Service Learning Trip Brings Reflections on Apartheid and Social Policy


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.

Chapter 1: A Lesson in History and in Social Policy

 A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones. – Nelson Mandela

Wheelock College Service Learning Trip
Wheelock Students and faculty participate in a guided tour of the women’s prison on Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, South Africa.

One would not expect a group of students, on their first visit to a city as appealing and diverse as Johannesburg, to linger in its former prisons.  The city boasts art galleries, craft markets, and the modern and compelling Apartheid Museum, all of which would seem to hold more appeal for a group of young women who had traveled to South Africa on a service learning trip from Boston.  Yet there we were, Professor Patty Hnatiuk, our seven Wheelock students, and me, moving through the second hour of what had been planned to be a 40-minute tour of the Old Fort Prison Complex atop Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill. Patty and I had decided to abbreviate our visit to the prison, as a severe snowstorm in Boston had delayed our departure by two days, forcing us to squeeze the three days of sightseeing in Johannesburg on our itinerary into just one.  Our revised plan called for shorter visits to several sites, in order to expose the students to as much of what Joburg has to offer, as would fit into a single day.  However, to our surprise, the students were moving slowly (beyond what could be blamed on jet lag), asking many questions of our tour guide, and poring over the many exhibits inside what was one of South Africa’s most notorious prisons.

The Old Fort Prison Museum is widely known for its Apartheid-era past, as it held famous human-rights leaders including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and, many years before that, a young Mahatma Gandhi.  As our morning wore on, it became apparent that the students were most absorbed in the centerpiece of Old Fort Prison, the Women’s Gaol, a prison that housed political activists and common criminals, women of all racial and age groups and all stations in life.  Famous black activists, including Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu were held here, as were many of their white counterparts, women who could have turned a blind eye to the evils of apartheid but chose instead to fight against it.  Perhaps because we were a group of all women, the stories contained in the Gaol were most compelling.

Here, we felt the heartache of women being arrested by the Apartheid Government for shopping for food in a restricted area, mothers who never returned home to the hungry children awaiting them.  We listened to our guide describe the brutal and degrading strip searches, so-called delousing treatments, the withholding of menstrual supplies, undergarments, and blankets that women prisoners endured.  We flinched as he described how women of all ages were beaten and nearly starved to death.  And we were horrified to learn that more than 40 children were born to women incarcerated in the prison, without medical assistance or supplies. Many of these children were given to relatives to raise outside the prison walls; however, those born to women without nearby family members grew up inside the prison, never attending school or interacting with the outside world.

Wheelock Students and faculty on South Africa Service Learning trip
Mindy Simmons, Amanda Jacobsen, Rae Petrin, Carrie Legeyt, Professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Patty Hnatiuk, Adzele Benoit and (front row) Casey Smith and Hayley Adamuska in front of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

The prison’s graceful arches and courtyards full of greenery sharply contrasted with the stories of brutality and degradation that took place there.  Scrubbed clean of the blood and human waste that once defiled it, the complex now has a peaceful, meditative aura.  As the students took turns stepping into one of the tiny solitary confinement cells and reading the vivid accounts of the women who had been imprisoned there, their faces registered deep sadness.  All of us, however, found solace in hearing of the ways in which those women brought bits of humanity back to such an inhuman place: how they celebrated one another’s birthdays and how they comforted a young woman who had been imprisoned just days before her wedding. We reflected on the many acts of courage and resistance, large and small, that took place at the prison as we silently followed our guide across the plaza that leads to the Constitutional Court.

The students, Patty and I filed through the massive, hand-carved wooden doors of South Africa’s highest court, as our guide pointed out the symbolism of nearly every aspect of this soaring, light-filled building.  Led by President Nelson Mandela, the new, democratically elected government went to great lengths to ensure that its courthouse welcomes average citizens and every element of its design underscores that its judges are servants of the people, rather than the other way around.  The windows inside the chamber, for example, are positioned so that only the feet of passersby can be seen, to emphasize that the court must deliver justice regardless of the age, gender, or socio-economic status of those who come before it.  In a matter of moments, we had moved from a one of the most potent reminders of South Africa’s shameful history to its most powerful beacon for human rights and social justice.  As impressive as the Constitutional Court building was, however, what stood out most prominently to all of us was what we read in South Africa’s constitution itself, a document that includes these proclamations:

Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.

Everyone has the right to have access to ­

1.    health care services, including reproductive health care;

2.    sufficient food and water; and

3.    social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, appropriate social assistance.

All children have the right to:

2.    family care or parental care, or to appropriate alternative care when removed from the family environment;

3.     basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services;

4.    the protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation;

As the students would witness in the days ahead, widespread poverty thwarts the extension of these and other constitutional rights to millions of South Africans.  However, coming from a wealthier, much more-developed nation in which efforts to extend health care to all are routinely condemned, where one in five children live in poverty, and budgets for child protective services are continuously cut, we found in these and other elements of South Africa’s Constitution a stinging rebuke.  Several of the students expressed amazement that a nation that so severely oppressed millions of its people such a short time ago could transition to one that espoused the rights of all of its citizens to health care, sufficient food, and adequate housing.  And with this, we began a long discussion of how a nation’s values are embodied in its policies; a discussion that focused less on the nation we were visiting than on the one we had left behind.


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