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Race and justice in the post-apartheid era

South Africa, Cape Town
Dates June 8 - August 3
Program Focus

Assisting social agencies seeking to improve life in townships, documenting the history of District Six during the apartheid era, and promoting health and economic reform.

Curricular Connections: While all students are welcome to apply, this program may be of particular interest to students studying African & African American Studies; Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies; Global Cultural Studies; History; International Comparative Studies; or Public Policy. (See below for additional details about connecting this program to your academic work.)

Program Leaders
Service Themes
  • Human Rights & Civil Liberties
  • Public Policy
  • Race & Ethnic Relations
  • Women's Advocacy & Women's Empowerment
  • No Foreign Language Requirement

DukeEngage-Cape Town Overview

“Race and Justice in the Post-Apartheid Era” will take students to service sites in Cape Town, South Africa. Students will spend a brief time in Johannesburg and Pretoria, immersing themselves in the history of apartheid and the liberation struggle. They will then spend the majority of the time in Cape Town, working with social agencies that are seeking to improve life in townships. While some of the organizations focus on direct service work in Cape Town’s surrounding communities, others focus on creating a more just South Africa by pushing for structural changes in South Africa’s social, economic, and political systems. Our community partners advocate for worker’s rights, gender justice, women’s health and empowerment, racial justice, and building stronger communities in the post-apartheid era. In the course of this work, students will interact with South Africans who were victims of, and activists against, the rigid system of racial apartheid that ruled South Africa for much of the 20th Century. In both locations, participants will explore how the stories carried forward about the past help shape policy decisions in the present.

DukeEngage-Cape Town began as an attempt to introduce Duke students to a society remarkably similar to our own—one where race has played a fundamental role in determining a citizen’s fate, but also inspired a social movement that, like our own civil right movement, has sought to realize the ideal of a country dedicated to equality of opportunity. By learning the history of South Africa and working with social groups dedicated to improving that society, our students have an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the values and the conflicts that continue to shape the history of our two countries.

Student Learning Objectives/Outcomes

DukeEngage-Cape Town helps students understand how the legacies of apartheid have influenced the current political, social, economic, and cultural landscape of South Africa. Through their work with community partners, students will learn what it means to challenge systemic and structural injustice in the pursuit of creating a more just and equitable society. The program challenges students to become historically sensitive, critically engaged, and cooperative citizens.

Partnership Opportunities

Former participants have worked with the following agencies …

  • District Six Museum
  • Women’s Legal Centre
  • Black Sash (women’s anti-­apartheid organization focused on social policy)*
  • Treat Action Campaign (anti‐AIDS organization)*
  • Hate Crimes Working Group
  • Sonke Gender Justice
  • South African Clothing and Textiles Worker’s Union (SACTWU)

*No longer a current partner

… And in the following categories of service:

  • Legal assistance
  • Research assistance
  • Policy analysis
  • Education and teaching
  • Community outreach
  • Documenting past experiences through oral histories

Examples of past projects include:

  • Working on projects related to the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. For example, this included developing a press pack to highlight the major human rights violations against sex workers for journalists to use to report on sex workers and decriminalization.
  • Organizing research findings on SACTWU’s black female economic empowerment project and presenting those findings to the general secretary.
  • Documenting and writing an article highlighting Sonke’s MenCare program’s father’s day event in Khayelitsha, which highlighted the importance of male involvement in positive parenting, maternal and child health, and sexual reproductive health and rights.
  • Conducting research on the legal and policy framework of maternal, child and newborn health in South Africa for a UN report.
  • Conducting research on cultural competency practices for working with refugee populations in South Africa for a Sonke training manual for field staff.
  • Organizing and leading “A Night at the Museum” — an overnight, fully-­funded experience for local primary school students centered on human rights and diversity. This also included setting up a fundraising account online to finance the program.
  • Writing and drafting a daily newsletters for the week‐long annual ConCamp, a constitutional literacy program for local high school students.
  • Updating the District Six Site Registry by photographing 60 buildings in the area.

Placements are decided once students are accepted into the program.

Program Requirements

Language: None.

Coursework: Students applying for DukeEngage Cape Town will be working with a group of community service agencies that will be interested in specific qualifications. Those working with the Women’s Legal Centre, for example, should be pre-­law students. Students volunteering with the District Six Museum would benefit from having courses in documentary studies, photography and/or oral history. Students interested in working with SACTWU should have moderate or advanced research and problem solving skills, particularly in the areas of public policy, economics, or political science. In general, some familiarity with South Africa’s recent history will be helpful.

Other Skills: Good writing and communication skills are required in all placements. Familiarity with social media and website development is also useful. While advanced technical skills in media and visual design and GIS mapping are not required, applicants with any training in these areas should mention their skill levels on their applications.

Personal Qualities: Students need to be open to new experiences and to living in a tight-knit community.

Curricular Connections

This program might appeal to students in African & African American Studies; Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies; Global Cultural Studies; History; International Comparative Studies; and Public Policy. There are a number of courses at Duke that students might consider taking in preparation or after the program. (Course offerings vary by semester.)

  • Apartheid South Africa and Democracy
  • Racial Justice: US & South Africa
  • Intro to South African History

Courses on human rights, race, engaged citizenship, social movements, women & gender, nonprofit organizations, civic engagement, and public policy may also be helpful.

Program Details

Description of Community: Cape Town is an urban city of great beauty and wealth as well as extreme poverty. With appropriate cautions, all areas in Cape Town and Johannesburg are relatively safe.

Housing and Meals: Students will be housed at guesthouses in the areas we visit. Each guesthouse is located in a comfortable neighborhood, close to shopping and restaurants. Students will be assigned roommates of the same gender and will share a common bedroom and bathroom.

Students will eat breakfast together (provided by the guesthouse) and will be given a stipend to purchase food for lunch and dinner. Students will have access to a refrigerator at the guest house, but will not have access to cooking facilities. Most students have eaten their meals at local restaurants or cafes or have ordered in. Students share meals twice a week to hear speakers and reflect on their work and activities.

If you do not eat certain types of food for cultural, religious or personal reasons, please contact the DukeEngage office,, to discuss whether or not your dietary needs can be reasonably accommodated at this program site.

Transportation: DukeEngage provides or arranges transportation to and from service placements and all scheduled program activities. Most placements are within walking distance of student accommodations. Transportation is arranged by rental car or taxi when needed.

Communication: Students will be provided with a basic local cell phone for program-related and emergency communication. The guesthouse has free wi-fi, and there are nearby cafes with free wi-fi as well.

Local Safety and Security; Cultural Norms, Mores and Practices: As part of their planning, DukeEngage strongly advises all prospective applicants to familiarize themselves with the common challenges travelers encounter at this program site in order to make an informed application decision that is right for them.  We recommend starting with these two resources:

Accepted participants will continue to find these online resources helpful for informing everyday decisions about staying safe, healthy and comfortable while traveling.

Opportunities for Reflection: Students will participate in weekly reflection sessions. The first two sessions will be led by the program director and/or the site coordinator. Students will be expected to take turns leading the next six sessions, ideally in pairs. Students will also be expected to write weekly blog posts about their experiences.

Other Opportunities: Students will have free time to pursue social activities and have some downtime. There will be occasional weekend field trips. For safety reasons, students are not permitted to spend nights away from the group, and any students wanting to travel more than an hour away from Cape Town will need to get special permission from the program director and/or site coordinator in advance. There are many structured and non-­structured activities that allow students to meet and talk with South Africans and to visit important historical and cultural sites. Open water swimming is not a sponsored activity in any DukeEngage program.

More Information

Preparation for DukeEngage-Cape Town should include some reading on South African history. Allistair Sparks has written numerous books on South Africa, but two of his best are Beyond the Miracle, a study of post-­apartheid South Africa, and The Mind of South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom is a classic description of South Africa’s most important political figure. You might also consult Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa, Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography, and Steve Biko, I Write What I Like. Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood provides an entertaining overview of township life under apartheid and is available in audio format.

The best way to be informed about events relating to South Africa is to subscribe to the email list for the Concilium on Southern Africa (COSA)