Monday, February 16, 2015

Week One: Privilege, Positionality and Presumptions

To be completely honest, I don’t think any of us were sure what would happen when we stepped off our plane to South Africa. Though the majority of us likely had pre-expectations of Center for Global Education’s Southern Africa program — perhaps imagining it as a program whose consciousness, while far from perfect, would largely exceed programs of a similar caliber. After having been a part of the CGE experience for just over a week, this certainly seems to be the case. Our experiences on this program have been educational, enlightening, uncomfortable and thought-provoking. Over the course of just one week, we’ve been exposed to a multitude of different perspectives on South Africa’s political economy, from revolutionary communist activists, spokespeople from the U.S. Embassy and the Democratic Alliance, and several individuals involved directly in the liberation struggle. We’ve visited multiple historical sites, all of which have supplemented our subsequent education on apartheid and the false image of South Africa as a “post-apartheid” regime. 
Students got the opportunity to visit the Hector Pieterson Museum and learn more about the youth movement and the Soweto Youth Uprising in 1976.

The Uprising took place just after Afrikkans had been declared the new language of instruction in the schools. 

Molefi, one of our speakers, explaining the significance of the 1976 Youth Uprising and showing the students the route that the youth took. 

Visiting different sites surrounding apartheid and the liberation movement were especially educational, as these were topics that aren’t often talked about in formal education. One of the main things you notice when you drive around Johannesburg is that there are people everywhere, many of whom seem to be just hanging around. We went to a mall on a Tuesday afternoon and it was absolutely mobbed. This can be largely attributed to South Africa’s significant unemployment rate, which in 2014 was at 25.1%, giving South Africa the 9th highest unemployment rate in the world (International Labor Organization). This number is inconceivable, especially for Americans who come from a country where a 10% unemployment is cause for uproar. In discussions with local friends and other South African residents, you start to realize how dire the employment situation is, as many struggle to find even low paying jobs in the service and labor industry. 
Students spending time with their host siblings. 
Another enlightening experience was our Soweto homestay. On Saturday our homestay family took us to a funeral. Unlike in America where funerals are a chance to mourn the death of someone who has passed, South African funerals are a time to celebrate the life of the departed. Funerals are truly a community event as people who don’t even know the deceased come out to show their respects. After a ceremony at a local church the casket was taken out to the street which was lined by students of the teacher who recently passed. The students were literally singing in the streets while the casket was put into a car to be brought over to the cemetery. When we got to the cemetery there were thousands of people milling around all there for different funerals. In South Africa many of the funerals are held on Saturdays allowing everyone who wants to attend to come. The singing continued during the burial and once the casket was lowered into the ground students of the departed teacher all took turns burying the casket. It was really an incredible experience to witness.

Although these experiences were extremely edifying, it’s important to recognize that our acquired knowledge only begins to scratch the surface. Many of us left the country with a much more extensive knowledge of South Africa’s complex political, social, economic and cultural systems than when I arrived. Such an educational experience, however, cannot go unquestioned or uncriticized. Although this program does offer an amazing opportunity for students to better understand the racist and colonial legacies that have been imposed on Southern Africa and how such a violent and oppressive influence has affected the development of the region as a whole, it does not go so far as to equip students with the resources necessary to fully understand the implications of our own positionally within this program. Throughout the week, I found myself questioning the legitimacy of my presence on such a program — in a region rife with voluntourism and imperialist legacies, how the experiences of a privileged white, middle class college student with no legitimate connection to the country be anything other than inappropriate? There were several situations in which my own privilege and problematized presence were quite prevalent — at one point we were driving through Soweto in a tour van, peering into people’s lives as if they were there simply for our own benefit. This, as well as a number of additional experiences, led me to continually question whether I was doing more harm than good. What could possibly justify the exploitation of someone’s poverty to benefit a group of privileged individuals? 


In short, there is no justification, nor will there ever be. However, though during those first few days I had begun to reevaluate my decision to study abroad, I believe that we’ll begin to make steps towards being a less invasive program. I hope to settled into our surrounding community and start discussing awareness of privilege and positionality. In all, I believe that we’ll soon be starting on a path that, if executed correctly, may allow us to both assist our current community in a non-imperialist approach, while simultaneously gaining skills to transform our own education into productive change.

This blog is the work of our students. To learn more about Center for Global Education programming, visit us at www.augsburg.edu/global

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