be interesting and worth noting. Even though comparison is often a useful tool in arriving to a deeper understanding of an issue, the struggles of populations are still extremely complex. These comparisons have made me aware of the importance of history and of looking back to learn from the past.


One With the Locals

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future. – Nelson Mandela

It has only been a week since we left Joburg and landed in Cape Town, but I already feel like I have a daily routine. Everyday I wake up and go to work at the District Six Museum. I come back home and then I have to pick up Justin from the bus stop so we can go to the gym, where I can count on seeing a few familiar faces. Sometimes we’ll finish off the night with a group dinner, and then I’ll then occasionally sneak off by myself and watch a World Cup game or two. But my favorite part of the day is walking up and down Long Street. Everyday I say what’s up to my friend at YoursTruly and then I give the guy outside of Rafiki’s the occasional head nod. It’s crazy how in only a week I have been able to feel at home here.

One of the great things about the people here is their sense of unity and kindness. Despite the fact that there are still many race and gender issues in the country, it almost seems as if acceptance and kindness have been engrained in the new generation. I first took notice of this back in Joburg when we visited the Albert Street School, which is home to many Zimbabwe refugees. The school manages to produce some of the most successful students in the country despite poor funding, underpaid teachers, and faulty electricity. Due to these conditions, the school is on the verge of shutting down. However, the school staff stays committed and the students continue to excel. When we visited, I was in a group that had a discussion with the 9th grade class. At first, I thought the kids wouldn’t be responsive in our discussion, but instead they were engaged. They were just as, if not more excited to see us than we were to see them. Talking to the kids, I felt that they had a consciousness of their own country’s political and social issues. They were actively paying attention to the news, and had genuine concerns about their future. It was amazing to have an enriching experience with the youth at the Albert Street School. The same can’t be said for Justin and me at the daycare, but that’s a story for a different time.

One of my best friends from Duke, Uzo, is from Cape Town. He told a few of his childhood friends to meet up with me once I made it to the city. I didn’t know what to expect from them, but we hit it off the second we met each other. Talking to them, I feel like I am hanging out with people who I have known for a long time. It’s cool to have that kind of friendship across borders. One of the best parts of my relationship with them is the insight about the country I get from them. I get a different perspective then the typical DukeEngage experience. The same cognizance of the world that I sensed in the Albert Street School is the same cognizance my friends in Cape Town have. They have a truly global view on life. Being from the US, we have a mentality of only thinking about ourselves, but talking to these kids have opened my eyes to think beyond the US, but globally. It’s more than a matter of pride, but rather of perception. I thank these kids for making me think issues in new ways.

I still have six weeks left here, and I expect to grow not only as a person but to learn more about our differences and similarities. So as I continue to grow an addiction to Malva pudding, I will continue to learn more about South Africa, the United States, and myself.

P.S Shoutout to Bill on his last week! We’re gonna miss you buddy!

Back to the Starting Point

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

My Duke Engage experience has taught me just as much about the United States as it has about South Africa. I am only two weeks into my Duke Engage experience, and yet I feel as if I have already gained a valuable and comprehensive comparative education. The similarities between the U.S. civil rights movement and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement are striking. Moreover, inequality within South Africa has caused me to reflect upon the rampant and growing inequality within the United States (South Africa is currently the most unequal country in the world, and is reportedly more unequal now than it was at the end of apartheid).

I’ve found it incredibly refreshing how open and honest South Africans are with the less savory aspects of their past as compared to Americans. The palpable and unavoidable remnants of racism in South African society have helped me to more fully understand the complex nature of discrimination and prejudice present in the United States. Learning about apartheid in South Africa has helped me to realize that racism is still very present within the U.S., even if we attempt to conceal our history with layer upon layer of political correctness. Of course, it is important to consider the different logistical challenges each nation faces when confronting its history. In South Africa the formerly marginalized black population composes the vast majority of the country’s population, whereas in the United States African Americans remain a small minority. Pretending racism doesn’t exist is thus much easier in the United States due to the country’s racial composition; since blacks aren’t as prevalent within U.S. society it is easier to ignore the horrors white Americans put them through.

As I contemplate U.S. segregation and apartheid, I nervously wonder what today’s societal injustice might be. Just as I am incredulous of all the people who did not view and treat Blacks as human beings, I fear that one day people will be equally perturbed by my own generation over some terrible human rights violation. We were fortunate enough to meet with the prominent South African journalist Allister Sparks who reminded us that racial segregation is still taking place in the United States, as well as all over the world. Sparks equated our restrictive immigration policies and heavily fortified Mexican border to Apartheid, through which we are keeping colored people out of our affluent, primarily white society.
Ultimately, South Africa’s constitutional “right to dignity” is something we could use in the United States. While there are still terrible human rights violations taking place within South Africa (note the recent Marikana mine workers massacre), at least the constitution recognizes the importance of protecting human self-worth. One of the greatest problems with inequality is that the lives of the lower class are often regarded as cheap and replaceable, something I’ve witnessed not just in South Africa but also in the United States.

But it’s part of their culture…

Every time I travel, I’m struck by how judgmental I am. Why are those children playing unattended on that busy street corner- how dangerous. Why are those men drunk by noon – how irresponsible. Why must those women cover their heads – how hot.

It comes down to different circumstances, different socioeconomic factors, different social norms. I know – there’s different religious practices, family dynamics, employment rates, day-to-day expectations, but I find myself clumping these factors, squishing these reasons, under the blanket phrase:

“It’s their culture.”

With that, I feel small-minded, intolerant, ignorant – in a word:  American, for my quick judgment. Trying to distance myself from the unabashed western-centric perspective that has saturated my upbringing and slanted my coursework, I take a step back. I not only try to understand and accept the difference but I find myself becoming protective. I trumpet a solid defense of each person’s right to carry on their own traditions, employ their own judgments, and rely on their own values and rules-of-thumb.

Yet, upon further reflection I begin to wonder: is this an explanation or more of a simplistic excuse? When does infringing upon a cultural practice become a moral imposition and when does failing to do so become a human rights violation?

With this question in mind, I think first of the virginity tests that continue to surge in popularity as a part of the Zulu culture and then the more brutal example of genital mutilation. Beyond these extremes stand tamer shades of grey, however, such as, polygamy. The current South African President, Jacob Zuma, currently has four wives. He holds himself as a proud polygamist following a Zulu tradition.

Thus, the line blurs between right and wrong. On the one hand, illegalizing polygamy stands as an act of moral imposition that disregarding the right to preserve one’s culture. On the other, polygamy contravenes a women’s right to equality. The tried-and-true mantra respect all cultures therefore warrants the question- at what cost.

Ultimately, the values of cultural awareness and sensitivity hold merit, yet they imply a state of coexistence that, to me, rests upon a false sense of space between cultures and distance between people

Although passively respecting cultural differences and taking a “live and let live approach” sounds ideal, a passive cultural sensitivity must give way to an active cultural responsiveness.

Engaging with another culture in a manner that goes beyond simply recognizing differences involves not blind acceptance but nitty-gritty “bargaining”. This term speaks to the back and forth of a negotiation where each side has both something to gain and something to lose. It aptly suggests an environment of tension, yes, but also the potential that both parties will walk away better off.

To view cultural encounters as bargains indicates that although cultures are likely to clash, it does not necessarily have to be a violent collision. If it involves some give and take rather than one culture dominating another, it can be a beneficial compromise and coming together.

Placing another culture in conversation with your own involves both looking inward and outward. To learn about another culture demands that you reevaluating our own. Yet, when should we judge people by our own values and standards and when should we place our judgments aside? For example, in a medical context, seeing that we believe in and value Western medicine, would offering subpar treatment out of a need to respect the culture of another be disrespecting our own?

How do we respect cultural differences while avoiding an “anything goes” attitude? While we must recognize that what is considered right and wrong is culture-specific, we must also avoid unconditional support for all opinions and life choices. Ultimately, to fight the assumption that our perspective is the perspective, we must stand at cultural points of tangency not with relativism, but with humility.

Dear Madiba,

On our way from the airport to our bed and breakfast in Johannesburg, I couldn’t help but notice all of the political propaganda on the streets. One poster in particular caught my eye. It was from the South African Communist Party (SACP) and read in big bold letters “Vote for the SACP, Do it for Madiba.”

We had arrived in South Africa right after the nation’s 4th democratic presidential elections, where a significant majority had reelected president Zuma. In a country filled with corruption and incompetent leadership, the image of Nelson Mandela on a streetlight was just a reminder of the rainbow nation all South Africans still dreamed of.

Before I came to South Africa I always wondered what made this man so special. Weren’t there other important political leaders who were imprisoned for almost 30 years with him in Robben Island? Wasn’t he one of the strongest advocates for a guerrilla approach to the anti-apartheid movement? From Bono to former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the world could not get enough of Nelson Mandela or as the South African people so affectionately call him, Madiba.

The cult of personality surrounding him always made me question his role as the face of the anti-apartheid movement. The poster only made me question it further. He had passed away last year and yet here was the SACP using (or rather, exploiting?) Madiba’s image.

It was not until I visited the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg that I finally understood the significance of Mandela in the movement. The videos, photographs and quotes made his story come to life again. There was one quote in particular that stuck with me. In an extract from his memoirs, he wrote from his prison in Robben Island: “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity.”

His time in prison had served him to reflect on the direction of the movement and his own life. He came out of prison without feeling any resentment towards those who had taken away almost twenty-seven years of his life (more than my entire lifetime!) and was willing to negotiate with them. Only a great man like him could leave behind the past to focus on the big picture and what actually mattered for South Africa. It was clear to him that they were not fighting for black South Africans, they were fighting against black and white dominance and for the unity of the country.

It was not until I came to South Africa that I completely understood the importance of Madiba not only in his country but also in the world. As a student of public policy, I am still trying to find my own way of making an impact in my country and, as naïve as it may sound, in the world. Mandela’s commitment to his principles and his willingness to give up so much of himself for his people are lessons that I will forever take with me.

Thank you, Madiba!

Greetings from Cape Town!

It is hard to know where to begin. I’ve only been a guest in this beautiful and complicated country for two weeks but I feel as though I’ve already absorbed a lifetime of South African political and social history. And I’ve only just scratched the surface. Thanks to our richly filled program itinerary, our DukeEngage group has had the rare opportunity to discuss apartheid history and its implications for the New South Africa with legends such as Allister Sparks, Dennis Goldberg, and Paul Verryn. Their insight and reflections have brought the apartheid era to life in a way that no textbook ever could.

For me, this has been the most valuable part of my DukeEngage experience so far— how deeply we have explored the history of the so-called Rainbow Nation in order to understand its current realities. We spent our first week in Johannesburg, a bustling commercial city in the heart of South Africa. Joberg is where our intensive history lessons began, as we bustled around the city by bus, traveling to national monuments, museums, and World Heritage sites galore. I am extremely grateful for how diverse our itinerary has been – it has allowed us to see South Africa through many different historical lenses. In a country with 11 official languages, and numerous ethnic groups, a comprehensive approach to understanding its complex story is vital.

Our visit to the township of Soweto enlightened us all about the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976 (now a national holiday) that attracted considerable international attention and set the stage for apartheid’s ultimate demise. The Soweto uprising was a reactionary protest against the Afrikaner government’s mandate that Afrikaans be the new language of instruction in the Bantu schools. Most black African students did not speak Afrikaans and some refused to learn in the language of their oppressors, consequently organizing a massive youth protest against the policy. The South African Police Force exploded in opposition, killing dozens of children and reinforcing the theme of unnecessary police violence in South Africa that continues to make headlines today, as we have seen most recently through the Marikana miners’ massacre of 2012.


 Soweto Uprising

         We also spent time exploring the Afrikaner historical experience, taking a trip to the Voortrekker Monument. While most of Afrikaner history is marked by violent discrimination against nonwhites, the Voortrekker Monument tells a different story. On the site, our tour guide focused on the 19th century, explaining how many Afrikaners of the time, in reaction to what they considered English oppression, traveled north by ox-pulled wagons in a mass exodus known as the Great Trek. This event is essential to Afrikaner history and helped me see how this strong sense of Afrikaner solidarity transformed into the extreme ethnic nationalism that eventually came to dominate the South African government via the National Party in 1948.


 The Voortrekker Monument

             One of my favorite learning experiences so far has been our visit to the Albert St. School. This amazing school located in downtown Joberg boasts a final exam pass rate leagues ahead of the national average, despite its pitiful budget (the electricity has been shut off for weeks now and the students have been studying in the dark). We all visited different classrooms for about an hour and exchange cultural dialogue with the students there, many of whom are Zimbabwean refugees. (Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe has been wreaking political and military havoc on his own country for the past thirty-five years, with destructive results for ordinary Zimbabweans). Charlotte, Tunde and I visited a ninth-grade classroom and were met by an extremely intelligent group of students who were eager to discuss everything from American popular culture to South African politics. I was particularly amazed by how politically informed and vocal everyone was— most people in the classroom had very strong opinions about the current South African president Jacob Zuma (a leader with a special talent for attracting scandal) and were able to eloquently articulate their beliefs about his policy agenda (or lack thereof) through a stimulating debate. In the midst of a horrendously inadequate national education system, the Albert St School stands out as a beacon of hope, producing inspirational students who cherish beautiful ambitions. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” a statement the students at Albert St School are taking to heart.

As I begin my internship at the District Six Musuem in Cape Town, I am beyond grateful for the experiences I have already had here in South Africa. The lessons I have already learned have prepared me immensely to process my time here with a greater sense of acknowledgement, sensitivity, and respect for how the country’s complex history has shaped the nation into the South Africa I see today.

“You come here not to know more, but to feel more.” –Peter Storey

Prior to coming to South Africa, my group had bimonthly meetings to learn the basics about apartheid and current politics in South Africa. I watched documentaries on my own time and was keeping up with local South African newspapers to prepare myself for the trip. I was looking forward to the first week of the trip, where we’d be visiting various museums, monuments, and speaking with anti-apartheid activists; I wanted to learn even more about the community before starting my internship. And I did. I learned more about the specifics of apartheid, and even more importantly, I learned how complicated and intricate the political system was in South Africa just 20 years ago. After a handful of these structured visits to various sites, I felt as though I knew more about the political and social systems in South Africa and that my newfound knowledge base would allow me to best serve the community.

Then we visited Albert Street School – a school with mostly Zimbabwean refugees who leave their families, friends, and homes at the early age of 12 to seek brighter futures. We walked into the dim-lit building, as the school could not afford to pay their electricity bill. As we walked up the stairs, children of all ages dressed in their uniforms were smiling around us. I spoke with a classroom of high school seniors. They loved hearing all about the US, our colleges and our goals. Then we started asking them about their goals and their thoughts on attending university. They explained that after high school, most students from that school end up on the streets even though they have a 100% pass rate for the end-of-high-school exam. When we asked why, their response did not surprise us; we already knew that they were of no means to afford going to expensive universities. We knew that the majority of children living in townships do not go on to higher education. However, never before did I feel students’ strong desire to succeed coupled with the helplessness of the realities in which they live. Remember how stressful it was to apply to college? Now imagine how near impossible it would be if you did not have the financial resources and counselors, teachers, peers, and family to support you. There was a suffocating feeling of discouragement trapped within the walls of the school.


Albert Street School

It was hard to ignore the fact that boys overpowered the senior classroom we visited; the ratio of boys to girls was about 5 to 1. We asked why this was the case. One of the girls timidly shared that most of the girls dropped out of school because they got pregnant and cannot finish, while the fathers of their babies can still attend school. Before the trip I knew that a good portion of girls drop out of high school because they get pregnant. But I never before felt the effect that this has on women empowerment in the schools. I never felt the shame that the remaining girls had for their peers who did not finish school. I never felt the disheartenment that girls feel to reach their goals.

This is just one example from one day of the trip so far that made me realize how important it is to feel for the community you’re trying to help, instead of just knowing about them. When you learn about problems in a completely unique community on your Macbook Pro from your fully furnished home, you get the sense that you know what is best for them, you know how to help. It is only when you live in the community, when you talk to people living there, when you begin to feel for them that you understand the intricacies of the problems that they face every single day.

I have no clue how to help this community and frankly I don’t think that I’m qualified in any way to know how to help them. But I do feel for them, and I think feeling is the first step in working towards a better future.

How you Frame the Narrative

It was very fitting that our summer in South Africa began in Johannesburg—a city rich with history. Exploring sites such as the Apartheid Museum and the Liliesleaf farm not only provided context for the social climate of this country, but also showed me that the present is shaped by the manner in which the stories of the past are told. Immediately, I noticed a stark contrast in the portrayals of the equality struggles in South Africa and the United States.

My siblings and I comprise the first generation of black Americans in my family (this is a topic for an entirely different post). Growing up in Atlanta, my mother made it a priority to expose us to the history in our city. During breaks, she would take us to visit the iconic exhibits of the American Civil Rights struggle such as the Martin Luther King Jr. museum, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and various exhibits on Auburn Avenue. These experiences, coupled with the short break from white man’s history that every American grade school student receives each February, gave me a very basic and somewhat flawed understanding of how blacks in America got to where they are. I understood that blacks struggled more or less alone, with the occasional white supporter who stood on the sidelines. The two non-black figures I associated with the Civil Rights struggle were not even involved in it. Gandhi provided Dr. King with an example of civil disobedience, and due to political pressure, John F. Kennedy first gave attention to the movement six months prior to his assassination. The American Civil Rights struggle is often portrayed and perceived very simplistically—a black struggle against whites.

Nowhere in Johannesburg did I see this simplistic narrative. Segregation was in place before the Afrikaner Nationalist Party enacted apartheid legislation, and while most whites were complacent, some whites were very disgruntled and knew exactly what was occurring. This minority of whites, coloureds, and Asians, was vital in the success of the anti-apartheid movement, and the majority black South African society acknowledges and greatly appreciates their involvement as both leaders and participants in the movement.

The Liliesleaf museum sits on a farm where blacks, whites, and coloureds met in secret to discuss the armed division of the African National Congress as a means of combatting apartheid in the early 1960s. The conspirators were found and arrested in July 1963, and later brought to the landmark Rivonia trial where they were sentenced for life. The image below shows the accused:


A copy of a combo picture showing the accused in the Rivonia trial, on display at the Maybuye Center in Cape Town. From left to right on the top row are Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Gowan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba and on the bottom row are Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg.

Also at the Liliesleaf museum are tributes to George Bizos, who is of Greek origin, and the late Bram Fischer, an Afrikaner. These men were the defense lawyers for the accused at the Rivonia trial.

“Bram was a courageous man who followed the most difficult course any person could choose to follow. He challenged his own people because he felt that what they were doing was morally wrong. As an Afrikaner whose conscience forced him to reject his own heritage and be ostracised by his own people, he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself. I fought only against injustice not against my own people.”

–Nelson Mandela

Instead of burying their stories, the South African anti-apartheid struggle highlights individuals who gave up just about everything they knew to fight against pressing injustice. To me, that is noble. Furthermore, in no way does this undermine the everyday struggle of the black South African under apartheid!

As these thoughts fascinated me, I took the liberty to ask our American history scholar/great mentor/oracle-on-site, Bill Chafe (Google him, he’s incredible), why does our struggle look so different? Why does nobody know about the contributions of individuals like Ralph McGill, or William Lewis Moore?

Very simply put, blacks in the Civil Rights movement were angered that in spite of all the violence perpetrated against them, it took the death of a white minister named James Reeb to draw national attention to the voting rights struggle. “The killing of a white minister who had traveled to the South to advocate for equality was unpalatable to a large portion of the white citizenry.” It was after this event that Lyndon B. Johnson gained the political support to advocate for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and it was subsequently passed in 1965. This is largely the reason why our Civil Rights history looks the way it does. American society couldn’t find a way to highlight the contributions of others without undermining the efforts of blacks, so we ignore the white martyrs for equality. (Similarly today, the death of whites due to gun violence is still more salient in the media than so called black-on-black violence, and of course, white on black violence has racial undertones, so the media can capitalize on that too).

Now, it is true that racism still exists in South Africa just like it still exists in America. My boss, Simon, refers to this new age racism as “liberal racism,” in which an individual doesn’t actively acknowledge his prejudice but still has racially motivated tendencies/holds stereotypical beliefs that influence his world view, and I think we’re all guilty of this to a certain extent. However, I will provide an example that I find to be absolutely despicable.

Last week, I was privileged to meet Denis Goldberg, one of the eight accused at the Rivonia trial. He invited us to his home, and spoke to us at length about his experiences fighting against apartheid. As a white man, he had to gain the trust of others in the movement, which took time. He told us that despite strong African nationalism from some, early on, blacks recognized that “you couldn’t reconcile Africa for the Africans alone with equality,” allowing him to feel that he had a place in this movement. He was crucial in organizing meetings in select locations in which people of different races could come together, and worked closely with Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu on strategy for ANC objectives. He spent 22 years in prison on Robben Island with the hope that South Africa would one day be equal for all. This man is nothing short of a historical icon.

Denis Goldberg, 81. Top row, fourth from the left



He was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Michigan, State University, but the department later called him to cancel when they discovered he was white.

In America, yes, we have a society in which people clutch their purses when they walk by a black man on the street. Yes, there is still a lot of white privilege. These are issues, but at least we talk about these issues.

The blatant ignorance that caused Michigan State to reject an experience that would have changed students’ lives is a result of our present racial problems due to how we have characterized our past. We have a society in which many blacks are taught early on not to trust white people simply because they are white, and capable of exploiting them. We have a society in which white people are still apologizing for mistakes made by their forefathers—and it’s never good enough. We have a society in which many white people are out of touch with their own family cultures, and are so uncomfortable talking about issues of race that they have to preface all their questions with “not to be racist, but…” You wouldn’t like to know how many times kids have asked me if it’s ok to call me black! I’m black! That’s a fact! These are real problems and nobody talks about them!

One of the most powerful quotes I’ve heard about Mandela that truly showed me what a visionary he was came from a video in an exhibit at the Apartheid Museum.

“[For him] the struggle was not just about liberating black people into freedom, but about liberating white people from fear.”

Mandela evidenced this by coming onto the field at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in which the all-white South African team was playing for a majority white crowd. This was a powerful symbol that allowed many whites to realize this newly unified democracy could succeed.

In my lifetime, I have met white people who were SO SCARED to cross the line and offend me. When this happens they create this distance, and only ask questions up to a certain level of depth. I can always tell when this is occurring. This offends me. Why? Because this discomfort due to my “difference” makes me think that you don’t validate me as an equal. If you felt like I was your equal, or your friend, you would approach me with your questions, even if they may be hard or potentially offensive.

One of my best friends at Duke is a rather conservative, young Southern gentleman from Memphis. We have different perspectives on racial issues, but we talk about them genuinely and respectfully. I love it when he asks me difficult questions, and I appreciate that he doesn’t try to tiptoe around them. We share fascinating dialogue and we learn from each other. My interactions with him give me hope for a future America, in which we can come to grips with our real past, and speak more openly about social problems with people who come from different viewpoints.

While South Africa is only twenty years post-apartheid, in terms of race relations, they are not very far behind us. Saying ‘apartheid’ in a restaurant will draw stares, but this society seems to be much better at embracing its past; “white guilt” doesn’t seem to contaminate interracial interactions. We can learn a lot from the South African example.

Are we making a difference?

“Give me the foolishness to believe that I can make a difference in the world”

          I can’t remember the exact quote, but when I went to the Methodist Church last Sunday, the ending prayer contained a phrase similar to that. I’m starting with this quote because it is how I have ended up feeling the last few days when I go to bed. Even with the frustration with the world and with humanity in general, that one understandably feels when there are so many awful things happening in the world, I believe we can do something positive and constructive.

          I’ve thought about what I would want to write for this post, and we have been through so much in the last two weeks that I didn’t know where to start. One of the things that has struck me the most during this trip though, is how willing everyone around me is to talk about what we are experiencing, to have in depth conversations about the history we are learning and about how it is affecting South Africa currently. This is one of the places that I think that all of us can make a difference.

          The past week in Johannesburg was an incredible, extremely packed week, filled with information that made me feel that I could serve the community that we are working in, in a much better way. Arriving in Cape Town with this awareness of where we are, makes the trip that much more meaningful. We visited Freedom Park, which is a way of celebrating South Africa ’s past and learned about this memorial for South Africans who have died in war and fighting the Apartheid. There, ideas of nation building, reconciliation and remembrance were brought up. Not only did we visit museums and monuments, but we talked to people who are South African and who have lived through Apartheid. We spent various afternoons and evenings talking to people who all care tremendously about their country, yet have different opinions about its current state, such as Dr. Noor Nieftagodien from Witswatersand University and the journalist Allister Sparks.

          Every time I came out of our meetings, I felt inspired and motivated. I found it fascinating to see how their individual stories and pasts had big influences on what they thought of the future of South Africa. One of my favorite questions was what could be done about the poverty gap, and answers varied. For example, Allister Sparks sees education as the answer to this growing problem, while Paul Verryn believes that everyone needs to be seen as human beings. We spent time together learning about what the freedom fighters went through for an equal society. We have had multiple in depth studies and discussions on the horrifying Marikana massacre, watching a documentary before it was released and asking all of our speakers to discuss their takes on the situation. This massacre has really struck me, and watching the movie and writing about it, I had a really hard time understanding why it happened. More than that however, I have a hard time understanding how there are people in the government who continue to defend themselves and the police, without seeing the horrifying conditions that the miners are going through to have higher wages. There are groups that have been on strike for 6 months, and I’ve been told that there is no way for them to recover from the financial burden that this is putting them through. These miners are fighting for the dignity to be treated as humans, and it is disheartening to see them treated as animals.

          However, the most valuable aspect to this was the time spent processing and discussing this information with the group, and that to me makes me feel like not only I, but everyone in our group, can make a difference. We can make a difference by engaging with each other and talking about what is happening in the world we live in. We can go home and talk to our friends, family and peers about issues such as race, socio-economic status and basic human rights. We can use what we learn to question our own microcosm. Maybe this is a foolish viewpoint, but I believe strongly that knowledge can shape the world in a better way.


An Education

Several days ago, we visited a Zimbabwean refugee school on Albert Street in Johannesburg. Our group of eleven broke off into smaller groups of three, each of which engaged with a different classroom of high school-aged students. We had been told on the car ride there that whether we would able to establish a rapport with the students was unpredictable: each year, it depended on the group and the classroom in question. And so, I began our visit with a great deal of excitement and some apprehension.

The students astounded me. Yes, there were some silly moments—one kid wanted to know if people in China ate every kind of meat—and there was a brief but lively discussion about dating. Yet much of the conversation rotated around serious political and social issues. They asked about the U.S. response to the Nigerian kidnapping crisis, crime and homelessness in America, and how American people felt about the first black president. It was evident from their questions that they were well-read, well-informed, and highly inquisitive by the standards of any country.

As we left, we were approached by a student in the senior class who was looking at schools. Rachel and I urged him to come to Duke. We told him that if he were to be accepted, Duke would cover all financial costs. Later, we discovered that each year, Duke provides only around twenty to thirty scholarships to international students, the majority of which are merit awards. Even if he were to qualify, he would have to go through a wildly complicated application process.

It saddens me to think there are brilliant students all over the world who are deprived of an education simply because of the circumstances to which they were born. Duke is one of the great bastions of scholarship because it has opened its arms to American students of all races, classes, and backgrounds. It is our diversity of experience and thought that makes us extraordinary. Understandably, as an American institution, Duke must put the interests of American students first. I cannot imagine, however, that more cannot be done for the Albert Street School students, who by all rights should be the doctors, lawyers, and engineers of this world.