I feel it is appropriate that the title of this blog entry is a question, because my first week of DukeEngage in Johannesburg, South Africa, has been consumed with my own questions. It has been filled with my own indistinguishable, indescribable, and inarticulate emotions. In fact, this week has been filled with more questions than answers and more emotions than tangible thoughts.
I’m still trying to grapple with that.
I’m still trying to grapple with how much I’ve learned, while also acknowledging how infinite the details of history are here in South Africa. I’m still trying to grapple with the pain and injustice that I have only read about on the walls of museums, heard about from those who have lived through it, and seen the remains of with my own eyes.
Yet, the people here have lived it. They are still living it.
However, even as I say injustice I wonder if that word captures the history and the treatment of the people here. When I say that the injustice here is palpable, I wonder if even I know what that means when it is so much different to meet the people, to visit the places, and to see the photos of the people who have suffered under apartheid. Injustice is simply different when you are faced with a picture of a child holding a murdered child in his arms while children flee for their lives around them. It’s different, and while that might have been obvious in my head as I sat in the United States pondering what this experience was going to be like, it is entirely different to be confronted with it in person.
As we walked through the Hector Pieterson Museum, a memorial dedicated to all the young people who lost their lives in the Soweto Student Uprising of 1976, I was blown away by my own sadness, my own anger, but more than anything by my own insurmountable confusion over whether or not my reactions match the severity of what I was learning.
How does one process and understand and articulate about the senseless killings that happened here? How does one reflect upon a history that isn’t their own, about unspeakable discrimination that I have never faced, about people who have suffered far more than I will ever be able to understand? How does one craft an intellectual response?
Especially when all I really have is the ability to sit and sift through the thoughts and emotions and questions in my head.
“A country refined in prejudice,” is how Paul Verryn, a minister at the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, described it to us. Maybe all countries are refined in prejudice, maybe all countries live and breathe prejudice the way it is written across the land here.
I know ours does.
I think, however, that prejudice manifests itself differently with its varying levels of atrocity, of pain. We, all over the world, are witnessing, experiencing, and perpetrating prejudice and it was this week that I saw how some of that prejudice has manifested itself in South Africa.
However, these manifestations did not end when apartheid did and my questions do not refer to only the past.
When we went to Liliesleaf, a historical site where many important anti-apartheid activists strategized and were actually arrested, we met Nick Wolpe. Nick is the son of Harold Wolpe who was an anti-apartheid activist who was arrested at Liliesleaf and later escaped from prison.
While our talk with Nick was rooted in his understanding of this historic location, our conversation was much more about the present.
As he spoke about the people of South Africa, about his frustration with being called a “white settler,” and about his understanding of the term “non-racial” and its inclusion in the Freedom Charter and the South African Constitution, I was struck with how much I disagreed with his understanding.
This disagreement, however, is complex when it is his country’s history and not necessarily my place to critique his understanding.
I do believe, though, that a “non-racial” society, possibly better known as a colorblind society, erases and ignores the differences in treatment and opportunity that different races receive.
Wolpe suggested that the efforts to rid this country of apartheid were intended to create a society where people were just people, where everyone was equal, and where color did not matter. He suggested that with this system removed, South Africa “is one.”
But, I have to wonder how “one” a people can be when facing some of the worst racial and economic inequality in the world?
I think that “one” implies similarity and disregards difference. It takes a group of people who have one thing in common and makes it seem as if they have all things in common. It blatantly ignores the uniqueness of experience.
This experience which is heavily rooted in inequality.
I question how many South Africans believe that this country is “one,” I question how much disparity is pushed aside when people, particularly white people, say that South Africa is “one,” and I certainly question the desire to even want to be “one” right now when there is such vast inequality.
I do so with the acknowledgement that it may not be my place to question.
Yet, I think of what it would mean to be one America, to be “one” as all Americans, and I can’t help but be disturbed by everything that “American” leaves out. I can’t help but think that this term of unity would only help people see the progress with the whole rather than the disparities between the fractions. I can’t help but think of who would be harmed when one does not take the time to distinguish between our identities in addition to our Americanness.
I can’t help but imagine how easily everything would stay the same.
Because yes, of course, you are American (or South African in Nick Wolpe’s case), but your experience is so much more than that. Your experience is not only comprised of your nationality, but also your race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and much much more.
So maybe the question I want to pose to South Africans isn’t “are you one?,” but rather:
Do you want to be?
Quotes from the Hector Pieterson Museum:
“My blackness fills me to the brim
Like a beaker of well seasoned wine
That sends my senses reeling with pride”
– James Matthews
“But he is not a hero. In my culture, picking up Hector is not an act of heroism. It was his job as a brother.”
– Ma’Makhubu, Mbuyisa’s mother