Farewell, Cape Town

If you asked me whether I learned any life-changing skills or lessons during my DukeEngage experience, my first instinct would be to say no. My internship this summer did not teach me how to analyze data, conduct research, or perform technical skills. My volunteer work at my NGO didn’t change lives in concrete or moving ways. But if you asked me whether or not I am the same person as I was at the beginning of the summer, my answer would also be no.

Even though I have very little to show from the work I did at the District Six Museum, I believe that my DukeEngage summer gave me so much more than the typical summer internship experience. I learned extensively and deeply about the history, politics, and problems of South Africa not only through books, museums, and the wisdom of my on-site professors, but also through tangible figures who helped change the course of history through their courageous efforts. This intensive knowledge background prepared me tremendously for the remainder of my time here and was vital to my current understanding of South Africa and its people.

The other lessons I learned were a product of my experiences at the District Six Museum and from living day-to-day life in Cape Town. Navigating cultural differences such as working styles and communication expectations was often challenging and revealed the more unglamorous angle of cultural exchange. My obsession with planning was often brushed to the side, as unpredictable circumstances forced me to be flexible under pressure. As much of my work at the museum involved organizing and facilitating workshops for large groups of children interested in human rights, I was also able to walk in the shoes of a teacher. These moments compelled me to be patient and understand the value of compromise. They also convinced me that being an educator is quite possibly the most difficult and simultaneously crucial jobs on earth.

Compromise and patience proved to be equally important outside of my internship. Living in close quarters with ten other Duke students was like living college life under a microscope. I did not know a single person in the group before this trip and was intensely nervous about how we would all get along, considering we spent every waking minute together. Although we often engaged socially with local South Africans, the vast majority of our time was spent with each other. This made cooperation and a positive group dynamic essential to the experience overall. I am beyond grateful for the group I spent the summer with because we all learned how to appreciate compromise and the value of making decisions that benefited the group as a whole. I will be leaving Cape Town with some true friends.

As for whether I made a difference here? That is the toughest question to answer. Sometimes I found my efforts at work futile—often the children we worked with were difficult to manage and made actual knowledge transmission and intellectual discussion challenging. The office work that we did at the museum wasn’t exactly inspirational. However, in small ways I think my colleagues and I did have impact. Through our Night at the Museum event we provided a safe space for primary school children to learn about human rights and conflict. Even though they were running around the building and squealing half the time, the simple presence of eleven American group facilitators was valuable for their cultural engagement. (I cannot thank my DukeEngage group enough for spending their last weekend in South Africa sleeping on the floor of the District Six Museum with thirty tireless children.) This relationship alone exposed both the participants and the Duke facilitators to myriad new ideas about the world they live in. Beyond Night at the Museum, “Making a difference” was not, however, by any means the focus of this experience. Instead, my DukeEngage summer allowed me to absorb knowledge and forge relationships in ways that would never be possible on Duke’s campus. What I have learned here in Cape Town has excited me about the challenges facing modern South Africa and has primed me to recognize similar issues that are equally present but not necessarily as obvious back home. Although I absolutely did not change the world this summer, living and working in a different part of the world definitely changed me.


Cape Town Reflections

Something that continues to be a prevalent topic of conversation here in Cape Town is the enormous wealth gap that exists within South African society. The country is one of the most unequal places in the world with the fabulously wealthy living alongside (albeit behind fences) the penniless. During our time here we have met some of the most influential people of modern South African history, many of who have graciously invited us into their homes for tea and discussion. Visiting these lavish South African homes, as well as staying in Tamboerskloof (a very safe, quiet, and wealthy neighborhood in Cape Town) has provided stark contrast to the scenes I see elsewhere in the city. Every day walking to and from work, I am approached or called to by people on the street who are either trying to sell me some trinket they made or who are purely begging for their next meal. These people represent the most desperate group of South African society: despite their constant pleas, hardly anyone ever pays attention to them beyond the cursory glance. Occasionally someone with loose change will shrug off the intensity of a stare of starvation by giving away a few coins. Most however, including me, simply walk on by. To be honest, I rarely feel guilty for not giving money directly to these people. Besides the obvious safety concern of engaging with strangers, I have no way of knowing whether my attempt at benevolence is paying for a hot meal, or enabling a drug addiction. I prefer contributing to communities in more sustainable ways. Or so I tell myself. Sometimes I wonder if this logic is just a guise designed to absolve myself of responsibility for other people’s welfare.

To provide an example that reflects my shaky morals, I will tell a story. Last week I was walking home from work with Patty when we were approached by a very frazzled man who asked us if we knew where the nearest tourism booth was. Neither of us had any idea, so we shook our heads, apologized and continued walking. Apparently though, we were his last hope, because this man matched our stride and seemed close to tears as he frantically explained to us that he was visiting South Africa and had locked his keys and valuables inside his rental car, which was parked outside the District Six Museum. We continued walking as he told us his plight, but we were very unclear why he needed a tourism booth if his keys were locked in his car and he wanted to get back to his hotel. At first we advised him to talk to the police to begin resolving his issue, but he wasn’t really listening and kept on desperately rambling about his problem. By the time we reached the main road, he had reached the edge of his patience. He stopped walking with Patty and me and seemed to begin having a meltdown on the sidewalk. Patty and I grudgingly stopped as well and contemplated how we could help him. It was very disconcerting to see this well-dressed, well-spoken grown man look so helpless.

Finally, we decided to see if we could help him. I returned to his tantrum spot and tried to get him to calm down. I asked him to rephrase his dilemma a little more slowly, which allowed me to understand that he needed to get back to his hotel in order to make a phone call to get his car unlocked, but his phone was locked in the car, which was itself rendered unusable because the keys were also locked in. He couldn’t pay for a cab home because of course his wallet was also locked in the car. At this point, I realized that I could turn around this man’s entire day with one simple action. I chose to pay for his cab ride back to his hotel. After giving him the money I was proclaimed “a true angel” and was promised that my money would be returned to me in an envelope at the desk of the District Six Museum the next day. The expression of gratefulness and relief that washed over this man’s face convinced me that my intervention was worth it.

After this little hiccup in our daily walk home from work, Patty and I continued on our way. Not two minutes later, we were approached by two street children who began to persistently clamor for some coins. Automatically, I shook my head and sorrowfully told them I didn’t have any money. This wasn’t true—I had plenty of money in my backpack; I had just given a considerable portion of it to help someone else in need. Clearly, however, my sense of altruistic obligation only extended to those deemed worthy of my attention. What made this man any different than the two children? Was it his clothes? His accent? The reassurance that we could relate to each other on a class level more than I could with the children? Immediately after the children scurried off to their next prospect, I felt a twinge of shame. What gave me the right to decide who deserved help? I am still struggling to answer this question.

Investing in the Future of Tomorrow

South Africa has made tremendous progress since the turmoil of the apartheid era. Politically, socially, and economically the country has lifted itself from the depths of South African society’s dark ages and has been reintroduced as an acceptable member of the international community. The conversations I’ve had with many South Africans during my time here that trumpet the importance of racial and cultural diversity have tempted me to dismiss apartheid as an ancient relic of the past. The lingering consequences of apartheid however, continue to dominate the realm of education. Upper and middle class white children predominately populate the country’s private schools along with a few “coloured” and black children in an attempt to escape the inadequacy of South Africa’s public schools. The virtual absence of a lower class white population in South Africa renders the country’s public schools overwhelmingly populated by black children, almost perfectly mirroring the system of separateness that was nationally institutionalized only twenty years ago. Such residual reminders of a history tarnished by racial segregation and discrimination prompt us to remember that apartheid wasn’t so long ago after all.

Through my internship at the District Six Museum, I have seen firsthand how poor education affects the intellectual enthusiasm of the students here. Currently, my fellow interns and I are planning an educational sleepover at the museum for primary school children in Grade 7 called “Night at the Museum.” We hope to foster rich discussion surrounding the topics of human rights and diversity through various workshops, and have been personally delivering invitations for the event to most of the schools in the District Six area, all of which are public. Through these many visits I have noticed that all of these schools are overcrowded and that teachers are forced to prioritize maintaining order in favor of providing individual attention. While most students here recognize the value of a good education, it seems that few are able to achieve it through the current system. Although matriculation rates are deceivingly high in South Africa, averaging a high school graduation rate of 70%, underlying issues jeopardize the futures of these graduates and their chances of success. Soaring teen pregnancy rates and corruption or incompetence among teachers threaten to lead the country’s youth to ruin, as inadequate education contributes to the staggering unemployment rate of 25% in South Africa.

When I showed up to work last week to assist with “ConCamp” (a 4 day constitutional law camp at the museum for gifted high school students), I must admit I did not have high hopes for the participants. Most of the public school Cape Townian students I had had worked with up until that point did not have a strong grasp of basic knowledge taught in school. The first day of ConCamp validated my pessimism, as many of the students participating in activities centered around apartheid hardly knew anything about the brutality and injustice of the history that their own parents experienced. I was disappointed, but not surprised. As the week progressed, however, I noticed profound progress with the students’ interest in law and South African history. On Monday, few of them were comfortable speaking in front of the large group facing them to present their analysis of the daily activity or discussion. Many experienced typical stage fright, but a language barrier elevated others’ anxiety. While ConCamp was conducted entirely in English, many of these students spoke either Xhosa or Afrikaans at home and were less comfortable communicating in English, especially in front of an audience. Most of these students were thankfully able to overcome their nervousness through the incredible human resources that ConCamp offers. First, were the facilitators of the camp, who were all law students from either the University of Cape Town or Stellenbosch University. Each of them was volunteering for ConCamp through a volunteer organization partnered with their universities called CLASI (Constitutional Literacy And Service Initiative), a constitutional literacy program for high school students. These law students were instrumental in providing individual attention to small groups of students to facilitate discussion and prompting them to share their thoughts in a controlled and respectful environment. I noticed that throughout the week more and more students became comfortable participating as a result of this atmosphere of intimacy and mutual respect.

Leni, a law school facilitator helps two ConCamp participants prepare their final argument

Leni, a law school facilitator helps two ConCamp participants prepare their final argument

Another major impact on the students was Mandy. Mandy is our boss at the District Six Museum and is the head of the education department here. As a former teacher in a township of Cape Town, she has extensive experience working with children and truly has a gift for commanding respect, connecting with youth, and compelling them to think and reflect about the ideas she introduces. After the first day, Mandy made an announcement to ConCamp that really struck me. She reiterated that there was a high level of linguistic diversity among the student participants, and thus a wide range of English fluency. She stressed that no one should be made to feel inadequate because they could not articulate their thoughts in English when under pressure, as in a moot court setting. Instead, she suggested that whenever someone was at a loss for words, they should articulate what they are trying to say in their native language, which would then be translated into English. She wanted everyone to understand that our differences make us beautiful and that everyone had the ability to rise to the occasion for the moot court regardless of their first language.

By the end of the week teams of two students were each preparing arguments centered on youth and education for the culmination of the ConCamp experience. The law students taught them legal jargon, proper moot court protocol, and research techniques about the case at hand. Even though ConCamp ended at 3:30 every day, I noticed that on Wednesday most of the students decided to stay in the museum past dismissal so that their team could deliver the best argument possible. On Thursday, the students presented their arguments. Many were flustered and stuttered their way through, but I was blown away by how dedicated they were in convincing the court that their argument was right. These students used each other to navigate the nerve-wracking tension of standing in front of a moot court, consulting with one another whenever one of them were lost for words. I couldn’t believe how drastically these students’ attitudes and confidence had transformed in less than a week. They had channeled their nervous energy and disorganization from the beginning of the week into focused dedication that carried them through the objectives of ConCamp and made them excited about learning more about South African history.

A ConCamp daily discussion

A ConCamp daily discussion

After the moot court was over, all of the students received a certificate and two teams won the overall competition. Many of the students stood up after the certificate ceremony to express how grateful they were to participate in this experience and gain knowledge and personal attention about something that is so important to their daily lives and identities. ConCamp restored my faith in the power of good teachers and facilitators. It wasn’t that any of these kids were incompetent—I just don’t think their school environments allowed them to thrive in the past. ConCamp allowed all of these students to realize their potential as articulate actors in a formal intellectual setting. This week underscored for me the immense value of a good education (something I all too often take for granted) and has prompted me to try to understand and analyze the South African education system from a policy standpoint. In a country as complex and increasingly volatile as South Africa, putting education on the back burner is simply no longer an option.

ConCamp was a success!

ConCamp was a success!

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.