Sunday, September 5, 2010

Looking Behind the Curtain

I think this is what is known as the Negotiation and then Adjustment phases of culture shock.

I apologize for the slight delay in posts, but at least it hasn’t been over a month (ahem, like Jenna).

The Honeymoon phase is, indeed, dead and reality has settled in. My time here has revealed the spit beneath the shine of Stellenbosch. This town is a haven of sorts. It’s very European and “safe.” In fact, it feels like I could still be in the States. However, there are race dynamics at play here of which I couldn’t begin to scratch the surface. The biggest indicator that there is something awry is the fact that while the Western Cape is made up of 80% Blacks and Coloureds (a number that roughly matches each of the bigger cities within the Western Cape, including Stellenbosch), Stellenbosch University has less than 30% Blacks and Coloureds. There is both institutional and very personal racism prevalent here.

I have a professor, who shall go unnamed, but suffice it to say he teaches history, that I believe is very much part of the problem. He is an Afrikaner and upholds all traditional Afrikaner beliefs. I don’t recall if I gave a very clear picture of what “Afrikaner” means, but if I didn’t, I’ll do it briefly now. Afrikaners are descendants from the (White) dutch that colonized South Africa. They speak Afrikaans (something I will be getting into in a moment). They intermixed mostly with Germans and French that came to the country, though some also have west-African slave ancestry. Their conflicts with the British are similar to those the British had with people in the American colonies. It would take me much too long to really get into the history of the Afrikaner people, but I will say that there is a history of contention between them and indigenous peoples (mostly those that are Black and Coloured) that has lessened but it still present today. Back to my point though, is that this professor is the most insidious type of racist there is, the kind that doesn’t think he’s racist. And he teaches history. To people who aren’t from South Africa and will believe just about anything he says about it. In an aggravating conversation I had with him, we debated the value of the Affirmative Action system and he calmly told me that the reason it should be done away with was because people of color were lazy and couldn’t do any of their jobs right. He is one of (presumably; I haven’t taken classes from EVERY professor) several lecturers on campus that promote this kind of thinking and inhibit the growth of equality in a country that needs it very much.

I am taking a beginner’s course in Afrikaans right now. I knew a very small amount of history before I started the course, but over the semester I’ve learned quite a bit that makes me almost ashamed to be learning it instead of isiXhosa (which is also offered at SU). I’ve touched on this issue in previous posts, so I won’t go into detail, but it is very much the language of the oppressor, and my choice was simply utilitarian.

However, all of this is not to say that I don’t like South Africa or Stellenbosch. I just think that my initial impression was ill-formed.

I want to take a moment to talk about the strike, as it has an immediate effect on my life right now.

The public sector is currently striking in South Africa. This includes nurses, teachers, immigration officers, government officials, and many others. Their wages are ridiculously low, and they are asking for an 8.6% increase, still not up to American minimum wage, but closer. It is working on its fourth week right now, and the repercussions have been tragic. Hospital patients are dying due to reduced care, children across the country are losing out on education, and riots are forming. This strike, if it continues any longer, will be the longest stoppage in work since the end of Apartheid in ’94. That, paired with massive public opposition to President Jacob Zuma, has made this strike a much bigger deal that anyone anticipated. It may ultimately decide more than wages.

Now, on to the lighter stuff.

Two weekends ago, I was supposed to go to Robben Island. However, due to atrocious weather, the ferry to the island wasn’t running. That day just happened to be the day that the Athlone Cooling Towers just outside of Cape Town were scheduled to be demolished. After our first try to find a place to watch the implosion (we were almost dropped at a Police Station in a VERY unsafe part of town, until the women we were with decided it was just too unsafe, even at the station, to leave a group of white tourists), we found a “viewing area” set up with speakers for people to safely watch. We got to sit on the wet ground for an hour before the demolition, but it was still worth seeing the landmarks go up in smoke (a video of the implosion is located at the bottom of this post).

I took a trip with Jenna and Stephanie's Service Learning class to Cape Town verlede naweek (that's last weekend for those that don't speak Afrikaans). I woke up bright and early, 6am, and we made our way to the train station in quite a hurry, barely missing the train and having to wait for the next. On that trip, we attended mass at St. George's Cathedral, the church at which Desmond Tutu presided. While I'm not a believer, I was able to appreciate the beauty of both the Cathedral and the service. After that, we took a stroll through a garden/park where I befriended a squirrel and quite a few pigeons (Snow White style). We also saw the South African version of the White House. After, we visited the Holocaust museum. It was interesting to see and read about South Africa's viewpoint on this horrific event. The day was capped with lunch and a train ride back home.

I’m into the thick of school now. In fact, I interrupted writing a paper for one of my classes (Economic and Developmental Problems of South Africa and Africa, to be exact) to write this blog (the prompt, which I’m very excited about, is simply “Are we all Africans?”) I have another three papers due in the next four weeks, which is why I am using Spring Break to get it done. I’ve had my first two tests/exams. The first was in history (my WORST subject) and I am happy to report that I got an 88% (a solid A in Africa). The second was in Afrikaans and while I haven’t gotten my grade yet, I am quite confident I will receive an A.

I truly love working in Kayamandi, however, I’ve been missing my kids as of late. Because of the strike, the students haven’t been in class for three weeks. We’ve struggled with being allowed to continue working with them, as it is being seen as undermining the strike. And while the teacher side of me completely understands that, these kids still need to be learning. Because they haven’t had class, many don’t come to the after-school program I work at, so the last few weeks we haven’t had more than 5 or 6 students when we usually have 35. I’ve gotten close to a few of my students. It has been hard for me to learn some of their names, but one is fairly close to my Xhosa name (Thembi), her name is Thembisipho. Another girl I am getting to know fairly well is Yolanda. We have been working on writing stories and have played many games together. I really love being in Kayamandi. The life force I feel there is so strong, so much more exuberant than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

This next week, I plan on getting my first (and probably only) tattoo (finally). I’m very nervous yet excited about it, as it’s something I’ve been wanting to get for quite a while now. I’m planning on getting two papers done and then relaxing, perhaps doing some light travelling over this holiday week. I’ll be sure to report anything exciting.

I hope all is well at home.

Love to all.

P.S. I realize that I'm basically wearing the same outfit in ALL of my pictures. In my defense, it IS winter here, or, it was until four days ago, and it is still very cold. I only have one sweatshirt.


  1. Sam,

    I love reading your blog! I am really jealous of the experience that you are having! That statement from your history professor makes my blood boil. I know that they live in a different culture than we do, but I would have said something like "I'm sorry, have you met every single person of color in the world?" (Knowing you, I know you really wanted to, or did!)

    Love you and hope that you are having a wonderful time!


  3. Wow! I am so happy that an outsider was able to pick up on these things. Seeing that this entry was posted about a month ago. Please visit this blog to see what has unfolded in that month. Stellenbosch reminds me everyday that the fight against apartheid is still not over. We are not yet free.

    I am so subscribing to this blog:)