Throughout my time here in Cape Town, my biggest irritation has been the insistence of drawing parallels between South Africa and the USA — anything ranging from the parallels between the anti-apartheid struggle and the civil rights movement, to the inequality in South Africa and the USA, to the road etiquette in America and South Africa. It’s not the initial comparison that peeves me, it’s the repetitiveness of it, its expansiveness. This irritation has stemmed partly from our inability to appreciate places as singular. And this is not to ignore the fact that countries exist as parts of larger networks; I just wonder whether it is possible to appreciate places in their distinct characters
To me the desire to insist on making a comparison between the US and South Africa, points to a refusal to sit with what is foreign and different. It is a refusal to be uncomfortable. And this refusal to be uncomfortable has led to the reproduction of certain themes and motifs that characterize American society in the way we are existing in a different country. As such, as a black, African woman, I want to appropriate this idea of making comparisons, and instead make the comparisons that we are willfully oblivious to; the ones that we would rather not make.
Given the service oriented nature of this trip, our residence in a white, rich neighborhood, that is completely isolated from the black, poor communities we are serving needs to be interrogated, especially when there are plenty of other “safe” neighborhoods we could be staying in that aren’t quite as white or quite as wealthy.
We live in a white upper-middle class suburb about 10 minutes from Cape Town’s CBD. This is rationalized as being due to safety — the idea that DukeEngage will only sponsor what they know is safe. To me here, safety is conflated with both whiteness and wealth, in a way that is done in America as well. Given the service oriented nature of this trip, our residence in a white, rich neighborhood, that is completely isolated from the black, poor communities we are serving needs to be interrogated, especially when there are plenty of other “safe” neighborhoods we could be staying in that aren’t quite as white or quite as wealthy. How are we re-enacting the violence we are helping to counter? How does our presence here contribute to the same stereotypes we speak against in our reflection sessions? Essentially this is to transport the same racist tropes that imagine whiteness and wealth as safety and comfort in America, into a new context and then to be comfortable, unabashed. And whilst it is true, we have enjoyed our time here in this plush Victorian-style home, isn’t it true that we must experience places beyond enjoyment?
Another motif that has been transported here has been the unequal production of knowledge, evidenced in the fact that our program has hosted mostly white and white male speakers, with the exception of three. In a country that is majority black, none of our speakers have been black. The American academy is dominated by white males, and as a result even where the subject is a poor, queer, black woman, many times the analysis is conducted by a white male and evidently the same is true here in South Africa where 71.4% of Professors at 13 of South Africa’s universities are white. Yet, in spite of the fact that this is a program dedicated to social justice in a racially and socioeconomically unequal society, this colonial dynamic continues to be reproduced by this program. There has been an erasure of the particular authenticity of an anti-apartheid narrative that comes from a black mouth. The fact that a majority of the narratives we have heard about the anti-apartheid struggle, a fight dedicated to the amelioration of the most marginalized individuals in South Africa, have been from white males, many times the most privileged, is unfortunate at best. And yet when I think of how these same dynamics exist in America, and how accessible white-produced knowledge is in America, at Duke, and here in South Africa and how this status quo does not have to exist in any of these places, it stands out as lazy, as comfortable.
I do think that there is some value in making comparisons between the US and South Africa, particularly in regards to the continuation of the lessons we have learnt here, but I don’t think that it is the only comparison to be made, or that this comparison should be made all the time. As someone who lives as foreign in America for most of the year, I have learnt to appreciate and critique America in its individuality — not always in relation to my home country, Kenya. And in living in America, it has become clear time ad time again, that there is something particularly narcissistic about America. It has always been strange to me. And yet the way that the world is structured aids in the sustenance of this narcissism — from the way in which we all know about American politics, the way in which we can all locate an American accent, the way in which we are so attuned to the American economy. America permeates through the world in a way that is frankly, disturbing. And so as I reflect on this trip, it is clear to me that any social justice efforts engaged in by American individuals, must include a piece about helping to subvert American hegemony in all its forms, because it is indeed a task that can only be accomplished by Americans. And in this specific moment where we are engaging with South Africa’s historical and contemporary realities, I think it is good to remember that not everything is about America.
I have been thinking about ways to subvert the idea of America being the baseline for all comparisons — academic and quotidian and instead re-situate South Africa within the physical and contemporary African context in which it exists, whilst appreciating and empathizing with the particular colonial and apartheid trauma its people have experienced.
Naturally, I have been looking for ways to counter this hegemony, ways that I too can avoid and interrupt the comparison between America and South Africa. I have been thinking about ways to subvert the idea of America being the baseline for all comparisons — academic and quotidian and instead re-situate South Africa within the physical and contemporary African context in which it exists, whilst appreciating and empathizing with the particular colonial and apartheid trauma its people have experienced. To me that is radical — it is to say that the invisible yet potent wall that the apartheid regime constructed to separate South Africa from the rest of Africa and instead imagine it as an extension of Europe and the larger west, is collapsing. It localizes the comparison, removing “The West” as the sole comparative baseline for growth, thus working against and taming the exceptionalism that this country sometimes exudes, which is exacerbated by making comparisons that further the narrative of South Africa being “The America of Africa,” as emphasized by Noor Nieftagordien, a professor of history at The University of the Witwatersrand. It humbles this place, and yet it creates a sense of camaraderie that is so often lacking between African countries. To make a comparison between South Africa and Mozambique or Kenya and at the same time, one between Mozambique and Kenya or South Africa is not tautology. It is instead, to me, a destabilization of hegemony. Walking through the Iziko National Gallery as a Kenyan woman; looking at art made by Africans to depict African realities, in a South African public space as an African person, felt like a potent and productive stage for a live and real comparison that is often ignored. It felt like destabilization. It also felt like appropriating what it means to “experience Africa,” especially when explorations of the African continent are often imagined as limited to white tourists exploring the continent via safaris or bird watching tours. In my short time there, so much felt possible.