Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reflections from South Africa

At the end of Cathy's visit, we spent three days in Johannesburg. Although our time was brief and what we saw was limited, I thought I'd comment both on the contrast with Zambia and the U.S., and also on Nelson Mandela.

Being in Johannesburg was almost like being back in the U.S.--freeways, traffic, tall buildings, stores full of familiar products not available in Zambia, a more diverse mix of people. We didn't stand out as much. Everything was far more expensive than in Zambia.

One interesting contrast between what we saw in South Africa and what I experience in Zambia had to do with garbage. When we were touring Soweto, our local guide took us to all parts of the community, including a shanty-town with rickety tin-roofed shacks like in our compounds near Kitwe. However, we noticed there the city was providing both toilet facilities and garbage collection to this settlement. Here in Zambia, garbage is strewn everywhere. If there is enough room in your yard, you dig a pit and throw in your trash until it is full, bury it, and plant something on top. Otherwise, you just leave it on communal trash piles which dot the area.

We packed a lot into our few days there. High points included a full-day tour of Soweto and visits to the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill. I have continued to reflect on three things from the visit: the South African Constitution, lessons from the transition period, and of course, Nelson Mandela.

The Constitution of South Africa contains all the pronouncements and commitments needed to create an ideal society, respectful of the needs and conditions of all its people. Of course, the reality of life there is far from the potential and the promise of the constitution, but I was impressed with the democratic and humanistic tone of the document. There is a monument to the constitution in Freedom Square in Soweto, and the text of the constitution is inscribed on the doors to the beautiful Constitution Court building. Core declarations like constitutions, bills of rights, and covenants such as the UN Convention on Human Rights put into words all that we aspire toward, our ideals. In the real world, these documents are like beacons of light to guide us, standards against which we can judge our progress. I liked the simplicity and inclusiveness of the South African Constitution.

I never expected to see the end of apartheid in my lifetime. It seemed so deeply entrenched in the society of South Africa that it would endure, evil as it was, for many years into the future. And yet it changed after nonviolent and violent resistance, persistent confrontation, and mobilization of global pressure for change. I recall Alan Paton's fear that when the oppression of the black population stopped and they had power, they would do to the whites what had been done to them. And yet this massive revenge has not materialized. Instead, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave some people a chance to tell their stories and be heard, some a chance to learn what had happened to their loved ones in the struggle, some a chance to accept responsibility for their actions, some a possibility to extend forgiveness. It was a powerful healing process invented to facilitate a transition from one social structure to another. It can be criticized for its limitations and difficulties, but it represents a creative example of public conflict transformation and peace building.

Finally, it was inspiring to see various monuments and displays related to the life and message of Nelson Mandela. One of the aspects that most impressed me was how he was not overcome by the punitive treatment he endured, but found ways to use struggles as opportunities for learning and growth. There was commentary that when Nelson Mandela arrived at Robben Island, he was volatile and headstrong. When he left, he had developed self-discipline and an interior sense of calm. He had studied his jailers to learn their language, their worldview, what motivated them, their values. This would allow him to find a basis for dialogue and negotiation. He was guided by a vision of an inclusive democracy and supported by many friends in the journey. What an example he provides of the resilience of the human spirit!

Now I'm back in Zambia, with a new semester about to begin, happy to be with friends and students again. Life is quieter and poorer in Kitwe than Johannesburg, but it feels like home.

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