Service Learning Students Experience Sharp Contrasts in Cape Town

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For two weeks in January, Professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Patty Hnatiuk led seven Wheelock students on a tour of South Africa.  Dr. Azzi-Lessing has written a series of posts on their experiences. (Click to read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.)

Chapter 3: A Journey of Soaring Highs and Sobering Lows

Professors Hnatiuk and Azzi-Lessing, surrounded by Wheelock service learning trip students, at the top of Table Mountain
Professors Hnatiuk and Azzi-Lessing, surrounded by Wheelock students, at the top of Table Mountain

As much as the service learning trip students, Patty, and I hated to leave our friends in Lillydale, we were excited to be headed to Cape Town, South Africa’s most cosmopolitan city and a mecca for visitors from all over the world. What better way to take in Cape Town’s spectacular location between the foot of a vast mountain range and the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, than from atop Table Mountain?  Our bus carried us up the road that zig-zigs along the side of Table Mountain.  Once were about two-thirds of the way up, we disembarked, swallowed our misgivings about climbing into what resembles a glass tram car dangling from a cable, and were whisked up that cable to the top of one of the world’s seven natural wonders.  From what seemed like endless vantage points (and endless opportunities for selfies and group photos ;)), the views of Cape Town and beyond were truly breathtaking. 

Among the many vistas we took in, two stood out: Robben Island, a short distance off the coast, and District Six, which sprawls just below the base of the mountains.  Robben Island is known throughout the world as the location where Nelson Mandela and numerous other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned for many years, in brutal conditions. District Six is far less famous; Patty, the students, and I had just visited the area known as District Six and the museum of the same name, that morning.

Wheelock students listen to Joe Schaffers, Education Officer and former resident of District Six, describe the apartheid policies that led to the destruction of his community
Wheelock students on a service learning trip in South Africa listen to Joe Schaffers, Education Officer and former resident of District Six, describe the apartheid policies that led to the destruction of his community

Deceptively housed in an elegant building in the heart of Cape Town, District Six Museum is another harsh reminder of the injustice and ugliness of South Africa’s apartheid past. It displays the artifacts of a thriving, diverse community of 60,000 men, women, and children, a community that was completely destroyed by South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1970s and early 80s.  Inside the museum there are street signs and signs that once hung in the windows of shops and restaurants, as well as numerous photographs of individuals and families who once called District Six home. The most powerful displays, however; are those that reveal what had been everyday life for the families that lived there. A chipped teacup, a mangled dining chair, a child’s report card, a well-loved doll: reminders that the residents of District Six lived the same kind of normal, joyful, challenging lives that most of us live.  And that all of this was brutally taken from them, because they lived in a multi-racial community under a government that forbade the mixing of whites and people of color.

We were silent as we left the museum and drove out beyond Cape Town’s business district and tourist attractions to a large, desolate stretch of land, marked only by newly paved road and street light poles. The terrain of District Six is sandy and held in place with brush and the occasional solitary tree; the only sounds we could hear were from the wind and distant traffic.  As we stood in the already-blazing sun, we pondered the photographs and artifacts we had just seen, chronicling daily life in a community of 60,000 people who worked, raised children, and socialized right where we were standing, now a barren landscape.  We thought about the terror they experienced with police officers pounding on their doors at night ordering them to leave their homes, and bulldozers closing in to crush and clear away all evidence of the lives they had built. The next day, we would take in the excitement of Cape Town’s waterfront and the dazzling beauty of Table Mountain as seen from the boat that would ferry us to Robben Island.  It would be another day of soaring highs and sobering lows.

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