It’s been a rather low key past few days in Cape Town. Friday during the day, I accompanied the director of the District Six Museum, Bonita Bennett, to the World Congress on Civic Education at the Westin Waterfront Hotel. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the convention when I arrived, but I was immediately impressed by the elegance of the hotel. When I headed into the main ballroom to listen to Bonita’s keynote address, I was interested to see where all of the delegates had come from. While some hailed from a variety of African, European, and Latin American countries, the vast majority of the attendees were Americans. So much for the “World” part of the convention’s title.
After Bonita’s speech, the convention broke up into smaller groups. In 5 different meeting rooms, children from various schools across South Africa were going to give presentations on their involvement with Project Citizen, a program run by the Department of Education that teaches high school students to identify problems within their community, identify possible causes, and formulate and enact solutions. When this was announced as the next activity of the convention, something struck me as a bit off. It seemed weird that instead of the delegates venturing outside of the gilded confines of the waterfront area into the students’ community, the school children were coming to present at this posh hotel. Moreover, the presentations were entitled “showcases” as if the children would be performing.
Bonita and I followed a crowd into a small meeting room, where a group of female high school students from Durban would be presenting on their project focusing on the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Their self-confidence and public speaking ability was impressive, but they appeared to be speaking from memory and repeated trite sayings, such as “We are going to change our province, our country and our world.” However, as the girls gave their very scripted presentation, the audience oohed and aahed.
In the question and answer period that followed, American after American got up and praised the students. One woman, who looked like an exact replica of my ninth-grade English teacher Mrs. Smith, gave a five minute speech thanking them for allowing her to understand a topic that, because of her own race, she could not possibly understand.
Hearing these comments, Bonita and I looked at each other in disbelief. What was going on? Sure, these girls gave a decent presentation, but these Americans were waxing on and on. It felt like the South African children were on display—in a “showcase”—for the foreign visitors to marvel at, experience “racial difference,” and fulfill some need for an “African encounter.” It felt as though the Congress were held in South Africa only to give the delegates a nice vacation and experience an exotic location. The whole experience left me feeling a bit disgusted.
I do, however, have to say that I did very much enjoy the buffet lunch. It was delicious and by far the best meal I have had in South Africa so far this summer.
Friday night was very interesting. After enjoying a rather bountiful sushi buffet (once again, I overate…big surprise), we joined the Observatory (aka Obz…it is the neighborhood I am living in) Bar Crawl. We were expecting it to be a large event that would allow us to make friends and explore the area. Instead, it was only 5 students from my house and a group of students from a community college in Tennessee. Although it was dominated by Americans, the bar crawl was still a lot of fun, and we got a free t-shirt out of it.
Saturday we took the opportunity to explore downtown Cape Town. Several of the other people in my house work in the suburbs, so they have not made it to the city. As a result, I ended up assuming the role of the tour guide since I work downtown and am quite familiar with it. Sunday was a rainy, cloudy day, so we headed to a nearby mall to walk around and watch a movie. Instead of catching a Hollywood blockbuster, we chose to watch a South African documentary titled “Hidden Heart.” It focused on the story of Christiaan Barnard, the University of Cape Town doctor who performed the first heart transplant in 1967. It revealed that his efforts were greatly assisted by a black man named Hamilton Naki, who never was formally trained in medicine and was never given credit for his role because he was black. It’s amazing to think about all the men and women during the apartheid era who never achieved recognition for their efforts or who never had the opportunity to fulfill their potential simply because of the color of their skin. Although at the same time, the same could be said of the US during the majority of the twentieth century.
Work this week should be pretty productive. At the museum on Monday, I began reading tourism reports published by the Cape Town tourist bureau to get a sense of what type of visitors (demographics, country of origin, interests) the city should expect next summer. Hopefully the information in the reports will help get the ball rolling with my research, and I can make some real progress.