Our stay in South Africa thus far has focused on understanding the culture, history, and life of those who live here. When we do consider ourselves, the consideration is rather one sided and mildly self-absorbed – we reflect on how South Africa makes us feel, never how our presence may be felt by South Africa. Lately, I’ve tried to consider the flip side, I’ve been curious about how South Africans perceive young Americans.
When some of my coworkers from SACTWU came to speak to our group, they expected us to know little about the working class and inequality of the country. Another coworker told me that most Americans he has met are surprised by the level of ‘civilization’ here; he thought I might expect to see zebras and lions running around the streets of Cape Town. Others have questioned my thoughts on Trump, assuming I must support his immigration policies if I live in his country.
I don’t fault anyone I meet for thinking I may be ignorant to South Africa or without sympathy to those in need. Unfortunately, some of the interactions I’ve had with the seemingly countless number of American college students here have revealed this perception holds truth. At a joint dinner with another program for college students, some students remarked that they didn’t care to learn about South Africa’s politics. Later that night, someone saw a student from that program scoff and yell at someone begging, slyly commenting that the man needed to be reminded of his place. While this story is secondhand, it reminded me of a few American girls we bumped into one night who shrieked at someone begging to go down the street and leave them alone.
While I can’t be sure, I suspect our immersion into South African society is far from the norm. During our stay, I’ve been quick to critique DukeEngage. But, I must commend our program for doing its best to work against the ignorance and privilege of visitors.