Walls and Windows

There are many beggars on the streets here in Cape Town. They sidle between the cars, smiling meekly at the people behind the glass. Even in the heavy rains this morning, they were on the streets, barefoot and obsequious as per usual. When they come by my window, I show them my empty hands and shake my head–“I have nothing to give you. I cannot help you”–I silently inform them, all the while knowing that I’m being untruthful. The money in my wallet will feed and clothe one of these men for several weeks.

We believe that apartheid is dead–in truth, it is everywhere. In my hometown, the construction of apartments is prohibited: the upper-middle class residents are loathe to share living space with members of the lower-class. In the U.S., we have built a fence to keep out those we perceive as the unwashed and uncivilized–this too, as Allister Sparks noted, is a form of apartheid. All over the world, the fortunate put up fences and windows to keep out the less fortunate.

Nelson Mandela once said that the character of a country can be determined by how it treats its disadvantaged citizens. At home, we treat the impoverished, the mentally ill, immigrants, and prisoners like animals–refusing to recognize that they, too, are human and worthy of dignity.

The chasm between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the educated and illiterate is as old as human civilization. “This is the way the world is,” we say to ourselves–it’s sad, but its the way things are. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Bram Fischer, Steve Biko, and so many others who fought for the end of South African racial apartheid did not just say “This is the way the world is.” They said, “This is the way the world is–and this how we want it to be.”

During almost every one of our discussion sessions, the question of whether we are justified in our lifestyle here in Cape Town when so many less fortunate people around us live in poverty comes up. I cannot help but feel a certain frustration — at the futility of our words, of our guilt. What is the purpose of our words and feelings, when they cannot translate into action? I think to myself. What I fear is that through inaction, our initial prickles of conscience eventually fade into acceptance. This I often witness, here and at home. There are many generous and kindly people in my own life who look at the poor and say with sadness: “This is the way the world is.”

We came here to serve, but the cost of one safari trip exceeds a month’s salary for a farmer in South Africa. We are justified, we say to ourselves — most of us will never come back here again, after all. And what does it matter if we draw upon our own bank accounts, rather than that of DukeEngage?

It matters because we are students from Duke — because we are responsible to not only ourselves but also to our university, the program, and our country. Because we fight the prevalent stereotype that American students in civic engagement programs come as tourists in disguise, the little indulgences casting even the good that we do into doubt. Because the little things set up walls between those who can and cannot – between us and ordinary South Africans, and even between ourselves. And because as much as it pains me see people living behind the walls and windows of the world, separated from those with whom they share a common humanity, the thought that my children and their children will live the same way, shaking their heads and saying to themselves – “This is the way the world is” – is unbearable.


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