I didn’t really know what to expect when I left my home in Miami, FL, and headed to Johannesburg to begin my DukeEngage adventure.
Since I visited South Africa, specifically Cape Town, back when I was 11, I wasn’t sure how my vision of it would compare. I was afraid my expectations were too high and it wouldn’t be as I remembered it when I got there. Spending the first week in Johannesburg — while entirely different from the South Africa I pictured in my head (for good reason, since the two cities are so vastly unique) — was a fascinating and rewarding experience all the same.
Johannesburg, and the surrounding area, is a city rich with South African history, so I was aware that there would be a lot to learn in the first week. However, I don’t think I was quite ready for the amount we learned, and the intensity with which we learned it. Our days were packed with early homemade breakfasts (possibly my favorite meal every day), museum and monument visits, speakers, group bonding, and trying to explore the city as best we could in the short time we had there. There was an overwhelming amount of information to take in, and it left me feeling as if I should have made more of an effort to better learn South Africa’s history outside of the readings we had to do to prepare for meetings during the semester.
While I’ve found it hard to vocalize and articulate all of the feelings I’ve had throughout the week when learning about such a difficult time in South Africa’s history, I wanted to comment on a couple of things that have stuck with me.
First, the discrepancy that’s so prominent in different people’s perspectives of events struck me. This was obvious to us right away as the first monument we went to was the Voortrekker Monument, which detailed the Voortrekker peoples’ Great Trek across South Africa, where they came into contact with and fought people like the Zulus. As the tour guide recounted to us what “happened” (I use quotes because her recounting was not objective), she used words like “bloodthirsty” to describe the Zulu King, painting a picture of the savage black African killing the poor white man. Afterwards we visited Freedom Park, where the tour guide was quick to point out monuments that served as relics of apartheid, those that were constructed under the regime and highlighted white superiority and black inferiority and savagery. The Voortrekker Monument was among the list, showing the way that history is changed depending on who’s telling it and what bias they may have. Another discrepancy I noticed was the retelling of the 1976 student uprising in Soweto, where bystanders told a different series of events than the police. The police recounted a story where students hurled stones at them, cornered them in, and only after firing several warning shots did they begin to shoot at the crowd— seeing no other choice. Bystanders and student protesters themselves told a story that didn’t include any warning shots being fired, among other differences. This was another example that, to me, showed the discrepancy in stories as a result of perspective and the way that history could be manipulated. Even though as a society we tend to think of history as unalterable, in reality, “winners” tell history. This “winning” group will leave out a whole other side to the story in order to promote their own ideas and power.
Another powerful part of the trip for me was our visit to the Apartheid Museum. It depicted a thorough and graphic timeline of how apartheid came to be, including the history behind it all the way through to its demise and the election of Nelson Mandela. There was also an exhibit on Nelson Mandela which told his whole life story. The museum was moving in its visuals and stories about apartheid, using not just history and fact to tell the story. The exhibit was overwhelming and really left me thinking about how privileged I am to have grown up in a place where as a child I didn’t have to worry about dying in a fight for freedom. The great detail and thoroughness in the museum allowed for visitors, even with limited knowledge of apartheid, to understand what happened. After having seen a lot of Johannesburg and the surrounding area myself that week, the Apartheid Museum also showed me that while the country has made great leaps, there is still a lot of work to be done because not everything has changed and been made right. There are still wide disparities of wealth, black bodies being killed (ex: the Marikana Massacre), racial discrimination, and corruption in the government.
This week has showed me the importance of storytelling, as well as helped me become more knowledgeable about South Africa — its history, its current issues, and more.