In Jo’burg!

Hey everyone! I am officially in South Africa. This week, we’ve been in Jo’burg for orientation. It’s been really great—but so busy, I feel like I’ve been here a month! First, I flew in…which was a 16-hour flight. There were a ton of kids from my program on my flight. I think it was almost half of us. When we got to the lodge on Friday we’re staying in, we met everyone else and headed to a hotel lounge to hang out.

Saturday, we started out with a lecture on the history of South Africa. The 1400s-present, all squeezed into two hours. The lecture was fascinating, but I was exhausted (jet lag whooo) so I kept yawning. He did a really good job of relating times to the US Civil Rights movement.

Then, we went to the apartheid museum. It was very depressing—of course—but also very powerful. They had incredible descriptions to go with the images and video. They also had a room filled with nooses to symbolize all of the anti-apartheid activists who died in prison. It was also fascinating to see video of all of the violence that occurred during the transition period between apartheid and the new government. My favorite part was the section with all the signs about the 1994 election. It was interesting to see all of the factions and divisions, even between anti-apartheid activists.

Today, we had an incredible, hectic day. We started out at the Constitutional Court, which is my new favorite court (yes, I’m nerdy enough to have a favorite court). They designed it to be welcoming, so that no one would be nervous to seek justice—how awesome is that? The justices’ benches are covered in cowhide, which should probably horrify me, but it did have the intended effect.

The constitution itself is awesome. Its bill of rights is one of the most progressive in the world. It protects your rights regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status etc., which most states should probably adopt (I’m looking at you USA!). It also guarantees a right to life (no death penalty!), food, clean water, and a clean environment. Seriously, so cool.

The museum also had an art gallery. In it, there was a series of paintings by women fighting HIV, as well as their stories. The stories were so powerful. These women contracted HIV through rape, birth, and boyfriends. These are all ways we know women gets the disease in SA, but every time you read an individual story, it’s touching.

Then, we drove through Soweto—the Southwestern Township. I already knew about the disparity between non-township people and township people, but I never knew how much economic disparity existed within a single township. The houses in the nicer area of Soweto were just as nice as most of ours, with Land Rovers and other nice cars parked outside. Then came the “middle” area, which was not near as nice, and what I had previously equated with the nicer areas of townships. Next, we saw the slums, which are mostly lean-to type shacks. It’s amazing that these areas are so close, and even considered to be the same area. We were all hyper aware of our own privilege while we were there.

We then went to Nelson Mandela’s old house and a museum dedicated to student uprisings during the apartheid era. Mandela’s house was cool. He wrote some hilarious letters to his (now ex) wife Winnie. The museum was also incredible. Essentially, in 1976, student groups protested several education measures. They were peaceful but the police began throwing rocks at them. At that point, the students began to react as well. The riot spun out of control so quickly, no one could process what was happening.

Finally, we went to a very nice area of Jo’burg, called Sandton. There was a gigantic mall, with stores like Dior. It was horrifying to us that these people could live so close to Soweto and do nothing about it. Our program director told us later that there are still a lot of misconceptions about townships.

I think what has struck me the most so far is the disconnect in South Africa. There as incredible disconnect between the rich and the poor (still generally, but not always, divided along race lines). There is also a disconnect between the townships and the non-townships. I think that’s struck me the most, though (probably because my program is focusing on human rights), is the disconnect between the legal and social situations. Legally, South Africa is incredibly progressive. Acceptance of all sexual orientations, gender equality, and so much more are written into their constitution. However, these equalities were thrust onto the people at the end of apartheid and society has not yet caught up. Homophobia, sexism, rape, socioeconomic disparity, and racism are practically the norm.

So far, I am loving SA. I’m really excited to go to Cape Town in a few days. I’m constantly exhausted (haven’t slept more than 4 hours a night in almost a week), but I don’t find it hard staying awake through the excursions.  I think I am really going to love field-based learning. I’m a little impatient for my homestays though—I want to meet more South Africans!