Last semester – a lifetime ago, so it seems – we read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas in English 390S. Even now, I still often think about the “unreal loyalties” Woolf wrote about in reference to the divisions people create amongst themselves — and their use of those differences as grounds for exclusion and hatred.

The word “Ubuntu” originates here in South Africa. Translated from the Xhosa and Zulu languages into English, Ubuntu roughly means human-ness, or human kindness. That the very nature of being human is equated with compassion is striking to me. It would not be difficult to imagine the opposite to be true. Everywhere in the world, there are crimes perpetrated against humans by humans. Unreal loyalties – to religion, to race, to nationality – endow us with the capacity to commit evils of extraordinary proportions.

But Ubuntu isn’t choice any more than family is. The universal bond between people exists whether we recognize it or not. And therein the choice lies: will we embrace Ubuntu? Will we elect to love or hate?

I know that people are not black and white. Within us, there is the capacity for love and understanding – as well as hate and divisiveness. Sometimes, is only too easy for small misunderstandings and annoyances to develop into mistrust, and from mistrust into resentment and antipathy. The point at which we begin to perceive a person as intrinsically unlikable is where we lose the ability to truly see their Ubuntu. We develop gaping blind spots – capable of seeing that person’s faults and mistakes and blind to their instances of kindness.

Being here gives me hope. Everyday, I witness instances of people embracing Ubuntu. The man at the Laundromat who takes care of our laundry never fails to greet us with warmth. Yesterday at Sonke, where Rachel and I work, they threw us a going-away party, though we had both only been with the organisation for two months. Everywhere in Cape Town, people of different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities have shown us small instances of extraordinary kindness to the foreigners from the states.

The South African people are not singular in this regard: Ubuntu lives on in all corners of the world, in places of peace and strife. For every act of cruelty committed in the name of unreal loyalties, there are countless more instances of human goodness done in the name of our common humanity.

The dream of Mandela, and so many other unrecognized activists of the world, was life without walls and windows between the humans of this world. South Africa, as imperfect a country as it is, has made long strides toward that dream since the end of apartheid two decades ago. If the victims of oppression and injustice can embrace the spirit of Ubuntu, I am hopeful that we as Americans from many different places and backgrounds – who are different yet similar in ways which we sometimes fail to see – can as well.



These past few weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has been covered with horrors of the Israel – Palestine conflict.  Last Wednesday, a Free Palestine protest raged outside my office and a conference has convened in Cape Town with the sole focus of addressing the conflict, concluding with another public protest on the steps of Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral. I’m not going to pretend I don’t have an inherent bias about this issue – I am Jewish, and I was raised under the notion that we support Israel and its right to exist. Yet as Israel and Palestine continue to model just what revenge (a word all too easily synonymized with seeking justice) can look like, I am constantly reminded of the need to view the situation from multiple perspectives. In my admittedly undereducated opinion, Israel is to blame for halting the most recent peace negotiations, refusing to release Palestinian prisoners as promised and announcing plans to build new settlements on Palestinian designated land, and has contributed substantially to the current violence. I absolutely support a two state solution, if a fair negotiation can be reached between both sides. I do not support occupation of any kind by any persons, and I am horrified by the violence against innocent civilians. Yet, as I consider comparisons of the current escalation of violence in the Middle East to Apartheid, and more boldly, the Holocaust, I find myself holding on to the idea that the conflict cannot be one sided, wholly the fault of the Israeli government.



photo Protestors march through Cape Town towards Parliament, demanding the South African government’s attention to the conflict. Photo Credit Jenna Zhang and Nicole Brewer

While I struggle with my musings, I sit in a country whose history is routed in opposing sides and perspectives. In 1994, led by Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress was elected to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, a symbolic end to decades of violence and oppression. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was charged with mending the broken bonds and stitching the country, long divided, back together, and became a vital fixture of Mandela’s start to the new, post-apartheid South Africa. The TRC heard testimony from thousands of victims and agents of the Apartheid regime. Quite controversially, to many of those who told the truth, humbly admitting their crimes, the state granted amnesty, a fresh start of forgiveness. Weeks ago, we spent a rainy morning in the sitting room of Minister Peter Storey’s seaside home. Storey’s Central Methodist Mission served an essential role in the anti-Apartheid movement, and Story himself was member of the panel that selected the Truth and Reconciliation commissioners. Storey reflected, “You can’t legislate reconciliation – you can only make space for it to happen.” When asked about the choice of honoring truth over justice, he responded, “Even though it was far from perfect, it was the most inspirational and best way to deal with wrongs anywhere in the world.”  To his point, he reminded us of the scars of slavery in America “buried like toxic waste;” an ever present fixture of American society today.

Last Thursday we sat with Mandy, the Education Director of the District 6 museum and the boss of a few of my fellow DukeEngagers.  A fervent anti-Apartheid activist, she scorned Storey’s perspective on the TRC, describing it as a horrible way to move forward. “How can you watch your friends die,” she asked, “and be okay with the perpetrators walking free?” When asked what she would have preferred, she answered in two words: “Nuremburg Trials.”

To me, the Nuremburg trials were vitally different from any prospect of peace in South Africa – most notably, there was no expectation that Nazi war criminals would be part of an ongoing community in which they and their victims or prosecutors would live together. While the Allied Powers could conduct a trial of prosecution and justice, at the end of ten painstaking months they could return to their respective countries, communities and democracies.  The Nuremburg Trials served as the final punctuation to the horrors of the Holocaust, while the TRC needed to be the guide into the era of the new South Africa, a country that could live together in spite of the scars inflicted on its citizens, by its citizens. Once more, I find myself muddled by these opposing perspectives. While objectively, the TRC stands as one of the most progressive means of reconciliation in history, there is nothing objective about the horrors of Apartheid.  It is much easier for me to accept the methods of the TRC, spared of an emotional connection to any victims. Nonetheless, while justice may have soothed wounds, would it perhaps have turned victim into persecutor, further widening the gaps in South African society? “Africa’s Richest Square Mile,” the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Sandton overlooks the township of Alexandra; a newspaper features an advertisement on lavish condo sales alongsidean article on the current miners’ strike for wages equivalent to about $1,200 US dollars per month. These horrific inequalities suggest that the gaps are wide enough as is.

We spent the past weekend with primary students at the District 6 Museum, where we explored the themes of peace and violence, concluding that peace cannot be artificially imposed by the outside, but must come from within the community itself.  Whether or not the TRC was the right solution for South Africa, sustainable reconciliation could not derive from international sources the way it did from the Nuremburg trials, it needed to come from within.  Like the new South Africa, Israel-Palestine is a community that cannot just move away, but needs to live as peaceful neighbors with one another.  Whatever means must be used to find peace, it seems to me to be nearly impossible to accomplish if we refuse to view all perspectives.

One of the weekend’s participants drew a man without eyes, explaining that all too often we are blind to violence. In Cape Town’s Holocaust museum, I felt disgusted while reading what has now become known as the “Genocide Fax” – a completely ignored cry to the United Nations for assistance in the impending Rwandan genocide. Am I blinded by my own personal bias to the horrific thing occurring in Israel, equally guilty of innocent by-standing as the recipients of the Genocide Fax, or more appropriately, of those who upheld Apartheid because they truly didn’t realize something was wrong?  If I hold neither side as fully responsible for conflict, am I unfairly biased or appropriately rational? Am I and others who share my ambivalence hindering peace?



Body maps made by participants at this weekend’s Night at the District 6 Museum. These bodies depict the students’ experiences of violence and peace in their communities and the world.

I may never fully understand the roots and depth of the conflict in Israel, or be able to formulate one sensible solution. Yet, if I can take one thing away from my time in South Africa, it is the words of Allister Sparks from our visit with him weeks ago.

“There is not one single answer.  Beware of those who have found the ‘perfect answer’, because it is they who cannot tolerate the opposition.  The pendulum does swing.” 

Apartheid was a horrific example of a government unable to tolerate the opposition, and I’m beginning to fear the same for Israel as well.  There are some things, such as Apartheid being inhumane and despicable, that there is one right answer for. However, much of the time, a singular solution or truth doesn’t exist, not for the means of reconciliation or to 20,770 square kilometers whose ownership lies at the impossible intersection of politics, faith, and deeply held ties to the land.  Conflicts seem to be based on this notion that there is only one right answer – it is so often Israeli or Palestinian extremist groups committing heinous crimes against each other. While I’m not going to pretend to understand the extent of the conflict, I will leave South Africa with the challenge to view the world and its conflicts with openness to and respect for multiple perspectives.  I admit it is naïve, but I believe if I can stop viewing the world as “good guys” vs. “bad guys” and justice and revenge, I might have a far easier time understanding how to move forward.

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.

Sexual Assault in the Black and White of the Law

As an intern for the Women’s Legal Centre, I had the opportunity to accompany my boss to the University of Cape Town’s Refugee Law Clinic. The Clinic was holding a workshop aimed to educate refugees about South African law, and my boss was giving a presentation on the law surrounding domestic violence and sexual assault. At the end of the presentation a man confidently asked, “I don’t believe that a husband can ever rape his wife. Can you explain why some people believe it is possible for a husband to rape his wife?”

My boss handled the situation extremely well, explaining how in South Africa the law defines rape as any non-consensual sexual act. Even if the sexual act is between a man and a wife, she expounded, if the wife does not want to have sex and the husband proceeds to have sex with her anyways, then legally the husband has committed rape. The man appeared genuinely confused, and went on to share how he frequently has sex with his wife while she is asleep but, “surely that is not rape.” He quickly added how he would never force his wife to have sex immediately after they had an argument, because that would be “inhumane.” My boss again explained that for sex to be legal within South Africa it had to be consensual, even if the sexual act was between a man and his wife: if the man’s wife was not alright with him having sex with her while she was asleep, she could press rape charges against him.

The feminist within me instructed me to be disgusted with this man who believed he was entitled to have sex with his wife whenever he wanted, but for some reason I did not feel outraged by this man’s comments. He was a newly arrived refugee to South Africa, and he was honestly beguiled by the sexual assault law. My boss sensitively explained how in South Africa, all citizens, regardless of gender, have a right to equality and bodily integrity. Yet citizens also have a right to whatever culture or religion they may choose. She told him that legislators and judges always have to be careful to balance these rights, but she also emphasized that there is no constitutional right to sex.

Watching this interaction take place, I was reminded how challenging it is to mold the grey area of sexual assault into the black and white of the law. I was not pleased with this man, but I also understood how he viewed having sex with his sleeping wife to be completely different from a forced or violent sexual act between two strangers. A part of me sympathized with him; I am perhaps equally incredulous that the justice system can categorize such a wide variety of sexual assaults as “rape” when the matter is so much more complex, cultural and personnel. I do believe that non-consensual or forced sex is wrong, but I do not feel that the justice system in either South Africa or the United States has succeeded perfectly in addressing sexual assault and rape.

Meeting Rani

Last week, SACTWU (South African Clothing and Textile Worker’s Union) sent Justin and I to Durban to conduct oral histories for our main project while in South Africa, the Worker History Project (WHP). The main goal of the WHP is to compile the life stories of the different members of the union to be able to weave together their life stories and the story of the union. According to the Project Coordinator (and one of our bosses), the WHP “builds respect for workers by exploring their most intimate self-reflections and giving their own voices and stories a wider audience.” By transcribing and sharing the stories, workers realize “the roles they played, and continue playing, in bringing about positive societal change.” The oral histories we are transcribing will hopefully make it into a book that is being complied for the 25th anniversary of the union.


Even though we had conducted two interviews in Cape Town beforehand, our Durban interviews were the first ones we did on our own. We were both excited to travel to Durban on what was our first business trip (feeling very old). We couldn’t wait to get to the beach, but we quickly realized that business trips are not vacations…


On our last day in Durban, we were scheduled to interview Rani Naidoo. Rani is a shop steward at the Playtex factory, which produces undergarments such as bras and panties. I was immediately drawn to this as I worked for a lingerie company last summer and was curious to hear her story. I soon as we arrived, she greeted us with excitement. As a shop steward, Rani is the representative of her fellow workers within the union, and it was very easy to see why she had been elected.


Within minutes, Rani began opening up to us and describing her personal experiences in the factory. She is an exceptional woman that is an example of how stable employment can literally save women. I found myself scribbling furiously and constantly making sure the recorder was working properly because her experiences and thoughts were so insightful I needed to make sure I never forgot them.


Rani had been interested in garment-making from a young age. When she was in primary school, she used her mother’s old Singer machine to make herself clothing. When she left high school, she naturally gravitated towards the industry, first modeling for a clothing store and then taking a job in a clothing factory. She has been making clothing for thirty years now. Rani ended up at Playtex because in 1976 she was forced to move. When she was eighteen, she was thrown into an arranged marriage with a man she barely knew. He ended up being abusive towards her and her children. After ten years, she couldn’t tolerate it any more, and with the support of her family, she moved to a different area.


Rani attributes her strength to her job. She explained to us how working made her strong again. She said, “If I was still in that marriage, still in that abusive life, I don’t think I would have been able to work so long in the industry. I would be a dead woman.” She told us how she was able to become a woman of her own, “releasing [herself] and moving on with her work.” She described her transition and the role working in the factory played :


We had this thing, if you are married you stick with your husband. We had to be respectful. Wear long hair, long clothes… Not like now you wear jeans and a short skirt. And I cut my hair! In those days that never happened, we were restricted. You can say I learned a lot working in the clothing industry. The clothing industry is my home.


Rani also believes that becoming a shop steward has shaped who she is today. She said that “from the weak woman that [she] was, SACTWU made [her] strong.” She described how her marriage had restricted her, but that “becoming a shop steward taught [her] to be a woman with power and to have courage.” She also described how her new strength allows her to be an example for other women in the factory:


You become a mentor to another woman, a woman who is discouraged in the world. I encourage her, I tell her she can be like me. I am an inspiration to people that never see the world. You get abused women, who don’t know how to help themselves. I was like them. With SACTWU, we receive lots of training. That motivates us and makes us who we are. We have more and more women in the industry, and more female shop stewards. If you go around, you can see.


I loved hearing her describe her love for the clothing industry because I share the same love. I have often been told that this interest is superficial or materialistic, and I often struggle with justifying my interest in the industry. I am torn by my feeling that it goes against my feminist values. I am obsessed with vanity? Do I care too much about appearance? But Rani proved to me that my interests are not superficial. She spoke about her love of the industry, about the different types of bras and the skill involved in making one bra. She explained how making one bra requires 26 machines and very precise machinists’ work. Rani showed us how her work and her passion for the industry changed her, empowered her to assert herself and enabled her to escape. Listening to Rani made me even more passionate about an industry that I had always been fascinated by. She showed me a different side of it. She essentially validated a passion I have always had, and showed me how it aligned with (and does not stand against) my strong beliefs about the importance of women’s empowerment.





South Africa has an incredibly progressive constitution- with it come rights such as the right to dignity, equality before the law, universal rights to basic education, the right to basic provisions such as housing and the right to healthcare for all. One of TAC’s (Treatment Action Campaign) missions is to ensure and advocate that the government provides equal and fair healthcare access for every one across the country. Unfortunately, although this is explicitly stated in the constitution, in reality this is not occurring in South Africa.

Discrimination can be seen everywhere. The horrors of what apartheid created – a society of inequalities – is still ever present in the current South Africa. Although all are told they have the dignity of being humans, if one is not treated as human, do they truly have this promised dignity? One way that one could easily lose the sense of dignity is through illness and sickness. The healthcare system should treat you with respect. The terrifying truth however, is that a huge percentage of people are not treated as humans when receiving treatment or being attended to at hospitals and clinics. Some people are able to receive state of the art care – as tour guides love informing us, South Africa is home to the first successful heart transplant. However, other people will not even make it to the clinics because of a variety of complicated reasons. Frustration with the health care system, tiredness of being treated as unequal because of a disease, fear of the stigma that people receive, even in a hospital, all deter people from receiving treatment. The difference in the level of the healthcare that people receive in South Africa is absurd.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with an anti-apartheid activist, Jane, who invited our group into her and her husband’s home. In addition to talking to us about integrating a church in District 6, and what it was like to live during Apartheid, she discussed modern day South Africa. She talked about visiting a friend at a hospital in Cape Town that she had never been to before. She came back shaken by the visit, stating that there were bullet holes through the building, the infrastructure was failing, the sanitary conditions were appalling and that there were not even enough doctors attending to the patients. She kept repeating that this was happening near other hospitals that are fully functioning and doing extremely well. I was really moved by hearing her speak about the discrepancies she observed in different hospitals and it got me thinking even more deeply about health disparities around the world.

Not only is there discrimination based on socio-economic lines, there is discrimination based on gender. This is especially prominent in certain illnesses such as HIV and HPV. The lack of attention that it is receiving is shocking. The ratio of the risk of developing cervical cancer is 1:39 for women in South Africa. The already gendered HIV endemic (were twice as many women as men are living with HIV/AIDS than men) has another complicated layer to it for women– HPV and cervical cancer. The second most common cancer in South Africa is both preventable and easily detectable. Why are so many women dying from this? Why is HPV not talked about as frequently as HIV and TB in South Africa? Why is there such a backlash against the vaccination against the most common types of HPV, which would protect one from getting a life threatening and devastating cancer? Why aren’t more women getting tested for HPV?

One of the reasons that this is despicable is because there are simple HPV tests, such as PAP smears, which detect cervical cancer, and a vaccination against some HPV strains, which cause cervical cancer. Unfortunately, there are several problems with these two simple solutions. First of all, PAP smear test results take up to 6 weeks in the clinic, while in the private sector they take a maximum of 4 days. Furthermore, women are afraid of doing PAP smears because many of them do not know what they are and how they work, and they are not always treated well at these clinics. The HPV vaccine is also problematic. The vaccine is administered at schools, since it targets both boys and girl starting at 9 years old. Parents and educators are pushing back against this, because they are afraid the vaccine then makes their children more likely to have sex. In addition, this vaccine is available only to the students who attend school. This means that many children who live in rural areas who struggle to get to a school are unable to receive the vaccine. Given that this vaccine has been proven to prevent cervical cancer, that the PAP smear is an easy and painless test, and that there are new inventions, such as David Walmer’s cerviscope which detects cervical cancer, the number of women who die from cervical cancer should be dramatically lower that it is in South Africa.

HPV and cervical cancer can be prevented, treated and cured if detected at an early stage. This must be given time and attention in the health care system in South Africa. Women need to have access to information about this disease, as well as prevention and treatment options. Increasing health awareness, improving the healthcare system, and making sure that people with any type of illness are treated equally and with dignity are essential steps to reducing health care disparities in South Africa.


I’ve never been to a criminal court. I’ve never been to any court for that matter. Sitting beside my boss I feel like I’m intruding upon a private affair. An odd sense of relief hits me once the judge walks in. As he strides past the pews to the front, the security guard muffles to no one in particular, “Please rise.” I shift my weight forward to follow suit with those standing up around me and am surprised.

I never knew judges still wore long robes to court. I never knew that the accused remain a floor below until their hearing. I never knew a police officer accompanies each of thm, one-by-one, up the stairs to take the stand. I never knew. I take it all in and soon realize, I’m the only one left standing. Embarrassed, I sit with more abruptness than grace and the proceedings continue without pause in Xhosa.

With each punctuating click I kick myself over my embarrassing claim to so-called “conversational Spanish” and think, 11 official languages in this country and I speak but a single one. Turning my attention to vague hand gestures and vacant head nods, I lean back into my chair and zone out until a lingering silence demands my attention.

The accused turns back to face the audience and the weight of a question rests upon our shoulders. Even I, unaware of what was asked, feel its weight. My boss whispers, “The judge has asked if anyone has come to pay her bail of 300 Rand.” Silence. I see the young woman scan the audience, indifferently, as if told to do so, not as if she’s actually looking for someone. It seems she already knows – no one is there. The judge scribbles a note and the security guard accompanies the young woman back into police custody. My boss signals for us to leave and once in the hallway I ask,

So without bail what happens?

She’ll be held in prison for the next 5 months. Then, her trial will be brought before the judge again in November.

It sinks in; 300 rand is the equivalent of $30. For this, she will spend almost half a year of her life behind bars. Regardless of what she’s being accused of, this is painful to watch.

We always talk about loosely defined terms such as “disadvantaged” or “vulnerable” populations and in that moment it became all too clear. These labels refer not only to a lack of financial resources but also to a lack of substantial social support networks to lean on -People who lack not only a savings account but also a family, a partner, someone to turn to. In a country where a quarter of women face unemployment, the fact that she could not afford her bail did not surprise me. The fact that no one was even there for her in court broke my heart.

A Lesson in Remembrance

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit recently—on the lives of the people around me, the lives of people at home, and my own puny existence in the grand scheme of things. My newfound proclivity for navel-gazing I attribute, in part, to the lack of connectivity, i.e. the loss of time-squandering privileges. On a more serious note, I do recognize that immersion in a challenging foreign environment may have something to do with it as well.

I know I am not singular in this regard. As the weeks have flown by, it has brought me great excitement to hear about the game-changing epiphanies that my fellow DukeEngagers have experienced on their personal journeys here in South Africa. Many of us will be returning to school with resolutions and aspirations different from those with which we came.

Weeks ago, we were invited to the home of Jane and Gilbert, former anti-apartheid activists. “It’s so easy to forget what life is,” Jane commented after dinner, as we were chatting in their living room.

In knowledge and success, hallmarks of elite students all over the world, there is a certain comfort. Through the fulfillment of our ambitions, we weave the narratives of destiny and exceptionalism by which we define ourselves. Among the graced—the confident, the intelligent, the exciting—we envelop ourselves in the assurance that we, too, are destined for great things. It is so easy forget what life is: rarely beautiful or glorious, often tedious and mundane.

Here in Africa, I am a small drop in a vast ocean of humdrum human lives—few lived gloriously. The work I do is a small drop in a vast ocean of decades-worth of human efforts—some successful, many not. On the ground, the work is mundane, and the work is hard. I make spreadsheets. I edit documents. I am surrounded by people work with humility and quiet courage for great causes in uninspiring office cubicles. My big ego is put to shame by their dedication.

Yesterday, I found an old document on my computer planning out the next three years at Duke. For the first time, it failed to inspire the same sense of excitement about the future. To the contrary, I found it more than a little silly – the compulsive desire to control external events, to take the privilege of playing God to my life for granted. In some parts of the world, where livelihoods hang by the thread, schedules are anomalous.

There are those who will scoff at the feeble attempts of American college students to stand in the shoes of others, to serve and to glimpse that which they can very little understand. “The Americans have come to save the children,” some will jeer. I don’t blame them, yet they are mistaken. The Americans have not come to save the children. They come to bow their heads, if only for a moment, so that they might look into the eyes of those who they’ve neglected to see, having directed their gaze toward the clouds.

Profound personal revelations and life-altering experiences – these are the stuff of civic engagement myth. Yet too often do we fail to recognize what civic engagement is: the conscious act of remembering, of not taking the path made easy by privilege of forgetting what life is.

“We cannot blame Apartheid for being tardy.”

South Africa feeds me inspiration but fills me with a bitterness that has surprised me. On the one hand, the government has successfully reorganized and redistributed the country’s political power since the 1990’s. On the other, it has inherited a segregated pattern of residential living across the country and has left in place the economic structure of the apartheid era.

Even looking at the current government I feel torn. Although I see its blatant corruption and undeniable incompetencies, I also recognize that it has indeed provided many services previously unreached and established many rights and freedoms previously unfathomed.

With this growing sense of uncertainty – this squeezing of myself into a position of being the outside observer of an internal struggle- I find myself at a place where the vague term of what it means to “engage” finally holds meaning. I feel myself grappling with a sense of dissonance and trying to ground myself simply by being present.

As I reflect on the current state of things and try to understand the nuances of the political landscape here, it hits me that the governing party of South Africa, the ANC, is it’s own worst enemy- yet not in the way you would expect. Not in the sense that the ANC’s shady loan schemes and numerous counts of fraud will undermine its legitimacy. Not quite. Rather, due to the fact that 20 years ago the ANC promised a better life for all the people of South Africa – black, white, coloured, male, female, citizen, refugee, Zulu and Xhosa alike. In doing so, it constructed an expectation gap it’s now struggling to fill.

So while some see the widespread restlessness and growing discontent of the people as a sign of failure or a lack of progress I am not too sure. Perhaps it signifies not that things are getting worse, but rather, that people are beginning to recognize that they deserve better.

When I mentioned growing frustration over the vast wealth disparities I see on a daily basis, I was quickly countered by a born-and-raised Captonian. Coming from a first-hand experience point of view she explained, “You see those small shacks selling goods on the side of the road and criticize the government for the lack of economic opportunities but you don’t realize that in the past you wouldn’t have even been allowed to have that small stand. What seems like nothing to someone from overseas is actually a huge sign of progress.”

The more I learn about the past of South Africa the more I do appreciate how far this country has come, but how long can this be the frame of reference. With the new “born free generation” coming of age, there has been a rift. I can see the dialogue shifting away from a remembrance of how it used to be towards a conversation of how it should be.

Nelson Mandela himself spoke of this need to look forward as opposed to back when he explained, “South Africans have no concept of time and this is also why we can’t solve poverty and social problems… It’s now 10 years since the fall of the Apartheid government and we cannot blame Apartheid for being tardy.” With time ticking, Mandela asked South Africa to no longer use the past as an excuse for the present but to move forward.

He himself transitioned with his country in not only his leadership style and tactics but also in his day-to-day dress. As a man known for always being impeccably dressed, Mandela began to wear loose fitting designed t-shirts in his later years. When one boy asked why, he responded, “I was in prison so long, I want to feel freedom.”

So while it seems that, according to their Constitution at least, South Africans enjoy even more extensive freedoms than we do in the United States, without the immediate needs of adequate housing, basic medicines and clean drinking water being met in many regions- have they truly felt the freedom their Constitution affords?


“Never again”

I was very impressed with South African museums in general before I started my internship at the District Six Museum. In Johannesburg, we visited the Liliesleaf Farm, Constitution Hill, and the Apartheid museum, all of which had touched me with their narratives of the horrific injustices of the apartheid system. The District Six Museum in Cape Town was no exception. It tells the heartbreaking story of the 60,000 District Six residents who were forcibly removed from their homes during the apartheid regime. Under the Group Areas Act, coloreds, blacks and whites were not allowed to live together in harmony like they did in District Six. The very existence of this neighborhood defied the government’s perverse ideology, which led to the destruction of thousands of these houses in the name of apartheid.

I must confess it took me a while to understand the great significance of the museum, and understand what role I would play. Whenever I have gotten involved in a civic engagement project I question not only the impact of my work, but of the institution that I work for. And so, I began to ask myself: why should we dedicate a space to remember only one of the thousands of atrocities that took place during the apartheid era when there are others that are probably more poignant? What am I, as a Public Policy major, doing here? How does this relate to my interest in economic inequality and development issues?

I guess I only started to realize how important this place was as I discovered that the museum goes beyond storytelling and offers a space for the discussion of human rights issues and social justice in general. Last week, for example, we worked with South African law students in a constitutional literacy program to teach high school students about the rights they are entitled to. The museum’s education department works hard on making sure today’s youth remembers and embraces the museum’s moral imperative of “never again.”

The District Six interns: Tunde, Corinne, and I

Team District Six at the museum

When I visited the District Six Museum for the first time, I was surprised by the sense of authenticity and intimacy that I felt in this space. I was clearly not in front of a pretentious museum production. On the contrary, our museum does not have the fancy large TV screens or the special lighting effects that well-funded museums usually do, but it has an important story to tell, one that is still very relevant to today’s South Africa. In a country where inequality is so pervasive, social justice issues are constantly on the radar. Just two years ago the entire world witnessed again the brutality of the South African police forces when 47 miners were murdered in a strike for a wage increase, an event that became known as the Marikana massacre. More places like the District Six Museum are necessary in South Africa to raise awareness of the dangers of social injustice and human rights violations.

Unlike any other museum I had visited, the District Six museum offers visitors the opportunity to interact with former residents of this colorful neighborhood, like Noor Ebrahim, who claims to have had the biggest family in District Six, with 300 cousins. He is one of the founding members of the museum, and as he writes in his book, this museum has not only given him a reason to live, but also hope for the future of South Africa, where the story of District Six can now be told without fear of retaliation. Noor has given me two tours of the museum and both of them have transported me back to the time when District Six was a vibrant community and neighbors would go to the bioscope on the corner of Clifton and Hanover streets for an afternoon of fun or to the time when the New Year’s Eve carnival celebration would fill Hanover Street with Malay choirs. His nostalgia of the glory days brings District Six back to life and puts a face and place to the injustices of the apartheid system.

Former District Six resident, Noor Ebrahim, engaging with visitors at the museum

Former District Six resident, Noor Ebrahim, engaging with visitors at the museum

I am really grateful to have the opportunity to work for a cause that I would have never expected to feel so identified with. Working for the museum has really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And as for the questions that I was asking myself when I began my internship, I honestly don’t have an answer. I have no clue as to how this directly relates to my interest in economic development, but it does not have to when I am learning so much about the importance of keeping these events relevant. We need the youth of today to remember what happened in District Six and about the other atrocities of the apartheid regime so that they can uphold the the moral imperative of “never again.”

Workshop on human rights with students from Walmer Estate Primary School

Workshop on human rights with students from Walmer Estate Primary School

Duke interns with Mandy, Head of the Education Department at the District Six Museum

Duke interns with Mandy, Head of the Education Department at the District Six Museum