by Chiara White-Mink & Anne-Claire Merkle-Scotland
Apartheid ended 22 years ago when the first democratic elections were held in 1994, the same year I was born. For a nation that experienced so much horror in throughout apartheid these elections marked a new era of possibility and prosperity. That hope was shared throughout the world, when the message of a newly united nation travelled half-way across the world to the classrooms and schools I attended. However as residents and students in the United States, we should be well aware that change, especially social change, may take years and even generations to truly happen. Therefore, we were exposed to the realities of post-apartheid South Africa and the continuously growing economic challenges and disparities faced by South Africans, particularly the black citizens still facing severe effects from Apartheid.
Apartheid was crippling for black families, communities, and individuals by destroying communities and separating blacks from whites and sending them to specified “townships”areas of land outside of the cities where black people were confined to. Accessing medical care, education, and transportation cost money, and all the resources designated to blacks were far inferior in quality to the resources offered to white people only a few miles away. Blacks could not travel outside of their designated community, as well as work, attend school, or do almost anything without a permit.
Our current educational practices are a reflection of eurocentricity, intrinsically perpetuating the marginalization of communities of color and rendering us invisible in educational spheres. Blackness is positioned as the antithesis to whiteness and is thus implicitly framed as deficient and pathological. This is absolutely not indicative of Paulo Freire’s vision of education as a tool for liberation and social change. Instead, this exhibits an immensely problematic model of education that enables the success of the privileged at the expense of the oppressed. I, unfortunately, was unable to conceptualize my educational experiences as such until I began my collegiate career. I was provided with the space to critically reflect on my schooling, paying close attention to how aspects of my identity (such as race, gender, class, etc.) impacted what privileges and opportunities I was afforded and what I was deprived of. As a Black woman, I was faced with the harsh reality of oppression on the basis of race and gender. The most potent example of deprivation I can think of is the lack of culturally relevant material/the inability of educational spaces to centralize African-Indigenous belief systems as a method to empower students of color and expose white students to an undervalued world view; and subsequently, the expectation for students of color to assimilate to hegemonic notions about success.
Thus, my trip to the continent of Africa signifies my journey to increased critical consciousness, psychological emancipation and self-love, a revolutionary act. Education is intricately connected to our sense of humanity and I desperately sought an educational outlet that not only recognized, but honored my humanity. I concluded that this program attempted to a foster a space grounded in anti-oppressive ideology and actions that reflect intentionality and purpose. The first week of the program was spent in Johannesburg, South Africa where we went on various field trips to become critically acquainted with the country. I was deeply disturbed by the failure of my educational systems to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the struggle for liberation here and in the United States, or rather acknowledge the plight of people of color beyond the United States, period. It is also important to highlight the manner in which information is presented as well. Schools, as I have articulated above, typically convey information in immensely problematic ways (the dominant narrative), often excluding vital narratives and potent perspectives. Thus, I felt beyond privileged to hear about events here in South Africa from the voices of people directly involved, because I know that my educational spaces are lacking. One thing in particular I have been marinating on is the role of ordinary people in worldwide liberation struggles. This stood out to me on our visits to the Hector Pieterson museum and Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre. At Orange Farm, we had the opportunity hear from people on the micro level about issues that impacted their community. For once, leaders who rose to national prominence were decentralized and it was more about the work ordinary people are doing to provide for their communities. They actually shared their thoughts on one leader we have all been conditioned to love—Nelson Mandela. I am not attempting to refute his importance or discredit his accomplishments, but I was forced to critically analyze Mandela in a way like never before—in a way that countered the dominant narrative surrounding his political reign. The Hector Pieterson museum was especially interesting because we got to speak directly to Antoinette Sithole, a key player in the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising that resulted in the death of her brother. It is about time that we recognize the bravery and resilience of everyday people who are not necessarily internationally known or praised.
Through visits to communities such as Orange Farm, located about an hour outside of Johannesburg, we saw and heard about the enormous problems within education and employment that poor communities are still facing even 22 years after the country was supposedly desegregated. With little resources offered from the government, schools continue to suffer from overcrowding and lack of materials, while adults and young adults are facing high rates of unemployment and lack of opportunities. Speaking to citizens, we learned how frustrated black South Africans are with the lack of economic mobility since the end of Apartheid. Still stuck in an oppressive and vicious cycle of poverty, many citizens have given up on expecting the government to create real effective change after so many years of what many view as false promises. One of our speakers Molefi Mataboge said it best when he stated “When politicians talk, we must listen not to what they’re saying, but to what they’re not saying.”
Coming to South Africa, I was expecting to see the land of Nelson Mandela and an integrated society somewhat free from the obstructions of apartheid, and constantly moving forward to maintain that promise of democracy shared throughout the world for years after apartheid ended. My experiences this week however showed me how much farther this great nation needs to go to truly see economic prosperity and opportunity for all of its citizens, and the serious changes that need to be made in order to make this happen.
The honorable Steve Biko once said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I have recognized that education thus far has been the practice of domination—keeping me ignorant, silent, and perpetuating social inequities. I am here to build upon what I have been unlearning in the U.S. and am ready to take back my mind from the oppressor, by any means necessary.