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.

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