Skip to main content

I am a stranger here.

Here in this big city where the cars drive on the left side of the road and traffic lights seem to be only suggestions. Here among the neighborhoods which housed freedom movements, places where history has been made on nearly every corner. Here in this great rumbling city where the grassland and the bush meet, and where mountains and valleys come together like pieces of a perfect puzzle.

In the last week, we visited the townships of Soweto and Alexandra, the Voortrekker Monument, Constitution Hill, the Union Building, and several museums: the Apartheid Museum, Kliptown Museum, and the Hector Pieterson Museum. We also had the unique chance to speak to residents of the townships, a Methodist minister, a university professor, and an organizer of the 1976 student uprising. Convening with these sites and people has invited me to examine the layers of hate and injustice which led to the atrocities of apartheid, as well as the layers of privilege and comfort in my own life. It’s one week in and I already feel challenged.

Of all the museums and monuments we encountered this week, my favorite was visiting Freedom Park, a living monument to all killed in the struggle against apartheid. High atop a cliff overlooking Pretoria, the park combines elements of nature, water, light, and air to act as a poignant reflection of South Africa’s past. A spiral path leads the way through a symbolic burial ground, a gallery of leaders, an eternal flame, an amphitheater, and walls after walls of names.

At Freedom Park, dukeengage students study the walls filled with names of the people killed during apartheid

The walls are made from stone tiles that reach 40 feet high, and on each is an engraving of the name of a person who sacrificed their lives to win freedom for South Africa. Our guide pointed to thousands of blank tiles still to be engraved. But this, already, is a representative sample: any section looks as though it could come from the pages of a Johannesburg phone book.

I stared at these for a long time, lost in thought. I read the names over and over again, like the lines of a prayer.

How many people had to die to achieve democracy? How many are still unknown? How can we give justice to their lives?

Just past these towering walls is a bright eternal flame, lit as a reminder of the heroes and heroines who played a role in shaping the country. However, on the day we visited, no flame could be seen; it was being serviced by maintenance. I watched as new canisters of fuel were loaded. It served as an apt reminder that reconciliation, remembrance, and most of all, maintaining freedom, requires work.

So what kind of work will it take?

A constant fuel of love and forgiveness, of courage and compassion.

This week has been one of deep witnessing, of learning, and of listening. There is so much more to experience, and still to learn: It is my hope that the next seven weeks here will illuminate the complexities of freedom and justice, and I hope that we can do our own small part in keeping the flame alight.