Thursday, September 3, 2015

Week One: Unpacking South Africa

By Henrik Weber

We finally made it! After months of waiting, planning, and paperwork the seven of us arrived in Johannesburg ready for a semester learning about Nation building, Globalization and Decolonizing the mind.  From the first time we all met at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC, it was clear this was a group ready to ask the difficult questions and be receptive to the heavy truth.

Picture of Hector Pieterson's death.
Hector's body is being carried by another protester,
while his sister runs alongside.
Photo by Sam Nzima, 1976.
On the very first day we dragged our jetlagged bodies out of bed. Diving right into the atrocities of apartheid, we listened in horror as we heard Hector Pieterson’s sister tell the story of the day she witnessed the transformation of her brother from a young protesting school child to a martyr.

As we explored the Hector Pieterson museum we found ourselves astonished by the accomplishments of the students. They stood up to the apartheid Government despite being tear gassed and shot. 1976 student protest’s resulted with a change in social attitudes that toppled apartheid less than two decades later. Seeing this brought out the groups sense of student activist pride. These students had such a tremendous impact on the world because they chose to act, as students we felt overjoyed to see the youth had taken a stand for what they believed in.

Our journey then took us to Regina Mundi Church. As you walk around the inside of the building it is impossible not to feel the historical importance of the space. As the largest Roman Catholic Church in South Africa, Regina Mundi served as a gathering space for community leaders to meet during apartheid. Even when gatherings of three or more blacks were ban, the apartheid Government still let people congregate in Churches. This made the pulpit all the more important. Community leaders, at a great risk to their families and themselves, would make political speeches until warning came that police were in the area. At this point ministers would take the pulpit to give the illusion that worship was all that was happening in the building. Hearing stories and standing in the same spaces that have been occupied by the likes of President Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and native heroes Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, drives home the rich history that the building holds inside.  The bullet holes intentionally left in the wall and windows serve as a reminder of the tragedies that occurred and that no space was sacred to the authorities.

On our third day in South Africa we journeyed to Orange Farm. This experience was the “Classic Africa” many Americans have the image of. The power lines loose in the street and the tin houses smashed together like sardines greeted us as we got out of the van. Shock set in. We saw the living conditions that had been allowed to develop. The area has been deemed “temporary housing” since 1997. People are attempting to live in uninhabitable conditions whilst being met with empty promises from the Government about how they will be relocated to permanent structures. As we reflected on what life would be like if there was one fresh water spigot for the block, we recognized the difficulties of attempting to balance current needs with long term solutions to systematic issues. No one expects poverty to be eliminated now, but to walk around extremely impoverished area and recognized the realities of everyday life for such a large population was challenging for many of us. And that is the point of this journey. To challenge our world views and to expand our knowledge of the real world is the reason we traveled to the opposite side of the globe.

Photo of our group at one of the homestay houses in Soweto.
By the time the weekend reached us we felt as if we had known each other a year not a week. We said goodbyes and split into three groups to do homestays in Soweto. Soweto is made up of 30 or so townships. Under apartheid the townships were developed as housing areas for blacks, little was invested into them. To this day many live in hostels that could easily be mistaken for jails. Just over a hill and around a corner however, you start to see houses that resemble middle upper class American ones. This is the area we stayed. One group spent time with younger children, while another toured the neighborhood with a pair of teenagers, while another stayed with students of university age. Some groups spent a lazy Saturday at the mall while others volunteered within the community. On Sunday all the groups went to Church and gathered in the afternoon for a meal. The time in Soweto helped everyone to grasp the similarities and differences in day to day life between our respective home towns and this community that adapted us for a weekend. We all pushed ourselves to feel uncomfortable and at the end of the homestay came out better for it. 

Coming to terms with Soweto remains a challenge. To experience living in a poor neighborhood in comfort leaves an uneasy feeling of complacency. Leaving Church to a parking lot of BMW or Mercedes makes it easy to see those who are doing alright. It rapidly shifts how I view the world. More and more I find it to be true that we only see what we are looking for. Soweto is a place where you can see people doing well for themselves or others in desperate need of help. I’ve stared to see the bonds of economic apartheid that still exist today. Thinking critically about the types of obstacles in the way of equality leads down a road with no clear answers. Thinking, learning, and responding, to these experiences is something we are all eager to do.

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