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Learning for justice in post-apartheid South Africa

South Africa, Cape Town
Dates June 11 - August 7
Program Focus

Assisting social agencies seeking to improve life in townships, advocating for affordable housing access in the city, documenting the life histories of retired factory workers, and promoting health and economic reform.

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

DukeEngage-Cape Town Overview

The program begins with a two-day tour of the city and its environs. Students will visit monuments, institutions, and neighborhoods in order to better understand South Africa’s history of colonial settlement, apartheid, political struggle, and liberation. Following an initial orientation, students will dedicate the remainder of the program to working at a variety of social agencies. These are organizations seeking to advocate for and improve the lives of ordinary Capetonians. 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 system. These partners advocate for worker’s rights, socioeconomic, racial, and gender justice, women’s health and empowerment. In the course of their placements, students will have the opportunity to meet with South Africans who were antiapartheid activists, union organizers, and legal advocates who fought the rigid system of apartheid. Apartheid, established in 1948, operated to strip South Africans of color of full rights of citizenship and subjected a majority to racial, gender, and class discrimination. Organized struggle on the part of individuals and organizations including the African National Congress, Black Consciousness Movement, South African Students’ Organization, etc. would eventually force the state’s hand. In 1994 South Africa held its first democratic elections extending the franchise to black South Africans. DukeEngage Cape Town affords students an opportunity to better understand this history and the many efforts to reshape South African society after almost 350 years of settler colonialism.

DukeEngage-Cape Town began as an attempt to introduce Duke students to a society remarkably similar to the United States—one where race played a fundamental role in determining a citizen’s fate, but also inspired a long-term political battle to eradicate the system of state violence and oppression. The civil rights movement in the US has been compared to the antiapartheid struggle, and while there are certainly parallels, given the historical time frame, political strategies and repertoires of struggle, there are many differences too. The scale of struggle, for one, is important to keep in mind and easy comparison between South Africa’s civil war and civil rights in the United States requires careful consideration. In learning the history of South Africa and working with social groups and organizations dedicated to improving that society, students have an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the values and the conflicts that continue to shape the history of of both countries.


Goals for Students

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 thoughtful citizens.


Partnership Opportunities

Former participants have worked with the following agencies:

  • District Six Museum*
  • Ndifuna Ukwazi (urban land and housing issues)
  • Women’s Legal Centre
  • Black Sash (women’s antiapartheid organization focused on social policy)*
  • Treatment Action Campaign (an organization dedicated to supporting those affected by HIVAIDS)*
  • Hate Crimes Working Group*
  • Sonke Gender Justice*
  • South African Clothing and Textiles Worker’s Union (SACTWU)
  • Scalabrini Center for Refugees

*No longer a current partner


And in the following categories of service:

  • Legal assistance
  • Research assistance
  • Policy analysis
  • Education and teaching
  • Community outreach
  •  Community organizing
  • Documenting past experiences through the recording of 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 major human rights violations against sex workers for journalists to use to report on sex worker decriminalization, and researching and writing a report on US foreign policy and its impact on the global state of reproductive rights legislation.
  •  Conducting research on the legal and policy framework of maternal, child and newborn health in South Africa for a UN report.
  • Conducting research on worker productivity and its relation to neuroscience, and using the research to compile a guide for workers, organizers, and managers within a trade union setting.
  • 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 fundraising to finance the program.
  • Conducting meetings with former factory workers and shop stewards to contribute to a book on the lives of factory workers in South Africa.
  • Teaching digital literacy classes to English second language and primarly French speaking immigrants and refugees from various parts of the African continent.
  • Writing and drafting a daily newsletter for the week‐long annual ConCamp—a constitutional literacy program for local high school students.

Placements are determined once students are accepted into the program.


Program Requirements

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


Program Details

Description of Community: Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest city and the Cape of Good Hope, some 45 miles from the city center, is the original landing point for Dutch East India Company sailors and traders in the seventeenth century. Jan Van Riebeeck, colonial administrator and explorer, first reached the Cape in 1652. Originally selected for its relative “equidistance” between Europe and Asia, this outpost quickly became a way station for European explorers and seafarers. The Cape is regarded as a region of great beauty given the confluence of mountains and oceans—Table Mountain and the Hottentot Hollands and Atlantic and Indian Oceans, respectively. Originally home to Khoi and San people, today Cape Town and the greater Cape provincial region are settled by the descendants of Dutch and English colonizers, Xhosa speaking people, and Afrikaans speaking Cape Coloureds and Cape Malays as well as an increasing number of foreign nationals hailing from as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and other sub-Saharan nations. The city is cosmopolitan, multicultural, and multilingual. However, as starkly beautiful as the city is, Cape Town is also strikingly unequal. And while wealthy Capetonians and international visitors live proximate to sites of natural beauty, the city’s African and Coloured populations live primarily in periurban zones on the Cape Flats. The legacy of decades of forced removals and apartheid segregation, Cape Town for all its breathtaking beauty remains an abject lesson in the severest socioeconomic and racial inequality. Students will be well-served by thinking about the complexities of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid legacy and how their internships address that history. There will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy the best of what Cape Town has to offer while remaining aware of the ways in which residents of the city enjoy varying degrees of access to beaches, botanical gardens, the winelands, and the mountains, as well as access to activities contingent on earnings such as theater, music venues, restaurants, and the like.


Housing and Meals: Students will be housed at a guesthouse within the City Bowl (Cape Town’s downtown). Students will be assigned roommates 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 modestly priced local restaurants or cafes, or have ordered takeout. Students share meals twice a week when there is a guest speaker and to reflect on their work and activities.


Transportation: Most placements are within walking distance of student accommodations. Whenever feasible, accounting for questions of safety and proximity, students will use the MyCiTi Bus system.


Local Safety, Security, and Cultural Norms: If you have special needs related to health, cultural, or religious practices, please contact the DukeEngage office,, to discuss whether or not your needs can be reasonably accommodated in this program.

For information related to how your religion, race, sexual/gender identity, ability or other aspects of your identity might impact your travels, we recommend starting with the Diversity, Identity and Global Travel section of the DukeEngage website.

We encourage students who have questions or concerns about health or safety in international programs to check Duke’s International SOS (ISOS) portal for relevant information.


Reflection and Enrichment: Students will take turns leading reflection sessions in pairs. They will be invited to share their feelings about the program, their work in Cape Town, and the experience of living in postapartheid South Africa. Students will gather every Sunday afternoon for a quiet writing session to prepare weekly blog posts about their stay.

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. There will also be occasional weekend field trips. For safety reasons, students are not permitted to spend nights away from the group, and any student wanting to travel more than an hour away will need to get special permission in advance.


Curricular Connections

While all students are welcome to apply, this program might especially appeal to students studying African & African American Studies; Cultural Anthropology; Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies; Global Cultural Studies; History; International Comparative Studies; or Public Policy. There are a number of courses at Duke that students might consider taking in preparation or after the program, for example:

  • South African Biography and Autobiography
  • Introduction to South African History

(Course offerings vary by semester.)

Additionally, students might seek out the advice and counsel of other faculty working in and on South Africa. These include:

  • Catherine Admay (Sanford School of Public Policy)
  • Catherine Mathers (International Comparative Studies)
  • Ingrid Meintjes (postdoctoral fellow in Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies)
  • Louise Meintjes (Music and Cultural Anthropology)
  • Karin Shapiro (African & African American Studies)

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


More Information

Preparation for DukeEngage Cape Town should include reading about South Africa – whether history, literature, or biography – and watching films. Titles might include:

Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom
Nigel Worden’s A History of Modern South Africa
Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like
Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood
Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut: A Novel
Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia
Yvette Christiansë’s Unconfessed

“Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony”
“District 9”
“Sew the Winter to My Skin”

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) You can be added to the listserv by emailing Meredith Watkins (