Lessons From Soweto

Apr 25, 2011 No Comments

By Mia Pskowski

The most difficult part about coming home after a semester or year of study abroad is not the culture shock, the sadness of leaving behind a new home, or even the return to the more intense academic standards of Berkeley; it is answering the dreaded, vague question, “How was *insert country here*?!!” Trying to encapsulate a lifechanging 6 months or year in a couple of sentences is both impossible and exhausting. Instead, I ask people returning from studying abroad to name one thing they learned or one way the trip changed their perception about home. In my case, my semester in Cape Town actually made me appreciate the American political system, as well as our own leaders, in a way I hadn’t expected.

After spending three years of college life heavily involved with Cal Berkeley Democrats and local and state politics, I felt overwhelmingly disillusioned about American politics. Let’s be honest. That’s not hard to do, especially in an environment like Berkeley, a city and campus where a lack of faith in the system pervades everyday life. When I first found out about John Edwards’ second family and his terrible treatment of his wife, it was the last straw; he was one of the first politicians I really admired and felt inspired by as a teenager. As I left for my semester abroad last July, I was happy to take a break for six months and miss out on the drama of the November elections.

From my desk in the Berkeley bubble, reading up on and watching the latest news from South Africa (mostly surrounding the World Cup) gave me the impression of a country that had successfully healed from apartheid and supported a diverse population living in a newly developed, economically prosperous country. The spirit of ubuntu, or the South African concept of togetherness supposedly supposedly fulled the whole country, with the celebration of  “the beautiful game.” But really, politically, the World Cup only served to hide a country very far from this spirit of ubuntu—one suffering from so many more issues than I anticipated.

Despite being held up as a model for rapidly developing countries and economic success in Africa, in reality South Africa faces one of the highest rates of economic inequality (20% of the population controls a majority wealth), the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world (1 in 4 South Africans is HIV positive), a massive unemployment rate hovering around 25% (in townships, it averages 80%), and a broken educational system (South Africa spends more on education than any other country on the continent, but has consistently been ranked as one of the least improved not only in Africa but the world).

After speaking with a variety of local South Africans throughout my travels in both rural and urban areas, a single common theme ran through my conversations: everyone, regardless of race or class, expected their country to look vastly better than it did twenty years ago; they expected much more to have changed since 1994. They expected greater opportunity for upward mobility, more redress for apartheid, less structural inequality, and a more effective government.

During my trip, I visited Soweto, a collection of townships outside Johannesburg known as the heart of resistance to apartheid, and the home of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.  Anyone who lived in Soweto in the nineties saw the worst of the racism and violence characteristic of the National Party’s regime. One afternoon I sat in a park talking with a man who had lived in Soweto his whole life and experienced the chaos and brutality of the 80s and early 90s, and he showed a complete lack of faith in the African National Congress, its government, and its politics.

As I listened to his disillusionment and claims that the ANC had done little since apartheid ended, the Democrat in me clung to my faith in the democratic process. “But,” I said, “you at least still vote…right?” He gave me the most quizzical look and responded with an emphatic “Of course not! Why in the world would I?” I struggled with words to try to convey my thoughts on how the history of the country, the struggle of his generation and the ones previous, the brutal racism and oppression—anything at all—could not at least give him the incentive, the faith, or the motivation to walk to a polling location on election day and check a box. He reasoned that anyone who came into office would be the same as the last corrupt politician, and would do nothing to improve his quality of life. Considering the history of legitimate democratic government on that continent, I should not have been surprised, but his reaction still floored me.  A few days later, a South African friend conveyed to me over dinner that he knew men and women in rural parts of the country who have told him their lives today are no different than they were under apartheid—except that back then, they still had jobs.

The distrust of government is profound. The current president, Jacob Zuma is a joke, who thinks HIV can be avoided by showering after sex.  In fact, most people I met were by far more excited about Obama than they were about any of their own leaders—when I told a stranger that I voted for and strongly support Obama, I received the biggest hug of my life. It made me so proud and excited to actually be an American overseas (imagine that!), and made me feel so lucky to have the leader that I do.

Perhaps more than anything, my semester abroad taught me to appreciate the core structures and values of our own political system: the fact that we have more than one viable party, that checks and balances work as they should, and that there is some level of civic engagement. Granted, the United States is no model for voter turnout or civic participation compared to other developed nations, but I see students at Berkeley who traveled across the country to campaign for Obama and worked tirelessly to keep California blue this past November. Despite the inherent understanding that although we always have room for improvement, there will always be leaders we can trust to make our lives better if we give them the opportunity. That faith in our system gives me the motivation and inspiration to wake up early on Election Day and cast my vote. I only hope that when I return to South Africa in the future, I’ll see a new generation of South Africans that feels the same way.

Spring 2011, Final

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