Friday, January 25, 2013

Week 1: Johannesburg - Kliptown, Communism and Homestays

Post by Nan Miller and Jacob Rutz

Hello from Johannesburg! Over the past seven days, we have been exploring a multitude of historical contexts to frame our time in Southern Africa. We were intrigued by the contemporary and historical political structures of the state, its economic status, and our own reactions. Since the liberation struggle, the dominant political party in South Africa has been the African National Congress (ANC) and has ties to iconic leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Currently, the party seems to have failed to accommodate the multifaceted needs of today’s society. This concept has been validated through many of our interactions with various local leaders and during our homestay experiences.
Students with Political Organizer and Professor Dale McKinley

The issues facing Kliptown, a poor district of Soweto, seemed to exemplify the areas in which the post-apartheid government has failed to act in the interest of its constituents. This fact materializes in the form of a government-funded multi-million rand square and monument, while just across the railroad tracks, the Kliptown community lacks basic utilities and political representation. Our time here also challenged us on an emotional level, as we grappled with concepts of poverty and privilege. The two of us felt as though our white presence was invasive, despite its intentions. It reminded us of  “poverty tourism,” something we have observed in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Our visit made us analyze the community’s needs, but these thoughts were informed by our own lifestyles and American values. We believe it would be paternalistic to inform others on how to go about their own development process. The experience left us pondering these questions: what is the ideal or final outcome for this community? Would we want to recreate an American-esque middle class?

Dale McKinley, our friendly neighborhood communist (and political organizer and teacher), met with us to speak about the form of economic apartheid that today’s government perpetuates. He informed us that South Africa has the world’s largest gap between the rich and poor. While McKinley was cognizant of these issues, he expressed his belief that the South African people are a politically mobilized nation, and that some form of revolutionary process is embedded in the state’s national identity. The prospect of a South African revolution is connected to the questions that we were left with after our visit to Kliptown. We wonder whose needs would be represented in this revolution. Additionally, we found him to be a compelling speaker but we found it was dangerously easy to accept his statements without questioning them. His ideas resonated with us intellectually, but in light of the Ivan Illich article we read today, we think we should begin to question the ideas we do agree with more heatedly than those we do not agree with.

Jacob Rutz and Joe Rossi with their Soweto host family
Our homestay experiences were by far some of the most rewarding and intriguing escapades of our trip so far, but they also brought about many questions. For example, some of us experienced new conceptions of family through acts of hospitality or by meeting a number of friends and extended family members. Another inquiry raised here was that while many of the people we met expressed dissatisfaction with the work of the ANC, we were surprised to learn that some of our host families held the belief that the apartheid government more efficiently imposed order and utilized resources. In our reflection session, we discussed the value of personal experiences, but also interrogated the roots of this perception that life was better under apartheid. We considered the roles of economic well being and quality of life in perceptions of apartheid, but we want to keep this question open. We find it necessary to compare the disparities between the personal and academic forms of education, and we hope to continue investigating this concept throughout our semester in Southern Africa.

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