Thursday, February 12, 2009

Week 1: Johannesburg Visit and Soweto Homestay

Sam McCabe, Carolyn Gaglione, Clarke Reeves

Our journey in Southern Africa began on January 18, 2009. After a 17-hour flight, we finally descended into Johannesburg, South Africa (SA). Despite severe jetlag, our learning experience began immediately. As we all departed for Southern Africa with different backgrounds and knowledge of the region, our first speaker proved to be an essential foundation to our understanding of Southern African history. He offered a personal account of his struggle with the institutional racism, known as Apartheid, imposed by the Afrikaner National Party. He took us back to pre-colonial South Africa where indigenous tribes evolved on their own time. We then moved on to the colonial period in which indigenous people were enslaved, displaced and exploited. Black Africans were seen as uncivilized, inferior intellectual beings, therefore justifying the imposition of European settlers. His personal experience during the Apartheid years (1948-1994) exemplified the horrific actions of Afrikaners against black Africans. After years of oppression, black Africans began to organize and revolt and many such citizens were targeted by police forces to be imprisoned or killed. In this regard, the speaker drew many parallels to the United States Civil Rights Movement. In both cases, many blacks simply disappeared never to be heard of again.
Unfortunately, we learned shortly after this brief history lesson that nothing much has changed in South Africa post-Apartheid. This was apparent as we traveled through Soweto, one of the best-known and largest townships of South Africa. Soweto’s population (approx. 3-4 million) is greater than the entire population of Namibia (1.9 million), and it is contained in a mere 31 sq. miles. A visit to Kliptown, an informal settlement in Soweto, showed us firsthand the conditions under which the people there lived. We were shocked by the number of barefoot, unclean children we saw running free with no parent supervision, playing in open sewage systems that ran through the dirt streets of the community. We walked through a tiny 2-room house made of tin siding and scraps of wood which six people called “home.” We were also unprepared for the overall kindness of the Kliptown dwellers who we passed as we walked by their homes.
Settlements just like Kliptown exist all over Soweto, and it is difficult for the government to deal with increasing unemployment rates and growing poverty rates. The government is building new, permanent homes for people to move out of the settlements, yet as quickly as one family moves out a new family moves in. Seeing the settlements firsthand made it clear that the government’s efforts to eradicate poverty are nowhere near adequate, and a new method of dealing with this catastrophic problem needs to be implemented.
As poverty is one challenge that black Africans have had to face, violence is another. This was clearly demonstrated on our visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum, which was created in memoriam to the first student killed in a protest that took place on June 16, 1976. The protest was against Bantu Education, in which black Africans were forced to learn Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors, as a medium of instruction. This system also furthered the institutionalization of Apartheid. A picture of his small body being carried away from the gunfire by a young man and Hector’s older sister stands outside the museum. The sister who is in the picture, Antoinette Sithole, spoke to us about her experience on that fateful day, as well as her opinions about the entire Liberation Struggle. It was powerful to hear an opinion from a person who has such strong ties to the liberation of SA and eradication of Apartheid.
Our group was able to hear many more voices such as Ms. Sithole’s on our visit to the Apartheid Museum. This trip was well placed in the itinerary because it acted as a sort of culminating event of what we had learned up to that point. The most interesting part for me (Clarke Reeves) was seeing the black and white stills of daily life for black Africans under Apartheid. The museum covered everything from the founding of Johannesburg to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Apartheid was formerly implemented in 1948 by the Afrikaner National Party, an all white party. Black people were forced to live outside of the major cities like Johannesburg in townships like Soweto. Soweto is literally an abbreviation of South West Township. Segregation, racial violence, and an education system designed to keep blacks at the lowest rung of society were the norm. Resistance to Apartheid grew from the 1970’s onward. From the student protest of 1976, resistance against Apartheid snowballed until 1990 when Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), was released from jail. The ANC was the main opposition to Apartheid. In 1994 South Africa held its first free elections and Apartheid was officially ended on paper. Learning all of this history throughout the week and at the Apartheid Museum was both significant and humbling. Although South Africa banned Apartheid by law, socio-culturally and economically there was still much to be desired for the newly freed, Black South Africans.
We were struck by the relatively short amount of time between the eradication of Apartheid and the erection of the Apartheid Museum. We compared this with the large amount of time between the end of the Holocaust and the erection of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and wondered why the Holocaust Museum took so much longer to build.
Later on that day we had a speaker who talked about Apartheid more. He surmised that the political changes looked good for the country and for the people but that socio-cultural and economic changes were few and far between. For instance he said the fact that 13 percent of the population (which was mainly white) owned 87 percent of the land didn’t change after Apartheid was banished. He further said that politics was de-racialized but economics were not. This was evidenced by sites we had seen such as Kliptown. Since there was a lack of redistribution of fundamental opportunities, education and social services not much had changed in South Africa. His solution for the problem involved replacing capitalism with a more socialist economic system, in which local forms of government had more political power. In this way government would really have to answer to the people. He was great speaker who offered many interesting insights into poverty and capitalism.
After a long and educational first week in Southern Africa, we reflected on our experiences, and realized that many of our preconceived notions were far different from what we had seen. For example, in post-Apartheid South Africa, land distribution and socio-economic disparities have not been improved upon by the government. We were grateful for what we had learned and the speakers we had met throughout the week. They broadened our perspective on both the history of South Africa and its contemporary political situation.

That evening we visited a local bar in Soweto and watched the inauguration of Barack Obama into the American presidency. It was clear that this was not an event solely contained in the US, but created an impact that was felt all over the world, and specifically in SA. The bar was quiet during his inaugural address, as South Africans listened to Obama, hoping for personal words of encouragement from this inspiring man. Additionally, throughout our time in Africa so far, we have been asked questions about Obama, and been told that everyone is waiting for him to change the world. The Africans’ optimism is met by our group’s skepticism. While we all hope for the best during the Obama Administration, we understand that Obama will not be able to “save the world” or even Kliptown for that matter.

To start the tour we all given cards that classified us as white or black. We were forced to enter the museum through different doors based on our card. The paths beyond the doors were different for each group. The people with black cards got to see the passbooks they would have had to carry and the segregation that they would have been exposed to. The white group got to see what a life of privilege was like. This section was short and the group came back together after the black and white entrance.

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