South Africa Learning Reflections, Pt. 3: On Apartheid and Leaving South Africa

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This summer, professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Bobbi Rosenquest led a group of students on a service-learning trip to South Africa. Prof. Azzi-Lessing agreed to chronicle their travels for us, and we’ll be sharing her writing with you in this three-part series. Thanks so much for the opportunity to see South Africa through your words and pictures!

Read Part One | Read Part Two

The final leg of the 2016 Wheelock student service-learning journey to South Africa included visits to important historical and cultural sites in Johannesburg and Cape Town.  We visited what are perhaps the best known landmarks in Cape Town: Robben Island and Table Mountain.

Boarding a boat on Victoria and Albert waterfront, with its proliferation of shops and restaurants, one might easily expect a trip of pure enjoyment, looking back across the water at the beautiful city bounded by Table Mountain at its north, its other flanks surrounded by ocean. The mood became far more somber, however, once we were settled into a bus and given a tour of Robben Island, an isolated land mass that contains the notorious prison that held, for many years, Nelson Mandela and several other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.  Walking into the prison itself, one is struck by the desolation in which the prisoners had lived.

Our guide, Sipho Msomi, had spent several years in the Robben Island prison for his involvement in attempting to overthrow South Africa’s oppressive apartheid government. He described the many ways in which those running the prison attempted to demoralize and dehumanize the inmates, and the hard labor into which the inmates were forced. The students marveled at Mr. Msomi’s ability to transcend those years of unimaginable oppression and pain, giving searing tours of the prison that once held him to visitors from all over the world.  Although the boat ride back to Cape Town offered even more beautiful scenery, the students were focused on reflecting on both the inhumanity and the human resilience they had learned about on Robben Island.

Later that evening, our driver, Lazerow, took us to the top of Signal Hill, a place I had not heard of during my previous trips to Cape Town. The students, Bobbi, and I were speechless as we watched the sun set over the ocean with Robben Island and the surrounding sea caught up in the spectacular array of changing colors.  I am certain that I was not the only one among our group pondering how such as beautiful place could be the site of such stark injustice and widespread suffering.

The next day, we took the cable car up to the top of majestic Table Mountain, and – despite the frigid conditions – enjoyed even more expansive views of the city. The most memorable moments of our trip to Cape Town, however, came during our visit to the District Six Museum, which chronicles a Cape Town community that was destroyed by the apartheid government beginning in the 1960’s.  Boasting more than 60,000 residents, District Six was bulldozed by the government because it was a thriving multiracial community- something apartheid leaders both hated and feared.

Noor Ibrahim, who was born and raised in District Six before the home that he, his wife and children shared was destroyed, guided the students’ tour of the museum.  When Noor began telling a story about how the carrier pigeons he had raised were able to return to the site of his home in District Six but he and his family were not, one of our students, Madeline Lessing, realized that Noor and his story were the subject of a poem by one of her favorite American poets, Sarah Kay.  Delighted, Noor asked Madeline to read aloud the passage about his pigeons from the book he wrote about his life in District Six – a touching moment that transcended geographic and cultural boundaries.

During our visit, I was pleased to reconnect with an acquaintance, Joe Schaffers, who like Noor, saw his family’s home in District Six destroyed and now works as an educator at the museum.  I met Joe on my first trip to the museum and have enjoyed catching up with him on each subsequent visit.  Although he is now in his 70’s, Joe not only puts in long days educating visitors to the museum, but also performs as lead singer in the jazz band Rendezvous.  Recalling that Joe had invited me during my previous visits to hear his band perform, I inquired and learned that Rendezvous would be performing that night.  Bobbi, the students, and I were eager to hear a South African jazz band perform in an Irish pub in Cape Town (!) and Lazerow gamely agree to take us there after dinner.

Although the pub had seen better days, we were all dazzled by the talent of Joe and his fellow musicians.  We were warmly welcomed and sipped Guinness while enjoying the band’s repertoire, which included a number of well-known American standards. During the break, Joe inquired as to whether any of our students would like to perform with the band. Much to the surprise of us all, recent Wheelock graduate Annie McGunagle stepped onto the stage and performed—along with Joe and a local female vocalist—the Etta James ballad, At Last.  Annie more than held her own, and her fellow singers couldn’t have been more supportive.  The rest of us watched in rapt attention as their voices mingled and the instruments deftly followed along, even when the singing was interrupted with laughter. Once again boundaries were transcended, this time in a much more lighthearted way.

The next day we headed to Johannesburg where we would visit heart-breaking sites like the memorial to school children gunned down by the apartheid government during a demonstration in Soweto, and triumphant ones like South Africa’s Constitutional Court, before heading home to Boston.  Our group had grown more quiet, no doubt due to fatigue and turning over in our minds the many contrasting experiences we encountered and the unforgettable South Africans we’d met.

The students noted that they would be pondering these experiences and conversations in the months – and even years – ahead.  Bobbi and I knew from our own experiences that the question of, “how was your trip to South Africa?” would be difficult for our students to answer.  Especially so, given how racism and injustice continues to hang over both the nation we visited and the one to which we returned. It is hard to find words that don’t come across as naïve and clichéd and sell short the deep learning and comradery that we experienced.  As each of us continues to find the best way to describe these experiences, we are wise to keep in mind the words from the student’s paper I quoted in the first installment: The world is so small and interconnected, and we should treat it that way. It is all about compassion. To which I would add our Lilydale partner Toby Milner’s observation that engagement across geographic and cultural lines is all about building relationships.