This first week in South Africa was emotionally taxing and exhausting for me. As we explored the country’s history in Johannesburg, we saw monuments, prisons, and museums that are stark reminders of how racism and discrimination have displaced black South Africans from their own country. We’ve learned about the personal and collective sacrifices and hardships that many South Africans endured during their struggle towards freedom – to protect their place.
As a traveler on this DukeEngage program, I’ve been thinking about my own place in South Africa. When I whip out my stipend money to pay for a meal or take a hot shower, I’m reminded of my place of privilege as an American and a Duke student. When I look around and see so many people who look like me, I’m reminded of the joys and sorrows of a black identity that come from its place in society. The racial history of SA is similar to the United States’ in a lot of ways, and the oppressive systems that sustain racism have taken similar forms as well. When we watched a documentary on the 2012 Marikana Massacre and later visited the Old Fort prison buildings, we learned more about how issues like police violence, wage inequality and mass incarceration still discriminate against and affect black people across the world. These learning experiences were brutally familiar and hit close to home. Watching and learning about black bodies suffering – black men getting beaten on the streets, black mothers crying in agony, innocent black lives being gunned down by the police – is triggering for me. It’s heartbreaking in its own right, and all too familiar. History has been telling black people for centuries that we are disposable and unworthy. Where is our place in society? Where should it be? How is my own place relative or distinct from other black South Africans?
In one section of the Apartheid Museum, you can examine the political documents and artifacts which led to the final draft of the Constitution. On the tables in front of you, you can read about the politicians and the diplomatic processes involved in writing the document. If you look up, a transparent screen plays footage of the violent protests, marches, bombings and street fights that took place during the fight for “Amandla” in the same vain. I stood at the exhibition thinking about how every politician, protester, organizer, prisoner and ally took up their own place during their struggle for freedom. Some names took a place in history books, others were forgotten or inscribed on a grave. But each one had a meaningful and important place within what became a revolution. As I struggle to figure out where my place could be here in South Africa, at Duke or in the professional world, I’m inspired by this place, and how all of its people are connected to their own place in South African history.
For now, I’m a traveler without a place. I’m occupying other people’s homes, staying thoughtful, curious, and here.