• Reconciliation in South Africa

Johannesburg- An Overview

Greetings from South Africa!

First off, let me apologize for not updating this blog like I promised I would. There are a few reasons for this, namely that our days have been packed beyond what we were expecting and that the university we were staying at didn't have wifi. While Jo'burg (as the natives call it) was extremely vibrant and full of history, it remains one of the more dangerous cities in the world-- the main reason why I didn't go exploring at night to find some free wifi.

Don't worry, though! We had good people taking care of us, and Brian, a native of the local township of Soweto, was soon our favorite go-to person. He kept an eye out for all of us, but didn't let that get in the way of our exploring the city and seeing what life is really like in Jo'burg and the neighboring townships. We were also accompanied by Dr. Marjorie Jobson, the national director of the Khulumani Support Group, which helps victims of Apartheid deal with the trauma they have suffered and legally advances their causes through government.

Our days have generally been from 8am to 8pm, and chock full of monuments, meetings, and museums. On Wednesday, after finally landing at 6 in the morning, we hit the ground running. We visited Consitution Hill, which is home to the Constitutional Court- the highest court in the country. It's history is probably more interesting. During Apartheid, Constitution Hill was the location of the notorious "Number Four" prison, where political prisoners such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela both spent time, often in solitary confinement. 

A quick note about the Apartheid era: South Africa classified people into different racial groups, mainly black, colored, and white. Blacks areAfricans, often associated with various tribes and speaking native languages such as Xhosa or Zulu. Coloreds are mixed race, often including Indians and Asians. Whites are of European decent, mostly the Dutch Afrikanas or the British. Anyone who wasn't white had to carry a passport wherever they went, called a "dom-pass" or ("Stupid passport" in Afrikaans). Everything was done to keep the races separate, from banning interracial marriages to kicking black families out of their homes to expand white neighborhoods. This only ceased in 1994, the end of Apartheid. 

On Thursday, we met Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. His building, built in the 60s as a central location for the Methodist Church, now hosts over 1,200 people every night offering shelter from the streets. Many immigrants to South Africa go to johannesburg in search of work. Others are young people looking for any job to help pay school fees. Xenophobia is rampant in South Africa, so his church allows a place for abused and misplaced people. He spoke about the church's role in Apartheid, and how it was sanctioned by the church, something he vehemently disagreed with. That disagreement culminated on an attack on his life, which he thankfully survived. 

Friday was perhaps one of the most fascinating days for the group. We began at the Nelson Mandela Memory Center, which is the location of Mandela's office after he stepped down from the presidency. We met with Verne Harris, an archivist and historian at the Center. He personally knew Mandela and was in charge of many of his effects after his death. Verne took us to the basement, where he had Mandela's hand written sequel to "A Long Walk To Freedom". The pages were the beginning of part two of Mandela's autobiography. We saw his Nobel Peace Prize, and read through some of his journals. The Center believes it's important to know the good, bad, embarrassing, and humourous parts of Mandela, so as to get a more complete view of the complex man that he was. We were all shocked to hold the personal items of such a globally respected man. 

After the center, we drove to Boipatong, a township about an hour away from Jo'burg, the sight of a massacre in 1992. We met with survivors who are part of the Khulumani Support Group. We then headed to Sharpeville, the sight of another massacre in 1961. Both massacres were devastating to the communities and offered large turning points in South Africa's history. 

Saturday we went to the Apartheid Museum, which featured a special exhibit on Nelson Mandela. One of the most memorable parts of the museum was the random separation of the group into whites and non-whites. Whites got to use ramps and elevators throughout the tours while non-whites had to use stairs and walk through smaller hallways to represent the contrasting lives of whites and blacks during Apartheid. There was also a room with over 100 nooses hanging from the ceiling, commemorating the number of "suicides" prison guards reported, which were actually brutal executions. 

Sunday we went to Soweto, the largest township in Johannesburg. We attended a Lutheran church service, which was phenomenal. The singing and vibrancy of the service were beautiful. Everyone sang in Zulu, and members passed us Zulu hymn books so we could sing along. We then toured Soweto, walking into Kliptown- a squatter camp in Soweto. The stark contrast between increasingly developing Soweto and the poverty in Kliptown was humbling. These settlements are often ignored by the government, and people cram into shacks living on less than $2 a day. One man walking past angrily commented that "this isn't a game reserve"- making us realize how we were perceived- wealthy, foreign, and gawking. 

Of course, not everyone disapproved of our presense. We are here to learn about the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission and how South Africans are doing 20 years later. We want to know what the majority of South Africans reallly think.

We went to the Department of Justice in Pretoria on Monday, and asked them about land restitution, the lack of criminal prosecutions after the TRC, and the corruption that is rampant in the government. Of course, we got very neutral answers, but at least we gained a sense of how even the DOJ can sidestep hard questions and talk about general things such as "building houses" and "staying within the legal framework". 

That night, we watched a documentary called "Why Are We So Angry" by Khanyi Magubane. She joined us for the viewing and spoke with us after about her project and also about the similarities between South Africa and the United States with regards to race. 

Finally, on Tuesday, we packed up and headed to the airport to fly to Durban. Jo'burg was a wonderful experience, and we miss the friends we made there. As I sit here in Pietermaritzburg at the Lutheran Theological Institute, reveling in the access to wifi and the beautiful landscape around me, I am happy to be here in South Africa. The group as a whole is tackling the mental and physical exhaustion that accompanies long, emotionall days. We've talked with survivors of torture and terror, asked governemnt officials daring questions, and we're balancing that on top of wonderful hosts and people we meet along the way.

More updates to follow, we're all well here. Looking forward to the next few days in the province of Kwazulu-Natal! Stay warm! 

Our group posing in front of a statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the Nelson Mandela Memory Centre in Johannesburg.
The group meets in the Constitution Courthouse.
A view of a peaceful park in downtown Johannesburg.
A bust of Gandhi appears in Constitution Court in an exhibit for Mahatma Gandhi.
Students board a mini-bus to enter the city of Johannesburg from the airport.
Professor Guy Nave holds one of Nelson Mandela's personal calenders that he kept during his imprisonment at Robben Island. The calender has many notes written by Mandela, one of which stating "Met with VIP today and didn't talk politics".
The streets of Soweto were hot and sunny as our group explored.
Caitlin Olson and our new friend from Soweto, 5-year-old resident of Soweto Sanona, pose in the street of the township.
Our group experienced the informal settlement of Kliptown, a township near Johannesburg where most of the resident live in extreme poverty.
Here is a photo of Nelson Mandela's office which has been perfectly preserved since the last time he used it in 2010.