Thursday, September 5, 2013

Week 1: An Introduction to Johannesburg—Human Rights, Homestays, and History

By Rebecca Spiro and Lena Glickman

The week we’ve been assigned to write about was too full with sights, experiences and ideas to sum up in this post. We spent nine days in Johannesburg meeting with speakers, driving around the city and its outskirts, visiting museums, and reflecting as a group. Our task was not only to get a sense of this new place, but also the politics and history that have shaped it.

The recycling project at the Orange Farm Human Rights 
Advice Center has created around 30 jobs for 
community members.
On our second day, we visited a township outside Johannesburg called Orange Farm which faces many struggles representative of other South African settlements affected by apartheid. We saw it through the lens of the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Center, an organization that operates a preschool, recycling center, and advice office. All of this takes place on land that they do not technically own, but the recycling center has produced so many jobs that it would now be unrealistic for the government to seize back the land. 

 The director of the organization, Bricks Mokolo, spoke of the bureaucracy involved in providing safer structures without land permits. He talked a lot about economic justice in the face of post-apartheid neo-liberalism, and at one point said, “If they don’t give it to us, we’ll take it.”[1] Pre-paid water meters and electricity are two extreme examples of the increasing privatization that they fight here. The Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Center appeared to be a genuinely community-driven organization. It was exciting to see the same kind of critical ideologies that we discuss at school, like grassroots movements and alternatives to capitalism, put into action.

Lena and Rebecca stand with Bricks Mokolo, director of the 
Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Center, outside 
a community radio station that they partner with.
While academic connections were interesting to make, we especially appreciated the optimism inherent in a human rights center. Seeing small homes made out of tin and children in dirty clothing through the eyes of such a proactive organization was extremely heartening. This got us thinking about the ways we do and do not understand South African struggles. In general, when we experienced a personal connection to an issue it became clearer to us. Interacting with people and seeing their lives up-close was quite different from trying to intellectually conceive of poverty, histories of torture, and race and class disparities from a distance. For example, one of our speakers was an activist at the Treatment Action Campaign, an HIV/AIDS prevention effort. Their mission statement was interesting, but when their Capacity Building Officer Luckyboy Edison Mkhondwane spoke about the realities of dealing with access to medication and the stigma attached to being gay and HIV-positive, we understood and cared more.

Our visit to the Khulumani Support Group also revealed the personal aspects of South African history. Khulumani is a center that offers legal advocacy and emotional counseling for victims of apartheid and post-apartheid government abuse. It was one of the first places we visited where the emotional dimension of the issues we had been learning about were explicitly discussed. They showed us a video about widows whose husbands were killed by police in the 2012 Marikana mining strike. Khulumani provided art therapy for these women who, previously denied a voice, now felt confident in expressing their grief, hope, and anger with the government. Hearing about experiences we couldn’t even imagine, spoken by people we could relate to, brought these hardships closer to home.

Additionally, hearing tragedies spoken of as real-life, everyday feelings transformed them into matter-of-fact situations with as much hope as sadness. Often, when we conceptualize conditions of poverty without a connection to the impoverished, we victimize people and remove them of their agency. In Johannesburg, we got the chance to put faces and daily rhythms to the nameless victims we see in the media. Staying with host families for a weekend helped transform the people of Soweto from “the people”—so easily reduced to statistics—into individuals with their own opinions, mannerisms and things to do. We went to church, watched movies, hung out with neighbors, and helped cook dinner. Not only did this help us see our host families as individuals, but it also helped us feel less like tourists and more like members of a family. We found relief in being treated as individuals and not just white faces. Our sustained time in Windhoek will hopefully bring that same feeling of normalcy and belonging that we began to feel during our homestays.

Sarah and Rebecca connect with their host siblings over a soccer game
between two Soweto rivals.
A concrete example of the misconceptions people may carry from afar is that people in Soweto, known as a more impoverished area, would want to live elsewhere. In fact, we found that our families, though they lived in relative financial comfort, much preferred the busier, more community-oriented neighborhoods to the more isolated quiet of the suburbs. Another misconception is that classes reside segregated from one another. We definitely witnessed alarming racial and class disparity and segregation. Within some neighborhoods in Soweto, though, we were struck by the class mixing. The houses we stayed in were typical middle-class homes, but were neighbored by a mix of lower and middle-class homes. It’s easy to impose the images we see in the media on an entire community, but Soweto, with a population of 1.3 million people (half that of Namibia’s total), cannot be easily categorized.

One last hope we’re carrying from Johannesburg to Windhoek is that we’ll begin to view each other and ourselves, as much as we do locals, as both products of our culture and as individuals. Within our group we carry many differences, but it’s already been very rewarding to feel so comfortable and have such open and challenging conversations with one another. In our first week we began to build meaningful relationships with a new group, a new country, and a new historical perspective, and it is these relationships that will shape our experience in Windhoek as a whole.

[1] Bricks Mokolo, director of Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Center; conversation on August 21, 2013 in Orange Farm, South Africa.

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