Skip to main content

Imagine trying to learn the history of a country in a week. If someone suggested doing that for the United States, Americans would be appalled. Despite its youth relative to the rest of the world, the US’s history is rich and complex, full of different perspectives and experiences. But, that’s exactly what we did for the first week of our DukeEngage: Cape Town, South Africa.

The program started in Johannesburg. We stayed at a bed and breakfast and, when we weren’t eating a delicious home-cooked breakfast, we were traveling in and around the city visiting museums and historical sites galore. We visited the following places: The Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park, Union Buildings, Soweto, Hector Pieterson Museum, Kliptown, Witwatersrand University, Alexandra, The Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill (prison and court), and Lilliesleaf. All in 4 days!

My personal goals for the week were to dispel my assumptions about Apartheid (although I didn’t have too many because I’ve never learned about it in-depth – thanks America-first education) and about South Africa generally. I wished to do so by immersing myself in the nuances of its history to gain a more comprehensive perspective of the country to bring with me to work in Cape Town for the next 7 weeks. It was a heavy task for 4 days, but I achieved it to a higher degree than I thought I would.

Before getting into details, I will say that the places to which our program coordinators, Bill and Kelsey, brought us gave me a sense of those perspectives and experiences that are essential to truly understand a nation’s history. This wasn’t a week of fact-learning and timeline-memorization. It was a week of listening to various accounts of the same time periods and engaging with some people who lived through the time periods about which we learned and some who have studied them, all to gain a sense of how and why the events in South Africa’s history came about and how and why they affected different people in the ways that they did.

But, what I really want to focus on is the accidental learning that took place. I want to talk about the parallels I saw between South Africa’s history and the United States’ history and the differences in how the two nations talk about their history. I’ll do so by talking about two of the places to which we went – namely, Voortrekker and Constitutional Court – and the thoughts I had at each of them.

The Voortrekker Monument: Whose Land is it Anyway?

The Voortrekker Monument is a thing of beauty. It stands tall in architectural splendor atop a hill overlooking Pretoria. But, it stands for something far uglier: The Great Trek. I’ll admit I didn’t know what it was going in. I’m sure Kelsey or Bill said that the Voortrekkers were the Afrikaners who later created Apartheid, but I guess the jet lag wiped that from my memory. My bad.

But listening to the tour guide walk us through the “great leaders” whose head-statues lined the outside of the monument and the chiseled scenes depicting the Great Trek, I felt sucked into the narrative of these courageous underdogs fighting oppression. The guide made them sound like they were escaping a horrible life on the Western Cape and were desperate to find a new home. She made the Zulus against whom the Voortrekkers fought sound like deceitful savages with odd customs and disregard for human life. Once I finally put two and two together that these Voortrekkers were the eventual architects of Apartheid, it hit me that I had heard this story before. Only then it was called “Manifest Destiny.”

Think about it! A group of white settlers seemingly needing more land? Check. Murdering native peoples and convincing themselves that the land didn’t belong to those people anyway? Check. Celebrating it decades later as a triumph over oppression and hardship? Check. This Voortrekker story was the same story I had heard throughout my studies of US history. The only difference? South Africans today look at the Great Trek, the monument, and the Voortrekkers as unjust colonizers who stole land from the tribes who were already there.

It made me wonder: why do we Americans still look back at those early settlers as courageous heroes? Shouldn’t we look at them the same way South Africa looks at the Voortrekkers? You would think that in a nation like the US that supposedly stands up for those who are truly oppressed and tells the world that it is the best would be able to spot the ugly marks of its past and face them head-on. But the difference between South Africa and the US now in this context is simple. The Voortrekkers, now Afrikaners, have lost control of the narrative in South Africa. The whites from Manifest Destiny still have it in the US. Those Zulus who were slain in South Africa are remembered now by a black-controlled government that fought for control of the narrative. The Native Americans who were massacred remain marginalized and silenced, secluded in their reservations. The ancestors of the victims of Manifest Destiny will likely never control the narrative in the US. So, it should be up to us to tell their story and portray the white expansionists as South Africa now portrays the Voortrekkers outside of Afrikaner monuments: as brutal colonizers.

Constitutional Court: Tristan’s Fangirl Moment

When I heard we were going to the Constitutional Court – the highest court in South Africa – I couldn’t contain my excitement. The Constitution of South Africa is what I based my entire DukeEngage application around. I am obsessed with constitutional law and I am still so curious to know how litigation differs between the US and South Africa because of South Africa’s specific, clear, and lengthy Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the visit to Constitutional Court did not provide me with the litigation-comparison lesson I craved. It did, however, show me a different yet equally pertinent area of comparison between the two countries.

The Court is a spectacle itself. Its outer walls say “Constitutional Court” in the 11 official languages of South Africa. Its doors are hand-carved with the major rights enumerated in the Constitution in those different languages. Its inner walls are partially made with the bricks of the prison adjacent to the Court. It is far different than our Supreme Court but beautiful as it is.

The prison is where I want to start. We took a tour of it before entering the Court and heard all about the prison’s history of inhumane treatment of criminals and political prisoners, alike. We heard about its sexual violence, its gang bosses, and its solitary confinement. We heard about its humiliating practices, abuse from its guards, and its illness outbreak due to lack of sanitation. Human rights abuses galore.

But, as our tour guide told us, it was those abuses that made the former prison site the perfect place for the Constitutional Court. South Africa as a whole confronts its past. The country recognizes it, even in its constitutional Preamble, and fights to rectify it. Using the bricks from the prison to build the Court on the former prison site perfectly symbolizes that confrontation with history. South Africa saw its past human rights abuses and responded by drafting the most progressive Constitution in the world and preserving that Constitution within feet of the place that abused those rights the most. Poetic justice at its finest.

You know what country has a heinous past yet has only made broad amendments to its Constitution to somewhat rectify it? Yea, ours. As someone who adores American constitutional law, visiting the South African Constitutional Court angered me a bit. It made me think, why didn’t we recreate our Constitution after slavery ended? Why do we still hold sacred the words of white men who owned people as property and committed genocide to gain land? How can those men’s words govern the way we treat people when they couldn’t even treat nonwhites as humans?

In Constitutional Law, we talk about modalities of interpreting the US Constitution. One of the most popular, used by Supreme Court Justices today, is Originalism: trying to find the original intent of the framers and adjudicate decisions today as they would have. Imagine trying to do that with the people in power in South Africa just 30 years ago. They would never have wanted anything to do with civil rights, humane prison conditions, or healthcare and abortion access. That is an obvious truth. It is also obvious that current South Africa does want those rights. But if it is so obvious that nations change and peoples progress, then why can’t we recognize that in America? Why can’t we accept that America was different in the 1780s, that those past norms are not and should not be norms now, and change accordingly? South Africans are proud of their Constitution. I want to see a day when I can finally be proud of mine.

Going Forward

The week in Johannesburg was vital. I cannot imagine now going into my work at the District Six Museum this coming week without having that week in Joburg to grapple with South Africa’s rich, complex history. Now it’s time for me to try to do the same for the people of District Six. I wonder if working with this story will make me realize something about America that I can try to work with when I’m back home. I can only hope.