Stories of Sacrifice and Courage: South Africa Service Trip

 Part 3 in a series of blog posts about Wheelock College’s Service Trip to South Africa. Read the full series

The last two stops on our South African journey brought us to Cape Town and Johannesburg to learn more about the country’s past, present, and future.

The students found our visits to Robben Island and the District Six Museum, with tours led by individuals whose own lives were affected, to be particularly moving. Cape Town’s District Six Museum tells the story of a thriving, multi-racial community of over 60,000 that was erased by the Apartheid government during the 1960s and 70s. Families were evicted and homes were bulldozed with little notice. Most former residents were forced to find housing outside the city, where they were cut off from their friends, extended family, and employment. The museum displays many artifacts representing life in District Six: street signs, family photos, fragments of children’s toys. Our tour was led by Joe Schaffers, whose family was banished and whose home was destroyed when he was twenty-four years old. His personal recollections gave the story of District Six power far beyond what the exhibits alone could convey.

Joe Schaffer describes life before and after the erasure of Cape Town’s District Six

We again had the privilege of hearing personal testimony when we visited Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town. Our tour of the prison was led by Kgotso, a former inmate who had served time there from 1984 to 1991 for activities in resistance to Apartheid. In contrast to the wild beauty of Robben Island, Kgotso recounted the severely harsh conditions under which the inmates lived and the cruel and degrading treatment to which they were subjected.

Several of our students noted how hearing about day-to-day life in the prison added new perspective to their understanding of the price paid by Nelson Mandela and so many others who fought for a free and democratic South Africa. Too often, the students reflected, the extent of this sacrifice is lost as the world focuses on the triumph of what Mandela and his comrades ultimately accomplished.

The themes of sacrifice and courage followed us through our last day in South Africa, when we visited Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, the site of both men’s and women’s prisons that once held hundreds of individuals who dared to challenge Apartheid policies. Although our guide this time was a young woman who had grown up in South Africa’s hard-won democracy, she effectively conveyed many of the horrors to which inmates had been subjected. As we exited the prisons, our guide led us across a courtyard to our final stop, the Constitutional Courthouse, where the country’s highest court presides. From the soaring tree-like pillars in the lobby, to the recycled prison bricks used to build the courtroom, this structure is a powerful testament to the South African people’s dedication to human rights and freedom.

Standing before its enormous hand-carved doors, we could feel the power of that dedication, not only from Kgotso and Joe Schaffers, but also the from the staff members of Masimanyane Women’s Rights Organization and the Good Work Foundation, from the teachers and principals of the early childhood centres, and from the many other South Africans we were privileged to meet throughout this transformative journey.

Lenette Azzi-Lessing, Wheelock College Professor of Social Work, is the author of “Behind from the Start: How America’s War on the Poor is Harming Our Most Vulnerable Children” (2017, Oxford University Press). She joined the Wheelock faculty in 2006, with more than 25 years’ experience as a social worker, administrator, and policy advocate. Her work focuses on improving the well-being and life chances of vulnerable, young children and their families, particularly those living in poverty and those involved in the child protective system. Dr. Azzi-Lessing is the founding director of Wheelock’s Graduate Certificate Program in Early Childhood Mental Health and is faculty leader of the college’s Partnership for Early Childhood Development in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.