This weekend, I travelled with the DukeEngage students to Pietermaritzburg (the city where I spent my first four weeks last summer) to enjoy the region’s sights and speak with Professor Jabulani Sithole of the University of KwaZulu Natal and several anti-apartheid activists.
Early Friday morning at 5am, I met up with Bill Chafe, my professor and the leader of the DukeEngage South Africa trip, to head to the Cape Town Airport for our 6:30am flight to Durban. (We were flying separately from the other students). When we got to the airport, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The entire domestic departures terminal, which is a small temporary structure while the real terminal is under construction for the 2010 World Cup, was completely mobbed. The British and Irish Lions, the two countries’ national rugby team, is in the middle of its tour against South Africa (the reigning world champion Springboks), so the airport was full of British and Irish rugby fans traveling from Cape Town to Johannesburg, the site of the next match. The airport was so full that we literally had to push our way to the desk to check in.
After we made it through security, it was a quite relaxing morning, since Bill is an American Airlines platinum member and he was able to secure entry for me into the British Airways Lounge. Free internet and free breakfast are quite an enjoyable combination, and if it wasn’t 6am, I might have helped myself to the complimentary open bar. (I have to admit that I did take a few muffins, snacks, and canned sodas along for the road!) Upon arrival in Durban, we made a brief visit to the Indian Ocean and headed off to Pietermaritzburg where we cooked a collective dinner and played charades for evening entertainment.
Saturday morning started off with a delicious breakfast at the Aberfeldy B&B (the cleaning/cooking staff remembered me as the boy who loved their scrambled eggs) and a tour of the Edendale township, the site of the Seven Days War conflict between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in 1990. Recognizing that its position was weakening, the apartheid government sough to create instability within the ANC and the freedom movement by financing and arming rival organizations like the IFP. Although I had learned a little bit about the conflict during my time last year, the tour helped to fill in the gaps and give me a better understanding of what really happened. It was also cool that, during our tour, a local man began listening in and adding his own personal experiences from the conflict.
Later in the day, we went over to Professor Jabulani Sithole’s house to eat dinner with him, his wife Zanelle, and his four children (ages 16, 11, 4, and 1). It was an interesting evening to say the least. We walked in to find all of the children gathered around the television watching the Michael Jackson tribute running on MTV, which consisted of back-to-back MJ music videos. The TV was turned off for dinner, but afterwards, the tribute returned. Over the next few hours, everyone—Jabulani, his wife and children, Duke professors, and students alike—danced in the living room and sang along to all of the MJ hits. It was quite an experience, and it is truly amazing to see how music can bridge cultural divides and foster cross-cultural sharing. In addition, I do have to say that it was a bit strange to be sitting in a living room in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa watching a TV broadcast from Times Square. It shows just how small our world is and just how widely American culture has penetrated all aspects of the globe.
Sunday morning began with a trip to the Metro Methodist Church in downtown Pietermaritzburg, which we attended on the recommendation of the owner of the B&B. The church service was an interesting experience. The congregation was remarkably multiracial, and the sermon preached about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus was very though provoking. During the musical portions of the service, it got to be a bit much though. Many of the congregants began waving their hands in the air, and one even fetched a maroon flag from the back of the church and began waving it down the center of the aisle. Not your average church service.
The rest of the day was spent interacting with various anti-apartheid leaders, all of whom I had the opportunity to meet with during my trip last year. This time, however, I was able to get a lot more out of the experience because I have a much stronger understanding of South African history and could engage with them on a much deeper level. In the afternoon, Cassius Lubisi, the Superintendent General of Education for the province of KwaZulu Natal spoke to us about how he became politically conscious and how he began his career as a freedom fighter. In the evening, we went to the house of Rod and Fiona Bulman, local leaders in the non-profit community who were also anti-apartheid activists. The talk was especially fascinating because they were joined by their now thirty year-old daughter Rosie who spoke about growing up under the later stages of apartheid and how she dealt with her parents position as outspoken activists. I had never really heard what it was like for someone who grew up during the 1980s, and the exchanges and interaction between Rosie and her parents brought out very powerful stories and memories.
Yesterday, I took advantage of the downtime in the morning and early afternoon to reacquaint myself with the city of Pietermaritzburg. After a brief walk in the downtown area, I headed to the Voortrekker Museum which is located within the Church of the Vow. During the Great Trek of 1938 when they traversed the interior of the country seeking their own farmland and to escape British bans on slavery, the first group of Afrikaner settlers battled with the Zulu nation for control of areas of what is now KwaZulu Natal. The Afrikaners believed that their victory over the Zulu at the Battle of Blood River (in which the Afrikaners were vastly outnumbered) was a sign that God was on their side, and they constructed the Church of the Vow in Pietermaritzburg to honor this “covenant” with God that established the Afrikaner race as a chosen people. During the early twentieth century when Afrikaner nationalism began to be created and the National Party began its rise to power, the Church was transformed into a museum to reinforce the importance of God’s special relationship with the Afrikaner people and to commemorate Afrikaner culture.
Needless to say, the museum and the culture that it honors (one that oppressed millions of non-white South Africans) seems a bit out of place in a democratic South Africa. While inside the church and looking at the original pulpit inside, I couldn’t help but think about the hateful words spoken within to justify racism and human rights violations, all in the name of supposed Christianity. An interaction with one of the museum staff members really helped to put things into perspective for me. After she gave a brief talk about the history of the Great Trek, I asked how she, as a coloured woman, could work in a museum that remembers a people that oppressed her and her ancestors. Her reply was simple yet incisive: Afrikaner history is a part of South African history, and it must be remembered. She wholly correct; as painful as the past is, it must be understood in order for the country to move forward.
Monday night, we hosted a barbeque for all of the friends of Duke in the area. It was a fun opportunity to interact with several of the people I got to know well last summer in Pietermaritzburg, including my very boisterous former PACSA co-worker Jacqui Mseleku-Khumalo.
Today, we headed back to Cape Town, and we were greeted with sunny blue skies!
That’s enough writing for now. Sorry for the length of the post!