I recently returned from South Africa, where I went as a faculty assistant for a short-term study abroad class. Ironically, right after I returned, I saw an article about librarian-led study abroad trips on In The Library With The Lead Pipe. So that’s my next adventure in the works 😉
The sociology course studied the legacy of Apartheid, looking at inequality and resistance from an international perspective. Lasting about two weeks, we split our time between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Our experiences ranged from touring Robben Island where anti-Apartheid political activists were imprisoned to attending lectures at the University of Johannesburg to penguin watching on the Western Cape to visiting Langa township in Cape Town (which I fell in love with and am currently plotting my moving plans) to observing the stark disparities in housing conditions and availability in urban Johannesburg and much, much more. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip and every bit as much of a learning experience for me as I’m sure it was for the students.
I visited South Africa last summer, as a tourist, with friends. As such, my exposure was mainly to Cape Town proper and all the beautiful things. I was certainly aware of the troubled history of race relations in South Africa and suspected that there were ongoing challenges, especially given the country’s relatively new democracy and current leadership. Last summer, the driver who took us from the airport to our lodging happened to be black. He told us about how black and brown people largely still live in segregated communities, before dropping us off in what he termed as “rich, white” neighborhood. And it was. Very white, to the extent that we were pretty much the only brown faces aside from wait staff at restaurants. Because that’s what having American dollars does.
So when I returned to Cape Town this summer as part of a study abroad trip, it was to a familiar city, in more ways than one. In some respects, South Africa reminds me of home. There’s de facto segregation. There are white people in denial, complaining about affirmative action. There is white supremacy. There are misguided liberals who want to do and say the right thing, but still don’t ever really interact with the communities they’re speaking on behalf of. There are black and brown people passionately advocating for change, because their lives depend on it. There are apathetic folk. There’s abject poverty that follows the path of redlining in urban and suburban regions. And there was the ever-present clerk or “security guard” to follow me around the store and make sure I’m not stealing anything since, you know, my skin is brown. Therefore, I am a suspect.
But I guess it should remind me of home, since our histories are so intertwined. In fact, the U.S. was one of the countries South Africa studied before implementing Apartheid. Under Apartheid, American leading politicians largely turned a blind eye, while our CIA played a role in training the South African equivalent (as we learned at one museum) and imprisoning those who were against the system. It’s amazing to me how simply desiring to be treated as human can so easily become a crime. And how many people have died, in South Africa, the U.S., and other nations, to try to realize this dream.
Race has played a huge role in the development of South African society. Starting with segregated communities following colonization by the Dutch and the British, the emphasis on white and non-white snowballed before culminating in what we know as Apartheid. I found it interesting that there was this alternative history being shared in conversation with South Africans involved in the cultural heritage and tourist industries about how pre-Apartheid everyone lived harmoniously and got along. Me being the skeptic that I am (and having some prior knowledge of South African history), I did some digging around and verified that, yes, segregation was a thing well before Apartheid was formally enacted in 1948. After all, Matahma Ghandi was involved in anti-segregation work in the 1920s…which made me wonder why this story was being told and did the tellers actually believe it? How does creating alternative histories impact the integrity of cultural heritage work? Might cultural heritage and information institutions not be neutral after all? *gasp*
Under Apartheid, race became white (self-explanatory) and black (everyone who wasn’t white. This included black Africans, coloreds, Indians/Asians, and those of Muslim faith). Persons of color residing in communities that were reclaimed or desired for white people were forcibly removed and resettled in segregated townships and homelands under the 1913 Native Land Act. Mind you, white people were the minority in South Africa, but they had political power. Control was maintained in part by limiting access to quality education. Education for non-whites was dismal by comparison, particularly for black Africans. Higher education was primarily conducted in Afrikaans, which very few black Africans were fluent in.
In addition to housing and education, discrimination was seen in criminal justice and employment practices. The racial hierarchy put those of European ancestry at the top. Coloreds (those descending from mixed race individuals) and Indian/Asians (often lumped together) were second tier, while black Africans were regarded as the bottom rung of the social ladder. In the criminal justice system, this hierarchy was enforced, with black prisoners being given worse treatment and facilities than colored and Indian inmates. Black South Africans essentially had their citizenship stripped under Apartheid and were required to carry passbooks at all times. White employers had to sign the books each week in order for them to be allowed in the city, where whites resided. Without the passbook in hand (or without the signature), blacks could be arrested and beaten. One woman said they got in the habit of saying goodbye to their families each time they left the house, because no one knew if they would return home that evening. Prison was just as much of a likelihood. Sometimes, white employers would force black employees to forego wages in exchange for a signature. Resistance efforts included literate black South Africans forging signatures for themselves or others.
In the workplace, people of color were often relegated to labor positions, such as working the sewer or electric lines. Even in those positions, the racial hierarchy was enforced and they were reminded of their “place.” For example, at one museum, we learned that female, black prison wardresses were required to wear a separate uniform, could not advance in rank, and were required to remain on their feet for an entire shift (which would last twelve hours). White wardresses were afforded chairs to use during their shifts. I’m telling you, the detail put into this system would be impressive if it weren’t so depressing.
The legacy of Apartheid is obvious even today. Quality education for children of color in K-12 remains a struggle; student activism against colonialist higher education structures is present. Housing remains an issue, with Johannesburg and Cape Town being overcrowded and under-resourced. Stereotypes prevail that cast black South Africans as lazy and untrustworthy and colored South Africans as thieves. There aren’t enough jobs to go around; unemployment rates are highest among black young adults aged 18-35. Xenophobia towards immigrants creates tension, as Africans immigrating from other countries are seen as better workers (see stereotypes) and hired over native South Africans. It seems you can’t create an unequal system and expect it to go away in twenty years, when it took hundreds of years to create. The problems continue to exacerbate rather than subside. Sound familiar, America?
In Johannesburg, the city center is predominantly black and brown, because of white flight post-Apartheid. The suburbs encircling the city are white communities. One of the most striking things I encountered in Johannesburg was the way that middle and upper class white people (basically all white people, because Apartheid) lock themselves away. They reside in nice homes in white-only neighborhoods, but remain behind walls with barbed wire on top. They hire security guards to patrol the streets around their homes…I couldn’t help wondering what they are afraid of.
In terms of what I did as a librarian and assistant faculty person pre-trip, I engaged in research to compile a packet on the HIV/AIDS crisis for students who might be interested in exploring this as a final project. This packet was made available via Blackboard, along with a few other topics the leading faculty put together on criminal justice and housing reform.
While in South Africa, I accompanied my colleague, the onsite coordinator(s) and the students on excursions to various lectures, cultural heritage sites, and tourist locations. And I talked, a lot, with my colleague about parallels to the U.S. and other nations that attempted or succeeded in building social systems around race. We brainstormed about what to revisit during debriefing sessions with the students and provided “actually…consider….what about…are you sure?” statements to push them to think more critically about their initial reactions. The students were responsible for writing journals a few times a week, so occasionally we bounced ideas around to restructure journal assignments.
Oh, and I said, “Actually I’m a faculty member” about a hundred times when people mistook me for a student. Interesting bit of trivia: in South Africa, “faculty” are what they call colleges within a university. So instead of being liaison to the College of Education here, I might be liaison to the Faculty of Education there. Another trivia fact: I would be in gross violation of the borrowing privileges at the University of Johannesburg Library, because they have stricter limits. Can you imagine being allowed only six items at a time as an undergrad??
Upon returning to the States, I served as the primary contact for questions about the final assignment (my colleague remained abroad) and to provide any research assistance with developing topics. I also accompanied the students home from South Africa. And they all made it in one piece, although it was a little iffy there for a minute, with last-minute security checks. I learned that when you’re traveling internationally, probably don’t tell students to be at the gate ten to fifteen minutes before boarding, because A) They might show up five minutes before and B) There might be a surprise extra screening that will result in actually getting everyone on board ten minutes before the door closes and this will kinda stress you out.
That was my two weeks in brief. There was a whole lot more to the experience, so I could probably write five more blog posts…