If I’ve learned one lesson since being here, it’s that you should always trust the locals. During our stay in Pietermaritzburg, everyone we met warned us that Cape Town would be windy and rainy. For some reason, I brushed them off. PMB weather was nice and sunny, so Cape Town couldn’t be any different. Well, I was wrong. As soon as I stepped off of the airplane at the Cape Town Airport, I was greeted by a strong gust of wind—the first of many during my stay so far.
Despite the wind, our first few days were sunny and pleasant, and the clear conditions afforded us some spectacular views of Table Mountain and the City Bowl. The nice weather took a 180 turn later in the week, and the clouds burst open. For three days straight, rain, fog, and gloom shrouded the city. Cape Town weather, I’m told, is a lot like San Francisco’s. And, as bad as this weather has been, it’s not too harsh for the middle of wintertime. So far, I am enjoying myself here. As I’ve stated before, I am definitely taking advantage of all of the culinary delights the city has to offer (compared to PMB).
For the civic engagement aspect of the trip, I am working with the District Six Museum (districtsix.org.za). Up until the 1960s, the Cape Town’s District Six was home to a very culturally vibrant, prosperous, and diverse community filled with whites, blacks, and colored citizens. Its cosmopolitan nature angered the apartheid government, and its central location to the city piqued the interest of business minded developers. In 1966, the apartheid government declared the community a “White Area” and announced that the entire area would be demolished. Over the course of a few years, thousands of people were forcibly removed to the much less desirable Cape Flats Townships, houses were destroyed, kinship networks and friendships were dissolved, and an entire community was literally erased from the map. White housing planned for the area was never built, and up until this day, much of the land lays vacant.
In the late 1980s, former residents of District Six banded together to establish a redevelopment and beneficiary trust to reclaim the land so abruptly taken away from them. Through their efforts, they established the District Six Museum in one of the few remaining buildings, the Buitenkant Methodist Church. Today, the museum serves not only as a place to educate and remember the past, but also as a site of return for the former residents. Many of the employees are former residents themselves. The museum is very much an alive place; much of its work involves community outreach and activism. Right now, it is playing a central role in the process of redeveloping District Six and helping the former residents move back to the land they once called home.
This past semester, in one of the classes taught by two of the professors accompanying us (Bob Korstad and Rachel Seidman), we learned about District Six. For that class’s final project, I did a research paper examining how a similar museum could help the rebuilding process in the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Having read about the museum quite extensively, it was really cool to actually go there and meet with those who have dedicated so much to making it a reality. What a thrilling way to actually bring to life what I had learned in the classroom!
Supervised by the Education Co-ordinator and Acting Director Mandy Sanger, my time there these past two weeks has focused mainly on their youth outreach program. High school students from across the city (mostly from underprivileged backgrounds) gathered for a workshop designed to teach them how to tell their own life story, digitally. After extensive planning, I helped the students scan photos, take pictures, and make a movie narrating their life. It was a very interesting and rewarding process to take the time to get to know the students and learn more about their backgrounds. At times, however, their relative lack of computer/technological knowledge was rather frustrating. Next week, I will be working to help co-ordinate a street soccer festival the museum is organizing. I am very excited to see how it turns out!
Friday, we headed down to the waterfront, but the bad weather dampened the experience. Our ferry ride to Robben Island (where Mandela was imprisoned) was cancelled, and thick fog prevented us from seeing any scenic views. We were lucky enough, however, to catch an outdoor address by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Friday was the UN World Refugee Day, and Tutu took the opportunity to blast those who were involved in recent xenophobic violence.
This past weekend, we drove along the Cape Peninsula to take in all of its sights. Our first stop was Simon’s Town to meet with Peter Storey. Storey, a former Methodist bishop, recently taught at the Duke Divinity School for several years. He also, alongside Tutu, led the powerful South African Council of Churches during the anti-apartheid years. I found it really interesting to hear what motivated him to make personal sacrifices and fight for an equal South Africa. (We also were able to catch a sermon of his on Sunday morning. He was a wonderful preacher and a truly special individual). Later in the day, we drove to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. The coastline along the peninsula is absolutely stunning, and the weather cleared up just in time for us to take in the beauty of the area.
On a more serious note, I do have to say that it is strange being in the middle of the latest political rumblings in southern Africa. Earlier in the week, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s opponent Morgan Tsvangirai dropped out of the recount election, claming that, in the midst of political violence and Mugabe-led repression, a fair election is not possible. Tsvangirai’s decision comes after months of culminating violence and unrest there.
Aside from the South Africa’s appalling inaction on the matter, what is most disappointing for me to see is the widespread negative impact of Mugabe’s tyranny. Poverty and rampant inflation have caused millions to flee to South Africa—millions of people I see on the street everyday begging for food and sleeping on the ground and in makeshift residences. Sitting thousands of miles away in the United States, it’s easy to dismiss just another instance of African political instability. But living here, meeting people who were driven from their homes for no reason puts a face to the problem and brings the news story to life. What’s even more depressing is that there are millions of more refugees from other countries besides Zimbabwe, and in the future, there likely will be millions more.
The fact that my time in South Africa is slowly wasting away has been increasingly on the front of my mind. To be honest, I am starting to get a bit homesick. But I still have over 2 weeks here, and I’m going to make the most of it. I’m not ready to let this experience be over quite just yet.