The past few days have been pretty eventful as we have gotten deeper into our service assignments and the history of apartheid and have begun to explore more of South Africa. This past Friday, our group met with Daniela, the director of PACSA, and the two owners of a local media company to discuss helping PACSA create a 30th anniversary publication. The goal is to create a highly visual book that chronicles the involvement of religious organizations in South Africa from the 1980s during the end of the apartheid, through the foundation of the Republic, and in the present day. All parties were very excited about the project, and we, as students, will provide the necessary manpower to help the already overworked PACSA staff get the ball rolling on the research. It will be a win-win situation for both parties, and I am excited to explore the archives of PACSA documents (as well as those from other Christian NGOs) and interview activists in order to learn more about the anti-apartheid movement and apply what we learn to help out a very worthy organization. The coming weeks should be pretty exciting.
Later that evening, we were lucky to have Rod and Fiona Bowlman, two anti-apartheid activists, come to our bed and breakfast share with us their involvement in the movement. They told us about their experience managing a seminary in an all-black township while taking leadership roles within the Standing for the Truth movement and Black Sash organization, both of which fought against racial segregation and separation—a concept the Bowlmans believed to be reprehensible and directly contrary to their Christian beliefs. They described the personal and public consequences of their actions, which included near estrangement from family and friends. When the movement’s prospects for success looked dim, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a guest at their house, reminded them that what must keep them going was their hope as Christians that God will provide a better future for all. Their witness was extremely powerful.
Saturday, we headed to the town of Groutville, about and hour and a half drive northeast of Pietermaritzburg, to visit the Albert Lithuli Museum. Lithuli, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in the early 1960s, was President of the African National Congress and an early leader of apartheid resistance. The museum is located inside the house where he lived (and was contained under house arrest for several years). The curator led us around the house and its grounds, narrating the life of Lithuli and offering perspective about his life and significance to the greater anti-apartheid movement.
The next day, Sunday, we drove about 45 minutes to Durban, a large city located along the coast of the Indian Ocean. Described as the “Miami” of South Africa because of its endless beaches and resorts, Durban is also home to the largest Indian population outside of the Indian subcontinent. During the day, we walked around the city (there were many beautiful buildings and lots of palm trees), visited the Apartheid Museum, and relaxed on the beach. Although it was cool outside, the Indian Ocean was warm, so I was able to swim in it for the first time.
Today, I returned to PACSA where much of the day focused on planning a response the recent xenophobic attacks. PACSA and other organizations are starting a coalition to prevent such attacks in Pietermaritzburg, deliver aid to foreign nationals afraid to leave their home, and, in the case of violence, administer relief to its victims. At the meeting, I was shocked to hear from those in attendance their outrage against the South African government for failing to take substantive action. This was the first time I heard opposition to the current administration voiced in public (most people have told me in private conversation that they highly disagree with Mbeki, but are afraid to say so in public). It is interesting to observe the sense of frustration and disappointment among South Africans who had expected things to change dramatically after the creation of the current Republic in 1994; that, obviously, didn’t happen, and the poor in South Africa are now even worse off. Fortunately, there exists an extensive networks of NGOS—like PACSA and the other organizations in attendance at the meeting—that have begun to pick up the slack and advocate for change.
This evening, we decided to check out the Pietermaritzburg Royal Show. People have been talking up this county-fair style event for the past week, and since we have been pretty bored lately, we headed over to see what it was like. I am a big fan of fairs, and I guess my expectations were a little high (I mean, it’s tough to beat the Erie County Fair). As we walked in at 6:15pm, we were informed that fair was closing at 6:30pm. Seriously?!? A fair that closes at 6:30pm on a weeknight? The experience was only worsened by an overpriced (and rather disgusting) dinner and this ridiculous horse riding show. The only redeeming part of the fair was the 10 minute Ferris wheel ride that only cost a dollar.
One of the most interesting (and unfortunate) aspects of South Africa that I have noticed so far is the extreme income disparity. Driving to Durban, along the highway and roadsides were shacks and slum villages where people lived in squalor. Twenty minutes away are the stunning beaches and high rise resorts of Durban. It is simply hard to imagine that the two can exist, and in such proximity. It only begs the question, how can this happen?
The other thing that has really stood out in my mind over the past couple of days is the courage, conviction, and commitment of the anti-apartheid activists like Albert Lithuli, Rod and Fiona Bowlman, and Peter Kerchoff (the founder of PACSA). These men and women put their lives on the line in order to stand up for the truth and fight for what is right. They sacrificed their own personal well-being for something greater than themselves–that is truly admirable. On Friday night, it really hit me when Rod Bowlman said that religion is not just a Sunday morning club; rather, if you truly believe, it should encompass your whole being and everything you do.
I hate to end on such a serious not, but it’s late, and I have an early morning tomorrow. I will post later in the week…