Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Week 1: Welcome to Johannesburg!
The first week of the program was a whirl-wind full of visits to surrounding communities, lectures, museums and cultural experiences.
Monday morning, still jet lagged, we began our adventures with a brief history of apartheid and the liberation struggle in South Africa. Mr. Molefi Mataboge provided background for a two-day tour of Soweto that would follow. During our tour of Soweto (South Western Township) we were able to see various informal settlements within the community, where citizens have built many tin shacks. Views of poverty and lingering oppression quickly became evident and many questions were formed within the group: Why does it seem that the government has not done much to improve the lives of its people after apartheid? What legislation has been put into place to improve the quality of life? How can people live in the conditions of poverty and oppression?
Throughout the rest of the week we gained a better understanding of the events that have affected the people of Soweto with visits to the Regina Mundi church (a place that played an integral role in the fight against apartheid), the Hector Peterson museum (a commemoration of the student uprising against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools), a semi-private school (where we were able to communicate with students about their experiences in Soweto), and the Apartheid museum (which gave us a better understanding of the history and events of apartheid).
In between visits to the different locations we met with a variety of speakers and organizations, including the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF), the South African Council of Churches (SACC), and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)—who addressed issues, current events, and their perspectives concerning the future of South Africa.
One of our favorite lectures were with members of the TAC, who informed us about their organization and their efforts to combat HIV/ AIDS in South Africa. The organization works with health and human rights issues, providing education and resources to the public. Tristen Taylor, an environmentalist, talked to us about the economy of South Africa, providing insight into the economic future of the country. He explained how the end of apartheid was “political freedom, but not economic freedom” for the people, and that [apartheid] has remaining implications on the current economy and the future. Taylor provided a vision for what the year 2020 may look like, suggesting that the prices of basic resources (like oil and water) will have detrimental affects on not only the people of South Africa.
We also explored the political climate with Mr. Michael, a member of the African National Congress (ANC), who discussed his involvement in the political party and its original platform. In addition we met with the current opposition party of the ANC, the Democratic Alliance (DA), to discuss their political views. Both political parties shared similar views on many issues facing South Africa—housing, education, privatization of utilities, HIV/AIDS, etc.—however, their methods of attainment differed.
At the end of the week we departed in pairs for our homestays in Soweto for the weekend. This experience allowed us to expand upon what we had learned over the course of the week through the lens of a South African family. During our homestays we were encouraged to become part of the family, participating in daily activities (cooking, cleaning, running errands, family outings, etc.) The time spent with these families provided a new perspective on the lives of those living in Soweto today. Some students experienced the traditional food (chicken feet, fat cakes, pop), funerals, parties, church services, and braais (BBQ’s).
This week has been an adjustment for all of us—getting to know each other and the country. We have been thrown out of our comfort zones and have confronted questions concerning our observations and experiences. We have wrestled with ideas surrounding race, gender, privilege, economic status, and political ideology. Through this we have gained a better understanding of the history and struggles of South Africa, providing a basic framework for our upcoming classes and experiences during the semester.
1. Members of the Fall 2009 Crew met up to board the plane to Johannesburg in the Washington Dulles Airport.
2. The Regina Mundi Church, a place where citizens of Soweto gathered during apartheid, and was a hotspot for police activity.
3. A view overlooking Kliptown, a part of Soweto that has remained extremely impoverished even after the end of apartheid.