Vaarwel, Suid-Afrika

My two months in South Africa have taught me so much. I came here expecting a rich and fulfilling experience, and I have received that and more. These last few weeks have been jam-packed and I’ve been able to take advantage of Cape Town more now that I am familiar with the city. While I am excited to end my journey, and to return home with a fresh worldview, I leave knowing that there is still much more to learn about this place.

Cultural Parallels

So much of what I saw in South Africa was parallel to things I see in the US daily. I had a discussion with a couple black co-workers yesterday about racism in South Africa, and I found that their observations as youth here are very similar to my observations back home. We talked about the racism that characterizes our generation, a type of racism that is not usually outward, but manifests in the form of assumptions and stereotypes. This is a type of racism that we can all be guilty of from time to time, and it is very easy to be unaware of it, and how it makes those around us feel. The other day, Sabrina and I were at the bus stop, and somehow we began to talk briefly on faith. I know her family is from the Middle East, and I asked if her family practiced Islam, to which the answer was no. Her family is Christian, and Lebanon, because of the Crusades, has a sizable Christian population. I asked my question out of my knowledge that many people of Arab descent are Muslim. Of course, I know not all Arabs are Muslim, but I began to think, where do you draw the line between stereotyping and asking a reasonable question based on what you believe to be a pattern? I know from polls that over 90% of blacks in the United States are Democrats. If I ask a black person if he is a Democrat, is that really stereotyping? And if he happens to be a Republican, is he justified in saying that I’m stereotyping when my assumption is based on prior knowledge?

One thing I discovered in the past week was that it is helpful to frame the parallel of race relations in the US and South Africa differently than I had before. The experience of South African blacks is more comparable in some ways to the Native American experience. And the experience of South African coloureds is in some ways more comparable to the experience of American blacks. In the way that Native Americans inhabited land that the whites wanted for settlement, so did indigenous blacks in the Eastern part of South Africa. They were later forced off these lands and relocated to homelands, or undesirable land that the white settlers didn’t really care for, just like Native Americans were forcibly removed form their lands and sent via the Trail of Tears to reservations in Oklahoma.

Indigenous blacks in South Africa were never enslaved (maybe there were a few isolated occasions, but for the most part). The coloureds, largely located in the Western part of South Africa, are the descendants of those whom the Dutch enslaved. The Dutch were told by the British and other European nations that they could not take black Africans as slaves, so they imported slaves from South and Southeast Asia, who mixed with the Coi-Coi people of the Western Cape, some indigenous blacks, and the Dutch themselves. They too were oppressed during apartheid years, and their social mobility was greatly limited, but not as much as black Africans.

I will acknowledge that the racial dynamic in America changes from city to city, but not as much as South Africa’s does. If I were a black South African, I would much prefer to live in Johannesburg or Durban than Cape Town. Johannesburg and Durban are cities where a lot more racial intermingling occurs. You see wealthy and middle class South African blacks in these cities. In Cape Town, South African blacks for the most part reside in townships away from the city. Within the city you primarily have whites, coloureds, and internationals. Many of the black people I met in Cape Town were not from South Africa. If I met a black South African, chances were he did not live in the city itself. The wealth in Cape Town has not quite made its way to blacks like it has in Johannesburg and Durban, and even in these cities, major class divisions are present, and the lower classes are almost exclusively black people.

The Spirit of a Nation

Last weekend, we attended District Six’s Night at the Museum, which was made possible by the tireless efforts of Corinne, Tunde, and Patty. The event was to teach children about social justice by promoting love and respect in the face of violence. We, as their colleagues, were made facilitators for this event, meaning that each of us was assigned to a group of kiddos for the weekend. I received the youngest squad, made up of Caitlyn, Thelia, Esam, and Ethan. We were the Golden Rascals. We performed a host of fun activities, made body maps and collages with symbolic images, read poetry, and just had a good old time. I loved how organic and creative my kids were. The potential within young children amazes me. It was great for them to be in a space where they could run around, and spew out whatever was on their incredible, uninhibited minds.

The spirit of Ubuntu here is wonderful, and South Africans take pride in this. Ubuntu means human kindness, or translates to “I am because you are.” The hospitality you find in South Africa makes you feel a sense of belonging wherever you go. Everyone is willing to help. I don’t know if I could have asked for a better internship than to be a SACTWU researcher for seven weeks. The staff was young and energetic. I never imagined an office environment feeling so much like a family, and I was very much a part of it. Virtually every shop steward and executive between Cape Town and Durban knows Justin and Sabrina, and that’s because the organization ensured that we had the fullest experience possible. They were organized, gave us clear instruction, and ample support. On top of that, they flew us to meetings in other parts of the country, paid for all kinds of adventures for us, showed us a fantastic time at Mzoli’s—a true South African braai (I’ve never seen a place so turnt up on a Sunday afternoon! Delicious meat!), and did so much more. My everlasting gratitude extends to all the inspiring individuals who we encountered through our work.

I also experienced Ubuntu everyday at the gym. Our gym was packed with these huge guys, drilling at their upper bodies. At the same time, you couldn’t have imagined a friendlier atmosphere. Everyone was extremely considerate with sharing equipment and taking turns (even though they didn’t always rack up the weights). We got hi-fives and handshakes all day long. Tunde regularly received compliments on his figure and guys asked him about his workout routine. We met some good friends at the gym, like Junior, with whom we had daily conversation.

One day when we were returning from the middle of nowhere, Bob got not one, but two flat tires. Frances took half the group into the nearest town while the rest of us stayed on the side of the road with the rental car. We put up our reflecting triangle, and stood there, waiting for someone to assist us. We watched cars speed past us, knocking over our triangle on several occasions, none stopping for us. Frances came back but she had to drive past us to turn around, and it took about ten minutes. In those ten minutes, a rickety old truck with about six children in the bed pulled over on the side of the road in front of us. An elderly man came out of the driver’s seat and started yelling toward us in Afrikaans, asking if we were ok. We were unable to successfully communicate with him, but I knew how to say “good” and “thank you very much.” He eventually realized that we didn’t speak Afrikaans, and that we seemed to have the situation under control, so he bid us farewell, and all the kids waved goodbye to us. It was one of those moments that restored my faith in humanity. That exchange, which occurred at the very moment before we received help, spoke volumes to all of us who were present.

All in all, my DukeEngage experience has been so rewarding. I’m truly blessed that I was given this opportunity, and I hope to apply what I have learned this summer in different settings throughout the rest of my life.



Ramadan Mubarak, everyone!

When I can, I go to the Sunday morning service at the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town. This church has a history of preaching the social gospel, using its urban location to serve the needs of the city. Peter Storey, the church’s former pastor and former head of the Methodist Church in South Africa, pioneered a program called “My Brother and Me” in which blacks, coloureds, and whites gathered to hold discussions about equality during apartheid days. This church obligates itself to use its influence to help bring about positive social change in the community.

Peter Storey’s son, Alan, is the current pastor of the church. The first time I attended, he was reading announcements before the sermon, and said something that I would never expect to hear at a church service back home.

“As you know, the month of Ramadan is approaching. I want to encourage you to join your Muslim brothers and sisters in this time of fasting and celebration.”

Religion can be used as a means of dividing people. It certainly was back in the apartheid era and still today. In America, the extremism of a small minority has painted a picture of Muslims as a whole that is just not accurate. Many people who have the strong anti-Islamic sentiments only know of the Muslims on TV for committing crimes of terror.

I was entertaining these thoughts back in 2008, during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The media insisted on labeling him as a Muslim, and some foolish skeptics still do. Thinking back, the rhetoric surrounding this discussion was even more repulsive than it seemed at the time. A number of supposedly legitimate news shows entertained discussions about what could happen if America were to have a Muslim president, and how he would embrace extremist groups and invite terrorism into the country. The campaign that showed a young black boy that the highest office in the nation was attainable for him simultaneously showed young Muslims that this country is still not ready to accept them in high-profile leadership.

Stereotypes are dangerous, because they ignore the fact that within each group are numerous individuals who are neither fully good nor bad. However, seeing that they hold so much power, how would America be different if the stereotypical Muslim was Gamidah?

Gamidah is a wonderful woman who instructs a cooking class at her humble home in the historic Bo-Kaap district. Corinne stepped up to the plate as events coordinator for our group, and signed a few of us up for Gamidah’s Cape Malay cooking class (Authentic South African cuisine). While learning how to cook delicious Cape Malay curry, we observed Gamidah’s lifestyle of benevolence and charity. Several children from the neighborhood walked right into her open door, knowing they were in a safe place. An elderly man came by, appearing to be hungry. Without hesitation, Gamidah prepared some food for him. She shared with us her excitement for the arrival of Ramadan, which she described to us as a time of sacrifice and of love. She is a leader in her community, and a kind and gentle soul.

After we left the class, I wanted to learn more about Gamidah, her culture, and her religion because of what an excellent hostess she was to us. She took a genuine interest in us, and was very hospitable to us.

About a week later, Tunde and I were walking on Long Street when this man handed me what appeared to be a trillion dollar bill. He then asked me the “Trillion Dollar Question”. Where am I spending eternity?

So we began talking to this guy, telling him we’re both Christians, etc. He asks us if we know the Ten Commandments, and we listed off a few. Then he basically told us we’d broken some of them at some point, and that Jesus could offer us forgiveness, which I already know and believe. We ended our discussion, and I commended him for having the confidence to share his faith on a street corner, because that could not have been easy.

As much as I respected his effort, thinking back, I can’t help but notice a host of issues with that encounter. I understand that in South Africa 85% of people identify as Christian, but many probably don’t know what it is to accept Christ. Despite that, I did not appreciate him not believing us when we said we were Christians. I also did not appreciate the gimmicky approach to a conversation on faith; trying to lure people into such a conversation with what they think is money. I absolutely thought about the status of my faith life after such a discussion, but these thoughts came out of guilt, not love. Once again, street evangelism is not easy—it takes a bold commitment to do that. However, I can honestly say that I would have been majorly turned off had I not been Christian because that encounter was not genuine.

In my opinion, Alan Storey encouraging his congregation to fast and to attend Ramadan services truly gets at what Jesus was about. Making those around you into your brothers and sisters. What better way to show others they’re your brothers than to fast in solidarity with them? To share in their unique traditions, triumphs, and trials? Doesn’t it make so much more sense to ask others to worship with you after you’ve worshiped alongside them?

Having said that, I’m going to insert a caveat. If trying to win people to your side is your primary motivation, you’re missing the point. Peter Storey himself said that during apartheid days, Americans would come into South African with the intention of saving souls, without taking interest in the lives and the cultures of the people. In doing so, they were unable to understand what apartheid meant for people on a day-to-day basis. Rather than trying to foster quality relationships that may eventually lead to a discussion on faith, they tried to approach as many people as possible, and were very unsuccessful.

There’s no reason not to go out of your way to cross the line and learn about the many types of individuals to whom God offers His grace. The world would be a better place if we developed authentic interfaith relationships just to be brothers and sisters to one another. So, to my brothers and sisters celebrating Ramadan, this Christian sends you his best.

The Cultural versus the Clinical

A couple weeks ago, Sabrina and I had a tour of the SACTWU Worker Health Program in Salt River, which is the largest program of its kind in South Africa, providing its workers with disease prevention resources, treatment, and support. Originally, it acted as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but it has branched out into dealing with other STIs and tuberculosis. We accompanied Khaliefa and Xolisile to a health briefing at a small factory during the workers’ lunch break and we handed out two different informational pamphlets; one on tuberculosis, the other on medical male circumcision. After the briefing, we realized that while the former type of pamphlet was completely gone, we still had many copies of the latter.

SACTWU Worker Health has launched a large campaign for medical male circumcision, advocating for its role in significantly reducing the spread of STIs. They have clinics set up in their offices on select days, and mobile vans that go into townships and rural areas in order to make it easier for the young men there to get circumcised. At first glance, the initiative seemed like a no-brainer. Given that the procedure is free for SACTWU workers and their dependents, I couldn’t understand why families would choose not to take advantage of it.

Several days later, the union paid for the two of us to take a guided tour of certain locations in Cape Town and select townships in the surrounding Cape Flats. Colleen, our tour guide, did an excellent job explaining the history of the areas we went through, and the roles that apartheid, government aid, and community played in shaping the present-day townships. On the ride back, she initiated a discussion on circumcision practices within the Xhosa tribe, to which most of the native Africans in the Western Cape region belong. It was then I remembered that in several African tribes, circumcision is a rite of passage that is usually accompanied by a grand ceremony.

For Xhosas, this practice, known as Ulwaluko, is extremely confidential, but there are several things outsiders do know. In short, when a boy is ready to become a man and earn the respect in the tribe associated with being a man, he must go up to the top of a mountain for several weeks, where he is accompanied by a cohort of his peers who have made the same choice. This cohort falls under the supervision of an elder within the tribe who is tasked with looking after the boys, and making sure they are fine. During the days on the mountain, the young men’s heads are shaved, and they are given very little to drink. The circumcisions are performed by a traditional surgeon using a traditional spear. This instrument is rarely disinfected from boy to boy. Many complications and mutilations can occur in this process as well; at least 853 initiates have died in this process since 1995, and many more have undergone penile amputations. In recent years, there has been an increase in deaths recorded. Certain stories have made the news, but others have gone unheard.

However, this ceremony is about much more than simply the act of circumcision. On the mountain, elder males in the tribe take time to teach the young men what they see as fundamentals of manhood. Every boy reaches a point where he wants to know what it is to be a man, and seeing that many of these boys grow up without a father at home, this event can often be quite pivotal.

“The principles that lie at the very core of the ritual are respect for self (including self control and integrity), respect for family (not to bring shame to them), and respect for community (to protect them from harm).”

I became intrigued by this process that holds such great cultural value, but is simultaneously characterized by its health and safety risk. In efforts to learn more, I accompanied Rachel and Jenna, who are working at Sonke Gender Justice, to a graduation ceremony in Khayalitshe for a group of eight 16-20 year old boys who had participated in a program on sexual and reproductive health and rights. We had the privilege of having a open and lively discussion with the young men and several young women from the community as well. However, when I brought up the topic of circumcision, silence fell over the group—which I actually expected. The boys eventually opened up slightly, being careful not to divulge any specifics, but essentially said that they had to follow their culture. To get the procedure done medically, or not at all, was wrong to them. They cited an example of a middle-aged man in the Eastern Cape who had not gone to the mountain, and even today, he is not recognized as a man within the tribe. At events, he must sit with the boys, and he is not allowed to marry. Czerina, their mentor, encourages these youth regularly to challenge the norms of their culture. For anyone, this is much easier said than done.

I also talked to a co-worker about his experience with Ulwaluko. He also refrained from giving me specifics, but he let me know he was health conscious, and made sure to get complete physical examinations done before going to the mountain. He assured me that there is a lot of personal responsibility involved staying healthy during the period.

This past week, when Sab and I flew to Durban to conduct some interviews, we were given the opportunity to tour the SACTWU Worker Health offices in another part of the country. Durban is in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), and instead of the Xhosas, the Zulu tribe is dominant in this area. When we walked into the facility, a male medical circumcision clinic was underway, and dozens of boys were present, eager to get this procedure done.

Zulus have a similar rite-of-passage ceremony to Xhosas, but as a community, they have responded to the public health initiative much more positively. One of our co-workers attributes it to the warrior history of the Zulus. The old king realized he couldn’t have all his men on the mountain for months at a time when he needed them for war, so he shortened the ritual dramatically. The Zulu king recently decreed that all babies born within the tribe are to be circumcised at birth, which I think is a bold move. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to compare the sexual health within and between these tribes and see what is revealed.

When looking at the success of the MMC campaign in KZN, and its apparent lack of traction in the Western Cape, I am reminded that there are so many underlying aspects to consider when creating a public policy or a public health initiative. These aspects, if not properly considered, can render even the best ideas useless.

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.