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.
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.