After traveling for nearly two days and over 8000 miles from my home, I expected to feel more out of place upon arriving in South Africa. Instead, I hopped off the plane and our group of 12 headed to the mall. We ate some burgers. We drove to our B&B. We passed cafes advertising smoothie bowls and avocado toast. Everyone we met spoke to us without hesitation in English. Accents aside, I was half a world away but felt like I never left the US.
Since arriving in Cape Town, the similarity to the US has only grown stronger. When we venture out to the nearby town, restaurant goers are majority white. In fact, on more than one occasion our carefully curated DukeEngage group brings the only people of color into a business. Of course, unlike the US only the minority of South Africans are white.
That’s not to say I haven’t been learning about South Africa’s reality. The first week in Johannesburg immersed me in the country’s past and present inequalities and the ways they are being addressed. The Apartheid Museum, the Voortrekker monument, Freedom Park, guest speakers, comedy shows — all have shown me intertwining narratives that weave together South African society. I’ve learned far more about the country’s history in 13 days than I ever have in 13 years. But, for the most part, our learning so far relies on heavily funded museums, guided tours, and prestigious professors. I don’t think this is wrong per se, but I recognize this is not how most South Africans learn about the inequalities they face.
Only briefly have we been confronted with the real people we learn about like when we drive through townships to reach our next museum or when a beggar follows our group for a few blocks on the street. It’s devastating and uncomfortable when a child follows you up the street asking for something, anything, to eat. Never in the US have I been confronted so explicitly with poverty. But, I’ve noticed it’s all too easy to become desensitized to this devastation. It’s far too easy to relieve our discomfort by retreating to our villa in the hills.
All that being said, I am learning more about South Africa’s various classes by the day. On Tuesday, I started working at the Southern African Clothing & Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU). The union is an elaborately run organization with over 100,000 members but only a hundred or so employees. During my short time there I’ve begun to understand the relevant issues facing some of South Africa’s working class like wages and transportation. My work is also a 20 minute drive from our villa. It’s a part of Cape Town that is neither rich nor poor. This drive means it’s a part I may have never seen if not for working at SACTWU.
I realize at this point it’s kind of cliche to write about the privilege felt during DukeEngage. Maybe all this talk of privilege only serves to try and self-justify our presence amongst people who give us more than we give them. Whatever the case, I’m ready to continue learning, reflecting, and working for the remaining six weeks.