Impending Election Results: ANC’s Heroic Narrative Slowly Losing Political Influence

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Yesterday was South Africa’s election day. It’s an exciting time to be in the country as a political science major and experience the political workings of another country. South Africa’s dominant party, the African National Congress (ANC) has been in power since the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994 and the first democratic election in which Nelson Mandela became president. The ANC has been using the romantic narrative of their involvement in the revolution to end apartheid to maintain their political power, but their popularity has been decreasing since the end of Mandela’s presidency. The ANC has been accused of numerous accounts of corruption and failing to deliver on promises concerning the poorly equipped state infrastructure, the huge persisting wealth gap between the rich and the poor that was established during apartheid, and soaring national crime rates. Their past presidents have questionable histories, such as Mbeki denying the presence and cause of the AIDS pandemic and Zuma standing trial for rape and corruption before being elected to the presidency. Despite these factors, the ANC continues to enjoy their title as the party that vanquished apartheid; however, as the older generation that experienced apartheid begins to dwindle and the “born-free” generation begins to vote, the ANC may experience a less comfortable majority in Parliament. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is slowly becoming more popular as people are getting tired of being disappointed by the ANC.

The ANC undoubted realises this. Somehow, my South African cell phone number ended up on the texting list of a marketing campaign. The night before election: day, I received these two consecutive text messages:

“Your family is better off now compared to 20 years ago. Your children will prosper even more in the future. ANC Unites, DA Divides. Vote ANC.”

“SA belongs to all who live in it. Don’t believe DA lies. ANC is home for all with tried and tested leaders. ANC Unites, DA Divides. Vote ANC.”

It is evident that the ANC cannot use their legacy of being the heroes of the apartheid era forever to maintain their political power. The newer generation is demanding the fulfilment of promises that would better South African society, and they are increasingly willing to go to another party to get what they want from their government. If the ANC wants to stay in power, the party must undergo some serious changes and rid itself of its rampant corruption. I am excited to see this year’s election results and how South African politics evolve over the next few years of democracy.

Khoisan Cultural Preservation Site

Recreation of Khoisan Community

Recreation of Khoisan Community

Last Saturday, I went to a Khoisan cultural preservation site on an excursion provided by my study abroad program. We had previously learned about some of the history and culture of the Khoisan people in class, and I was excited to see the preservation site and learn more about one of the oldest groups of human beings in recorded history. As a peace studies major, I was also curious to learn more about the genocide of the Khoisan during South Africa’s colonial encounter and experience the positive ways in which the remaining people are preserving a culture that holds such importance concerning the foundation of humanity.

The site was located on the West Coast, and we rode on a bus for a little under an hour before arriving at the site. We were greeted by our guide in the original language of the Khoisan, and I was amazed by the speed and smoothness with which he spoke the ancient language of his people, his speech peppered with a variety of clicking sounds.

Khoisan Tools, Clothing, and Lifestyle

Khoisan Tools, Clothing, and Lifestyle

We took a tour around the premises and learned about the basic aspects of Khoisan life. I learned about the skills of the Khoisan in reading the prints of animals in the sand and being able to disclose a lot of information derived from the simple shape of the foot on the ground; the ways in which the Khoisan skilfully hunted their prey; the art painted by the Khoisan and their connection to nature and the world around them; and the ways in which the Khoisan communities lived, worked, and operated. It was a wonderful experience, and I believe I now have a better understanding of the Khoisan people.

“Vac” (Fall Break): Cape Agulhas Roadtrip

Cape Agulhas, Southernmost Tip of Africa

Cape Agulhas, Southernmost Tip of Africa

Over the fall break, a few friends and I rented a car and travelled to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the African continent. The drive was beautiful, though it took some time to get used to driving on the left side of the road. We stopped at a few small towns along the way, and I noticed that they were much more racially homogenous than areas in and around Cape Town (there was not much of a visible black, coloured, or white European population- people seemed to be largely Afrikaner, and the signs on the shops and restaurant were mostly in Afrikaans). This made me realize that Cape Town is perhaps not the best representation of racial integration in South Africa, as many areas are still racially segregated and unequal.

Morning in the Cabin: Cup of Tea Overlooking the Sea

Morning in the Cabin: Cup of Tea Overlooking the Sea

Yoga on the Beach!

Yoga on the Beach!

Once we arrived at Cape Agulhas, we checked into our cabin and explored the area. The cabin was absolutely wonderful as it overlooked the sea, and we had a perfect view of the sunset. We also saw where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet at the tip, which was awesome!

Where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans Meet

Where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans Meet

African Sunset

African Sunset

It was definitely an incredible experience to stand on the edge of the southernmost tip of the continent and look out onto the endless sea stretching before me. I felt very small and realized how far away from home I really am.

Inside of the Cabin

Inside of the Cabin

Volunteering Abroad: Helping or Hurting?

I think it’s easy for foreigners to fall into the whole “we-must-save-Africa” mind set. Despite its poverty, inequality, and corruption (as any South African would tell you definitely exist), South Africa does not need rescuing from outsiders; these people are perfectly capable of working towards improving their nation’s infrastructure and solving social justice issues themselves. I recently read an article about how middleclass white Westerners like myself (who have no acquired skills like being doctors or professional human rights lawyers and advocates) should stop trying to travel abroad and volunteer in an effort to “save” other countries. The article argued that these “volontourists” end up simply taking away the local people’s agency to solve their own problems, which perpetuates a colonial style of dependency on white Western entities.

I’ve been struggling with the message of this article, because I think it definitely presents some valid points. But Cape Town has already given me so many wonderful sights, experiences, and people, that I feel like it’s only natural that I would like to give something back to this community. Surely, I have skills or knowledge that can help someone, somewhere here- doesn’t everyone? Do we not all share the common link of humanity, and therefore, share common goals to help one another if and when we can? I think the key to volunteering abroad lies in respecting cultural perspectives that might differ from your own, and learning to help achieve what the community says it needs – not what you personally think is best for that community “because that’s how we do it at home”. In short, you must have humility.

I joined UCT’s Habitat for Humanity, and while the builds in the townships are great, they are only once or twice a month. I would really like to regularly volunteer somewhere once or twice a week and try to establish genuine relationships with the people I encounter there. This is why I recently toured Place of Hope, a shelter for women and children who have suffered abuse. The shelter offers a variety of services for those who need them, including job training, healthcare education, and professional counseling. The facility, the manager, and the women with whom I interacted were truly inspiring and passionate.

While I would love to begin to regularly help out at Place of Hope, transportation is a bit tricky- I do not have access to a car here and public transportation is often expensive or risky in certain parts of town or times of day. Hopefully I can work something out and start volunteering soon!

More Exploring: Cable Car & Hike Up Table Mountain; Human Rights Day

A few days ago, I took a cable car ride up Table Mountain. It was weird to finally be on the actual mountain, instead of staring at it from a distance like I do every day on campus. We then hiked to the highest point of the mountain. The view was absolutely beautiful! I understand why it’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Cable car up Table Mountain

Cable car up Table Mountain

 

View from Table Mountain

View from Table Mountain

 

Standing on the highest point of Table Mountain

Standing on the highest point of Table Mountain

 

Last Friday, March 21st, was South Africa’s national Human Rights Day, which commemorates the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. This was when anti-Apartheid activist leader Robert Subukwe led a protest in which 5,000 to 7,000 black Africans burned the passes they were forced to carry outside their “native reserves” to prove that they were employed by a white boss and not trying to escape the horrifying living conditions to which they were confined. This event led to a violently suppressive reaction of the state, and 69 protesters were shot and killed by the police. Though the protest ended in tragedy, it is seen as a huge step toward the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the liberation of its citizens.

The university closed for the holiday, and my friends and I celebrated by going to the Human Rights Festival in the Company’s Gardens. We watched some local musicians perform, visited the vendors selling food and jewelry, and took advantage of the Iziko South African Museum’s free admittance for the day. We then walked around the city centre for a while and explored Longmarket and Bo-Kaap. It was a wonderful way to celebrate and commemorate the fight for liberation in this “Rainbow Nation”.

Human Rights Festival in the Company's Garden

Human Rights Festival in the Company’s Garden

 

Iziko South African Museum

Iziko South African Museum

 

Iziko South African Museum

Iziko South African Museum: Traditional Dress

 

Iziko South African Museum: Original Cave Paintings Found in South Africa, "The Cradle of Humanity"

Iziko South African Museum: Original Cave Paintings Found in South Africa, “The Cradle of Humanity”

 

Bo-Kaap, a colorful part of Cape Town. This was also my last day of being a teenager (I turned twenty on the 22nd).

Bo-Kaap, a colorful part of Cape Town.

My Experience with Religion in Cape Town

As I was walking down the sidewalk back to my house, lugging a huge bag of groceries on my shoulder, a woman stopped me and asked if I had a few minutes to talk about God. I was raised Catholic, but now I am happily Buddhist, and I do not personally believe in the existence of a god. I find the concept of a god to be disempowering, honestly, and I think people would be happier if they relied more on themselves and less on a higher power to solve their problems. But I still respect people who worship a god, and I still find religion as a social function absolutely fascinating, so I put my bag of groceries down on the sidewalk and told this woman that I would love to talk about God with her.

She introduced herself as Sister Gasnat, and she was accompanied by Sister Catherine. They were members of the Church of Christ, located above the Pick-n-Pay grocery store on Main Road. Both seemed warm, kind-hearted, and genuinely excited to have a conversation with me. Sister Gasnat asked me if I had heard of God being both male and female. Since I had left the Catholic Church partly due to the inherent sexism I felt is embedded in the institution, mostly due to the exclusion of women from the priesthood, I was fascinated. She took out her Bible and showed me several verses on its worn pages, which were scattered with markings and notes that she had added over the years. She knew each verse by heart and flipped to them with ease. She demonstrated how the book of Revelations spoke of Jesus and “his bride”, and well as how God made both man and woman in His image. Therefore, according to Sister Gasnat, God had both male and female forms. After we spoke for a while, she gave me her contact information, invited me to a Bible study meeting, and wished me a nice day.

After this particular encounter, accompanied by my experience at the Presbyterian service in Gugulethu, I am starting to form a basic idea of how religion operates in Cape Town. Christianity is definitely the majority religion, though I have also seen a number of Islamic mosques here. It seems that the poorer the area I am in, the more religious buildings I find. Religion appears to be used as a source of comfort and hope, especially given the sometimes horrific economic disparities in the area.

Christianity was originally brought to native South Africans by European missionaries. The religion was sometimes met with acceptance, while other times, the teachings were forced upon the indigenous populations. A major role of the missionaries was to educate children, which over time, led to the proliferation of Christianity throughout the country. Today, it is the dominant religion in South Africa. Many people argue that the missionaries used Christianity to destroy traditional African customs and religious practices; however, I argue that Africans did not just blinded accept Christianity. It seems like they have taken the religion and blended in with some uniquely cultural concepts. This can be seen how the Presbyterian service in Gugulethu was mainly administered in isiXhosa, their native language. Another example is how the woman on the sidewalk spoke to me about a maternalistic God, which is far from being a western concept. She also referred to herself and her friend as “sister”, which resembles the respectful title “sisi” in isiXhosa culture.

I plan on attending a Soka Gakkai International Buddhist meeting this Sunday, and I look forward to seeing how my own religion is applied in South Africa!

Gugulethu Township Weekend Homestay

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Shacks in Gugulethu – photo credit to my friend Katie Brooks, instagram @katieebrookss

Last weekend, I traveled with my program to Gugulethu, a large township outside of Cape Town. Townships are the areas that the white nationalist government created during the Apartheid era in order to separate the races in residential areas. Thousands of blacks were forcedly torn from their land and homes to be moved into these impoverished, heavily overcrowded areas. Inside the townships, there were very little educational opportunities, resources, or healthcare.

The townships were designed to act as a reservoir of labor from which white employers could draw workers out when they were needed and then send them back when they were no longer necessary. Blacks had to carry passes on them at all times while outside the townships to prove to white authorities that they were working and not trying to escape the townships. Black Africans were not even considered to be citizens of South Africa during Apartheid, and therefore, were not afforded any of the same rights or protections as white South Africans. Today, although all races are promised political equality in the nation’s new constitution, there is still a huge racially based economic inequality that is illustrated today in the townships.

After arriving in Gugulethu, we went on a bus tour through the area. It was my first time actually being inside a township for an extended period of time, and it looked much different than how it appeared from the freeway while driving past it. People were walking around wearing normal clothes and carrying groceries and small children. It would look like any other town, except for the extremely small and often dilapidated houses that lined the streets. The homes were built so closely together that they appeared to share adjacent walls.

Something that particularly struck me was the apparent economic disparity that existed even within the township. Some houses were small but made of bricks or plaster and appeared to be clean and well kept. Other homes, sitting just across the street from these standard houses, were simply shacks built with sheets of tin, plywood, and other scraps of various materials. I remember trying to grasp the fact that entire families woke up every day to this reality.

These economic discrepancies could probably be attributed to unemployment rates: our tour guide stated that approximately 50 percent of Gugulethu residents were employed, which made Gugulethu “a nicer township than others”. I could not believe that an employment rate of 50 percent made Gugulethu a more successful township. Many residents established hair salons, food stands, and car repair shops along the streets in an attempt to support themselves and their families. Most residents who are employed, however, work outside the township in Cape Town and surrounding areas. This discourages many people from leaving the townships, because if they were to move into a “nicer” area further away from the city, then they would have to pay more every day for transportation to their place of work.

At one point of the tour, we got off the bus and walked around an area entirely made of dilapidated shacks. As a white middleclass woman, I felt somewhat like an intruder who was simply taking a break from my comfortable life to momentarily experience someone else’s impoverished reality. While I felt that I received some stares from local residents, I never experienced any outward hostility. People generally ignored us or even welcomed us with a smile. I suppose they might be used to white tourist groups visiting their township in an attempt to attain a more holistic view of South Africa, or at least, to satisfy their curiosity about life in a township.

After the tour and an amazing home-cooked lunch, we split into small groups and went with our respective host families to spend the evening and night with them. I stayed in the house of a kind mother named Toto with her two teenage nieces and three young grandchildren. The house was small but clean, organized, and well decorated. I could tell that Toto took pride in her home décor, as well as her cooking – we ate another delicious dinner with the family. Interestingly, the nieces packaged the leftover food and took it to their neighbor’s home to share. Toto explained that her home and her neighbors’ homes were like one giant family, because everyone looked after each other’s children and houses, as well as shared food. This kind of arrangement appeared to be common in Gugulethu: closely knit communities were formed and valued, which is another reason why many people do not want to leave the township, even if they can afford to live in a “nicer” area. Commonalities like poverty, crime, and historical oppression have created strong bonds between people in the area.

I asked Toto (who I called Mama, as a sign of respect in Xhosa), how she felt about the alarmingly high rates of crime in Gugulethu and other townships. She told me that rape and theft were major problems in the area. She said that she was afraid to walk alone at night, so she carried very little money and kept her phone in her bra in case someone tried to snatch her purse. When I asked her what she thought was the cause of crime, she blamed unemployment and rampant drug usage. She said that the government was unwilling and unable to control drug trafficking and selling, especially those that come from other African countries. She spoke about how dealers would even sell drugs to children at school. I then asked what she thought about the state police’s responses to crime, and she told me some police are corrupt, but not all of them were bad. She then talked about how much she trusted God to protect her and her family, and how she believed He would bring her community through their troubles.

The next morning, these beliefs of trusting God were reinforced when we attended a Sunday Presbyterian Church service with our host families. The first thing I noticed was how the congregation was overwhelmingly comprised of women. This would fit the general gendered stereotype of women being more religious than men. Once the service began, it was a very spiritually moving experience. This was especially true for the hymns, which were a blend of Gospel and traditional Xhosa music. It seemed like the congregation uses religion for both the empowering aspect of actively praying to conquer their struggles, as well as for the comforting concept of “laying one’s burdens” on God and trusting that He will provide. One prayer compared the people in the congregation, who have been historically oppressed and isolated, to the Israelites in the Bible. They feel as if they share the same struggle of surviving the “desert” of their lives, with God leading them to happiness and salvation.

In conclusion, my homestay experience was very inspiring and enlightening. From the stories of extreme crime and poverty that I had heard about, I was surprised to find happy people living their lives as joyfully and peacefully as possible. Obviously, the people in Gugulethu still continue to face major struggles in terms of relative deprivation, an ineffective criminal justice system, lacking educational opportunities, and a poorly designed infrastructure. The close family-like community that I found in the midst of these things, however, was a true testament to the strength of the human spirit and the desire for freedom, peace, and equality for all.

Mini Taxi Bus System

I am proud to say that I have officially experienced the wonder that is the mini taxi bus system. I remember that when I first arrived in Cape Town, I was horrified and frightened by the men screaming and whistling while hanging out the open doors of large white vans riding up and down Main Road. Now, I see it as a viable method of cheap, efficient transportation.

Typically, one man drives the taxi, and another man (called the conductor) hangs out the van and shouts its final destination to pedestrians on the sidewalk. There has been a number of times that I have been walking one direction, and a charming conductor has stopped the van and tried to convince me to join them going in the opposite direction. In Cape Town, you never have to purposely hail a taxi – you literally just stand on the side of the road and they come directly to you.

It’s hard to say how many people can fit into one taxi, because the conductors literally cram as many people as possible into the vehicle. There are technically usually around eleven to twelve proper seats, but they also use cushions, crates, and pieces of wood between seats to accommodate even more passengers. The variety of the passengers is pretty diverse, as well. I have seen old, young, white, black, male, and female people use the system. You simply tell the conductor where you want to go, and if it’s on the main route, they will drive there and drop you off at your location.

I took one taxi bus from Rosebank to Cape Town for just six rand – the equivalent of 60 cents in the United States. A normal cab traveling the same distance would have cost over 100 rand – the equivalent of over 10 dollars in the United States. If you don’t mind squeezing into tight spaces and sitting on the laps of a number of strangers, then I would recommend the mini taxi buses. They are one of the most unique, interesting, and hilarious aspects of Cape Town that I have experienced thus far.

Cape Town Pride Festival

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Today, I went to the Cape Town Pride Festival, a celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersexual, and asexual (LGBTQIA) community. Even though I do not identify within the community, I am an avid support of equality and the right for adults to enjoy loving, consensual relationships without any government interference. It was a great way for me to observe another aspect of Cape Town’s culture and people.

In my Gender, Sexuality, and Politics class here at UCT, we have been discussing the anti-gay bill that was recently just passed in Uganda. This bill makes homosexuality punishable by life in prison, as well as incriminates people who do not report to the authorities someone they know to be gay. In my Culture and Social Life in the 21st Century class, we discussed how the government is using the argument that homosexuality is “un-African” and not part of Uganda’s culture to defend the bill, even though there is a great amount of evidence that homosexuality has existed in Africa centuries before any western colonizers arrived to the continent.

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The Cape Town Pride Festival definitely targeted this issue, with signs that stated, “Love Uganda, Hate Homophobia” and “It’s Illegal to Be Gay in My County – I Am a Refugee”. It seemed to be empowering for the LGBTQIA community to have a space to claim as their own and be united in who they are. I have gone to plenty of gay bars and festivals in the United States to support my friends who identify as LGBTQIA, but these spaces at home were not quite as passionate or urgent as the festival in Cape Town. Obviously, the United States still has a long way to go in terms of equality and ending discrimination, but people are being exiled, imprisoned, and executed today in parts of Africa for their sexual orientation.

The Cape Town Pride Festival was both a joyous and heartbreaking experience, as well as a reminder about the importance of empowering of an oppressed community to initiate change.

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High-Context vs. Low-Context Cultures

I’m learning that South Africans do not explain things as thoroughly as Americans do. I believe that this has to do with differences in culture: mainly, high-context and low-context differences. (These terms were first coined by Edward T. Hall, by the way.)

In a class I took at home before arriving in Cape Town, we studied cross-cultural communications. We analyzed the concept that in some cultures, expectations and situations are more specifically explained, leaving very little guesswork to the individual. These societies are classified as having “low-context cultures”, which typically describes the United States. An example to illustrate this point is looking at a to-go coffee cup in the U.S.: it probably says something like, “Warning: Contents May Be Hot“.

In other cultures, things are meant to be figured out using common sense and judging situations based on the cultural context. These societies are said to have “high-context” cultures, which are present in most Asian and African countries. In these places, a coffee cup that had the label, “Warning: Contents May Be Hot” would probably seem absolutely ridiculous.

Adjusting to these cultural differences has been an academic challenge. For example, in all of my course syllabi, I am required to “write an essay” in response to a provided prompt each week. In the United States, the assignment would list how many pages the response should be, what kind of font should be used, how the lines should be spaced, which citation format should be implemented, etc. But here in South Africa, the specific mechanical details are simply left to the individual student to judge and decide. At first, I was aggravated by this cultural complexity (i.e. “How difficult is it to put how long this paper should be on the assignment?!”); but then, I remembered that experiencing new things was the reason I wanted to study abroad. I now both appreciate how easy my home culture makes it to complete assignments and figure out expectations, but at the same time, I am enjoying this new sense of freedom and self-reliance in my classwork!