“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
My Duke Engage experience has taught me just as much about the United States as it has about South Africa. I am only two weeks into my Duke Engage experience, and yet I feel as if I have already gained a valuable and comprehensive comparative education. The similarities between the U.S. civil rights movement and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement are striking. Moreover, inequality within South Africa has caused me to reflect upon the rampant and growing inequality within the United States (South Africa is currently the most unequal country in the world, and is reportedly more unequal now than it was at the end of apartheid).
I’ve found it incredibly refreshing how open and honest South Africans are with the less savory aspects of their past as compared to Americans. The palpable and unavoidable remnants of racism in South African society have helped me to more fully understand the complex nature of discrimination and prejudice present in the United States. Learning about apartheid in South Africa has helped me to realize that racism is still very present within the U.S., even if we attempt to conceal our history with layer upon layer of political correctness. Of course, it is important to consider the different logistical challenges each nation faces when confronting its history. In South Africa the formerly marginalized black population composes the vast majority of the country’s population, whereas in the United States African Americans remain a small minority. Pretending racism doesn’t exist is thus much easier in the United States due to the country’s racial composition; since blacks aren’t as prevalent within U.S. society it is easier to ignore the horrors white Americans put them through.
As I contemplate U.S. segregation and apartheid, I nervously wonder what today’s societal injustice might be. Just as I am incredulous of all the people who did not view and treat Blacks as human beings, I fear that one day people will be equally perturbed by my own generation over some terrible human rights violation. We were fortunate enough to meet with the prominent South African journalist Allister Sparks who reminded us that racial segregation is still taking place in the United States, as well as all over the world. Sparks equated our restrictive immigration policies and heavily fortified Mexican border to Apartheid, through which we are keeping colored people out of our affluent, primarily white society.
Ultimately, South Africa’s constitutional “right to dignity” is something we could use in the United States. While there are still terrible human rights violations taking place within South Africa (note the recent Marikana mine workers massacre), at least the constitution recognizes the importance of protecting human self-worth. One of the greatest problems with inequality is that the lives of the lower class are often regarded as cheap and replaceable, something I’ve witnessed not just in South Africa but also in the United States.