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Faculty Blog: "Nkosi Sikelel (God Bless Africa)" - Exploring Social Justice in South Africa


June 16th is Youth Day in South Africa. Youth Day is celebrated globally at different times throughout the year to commemorate and celebrate the contributions of young people. In South Africa, Youth Day commemorates the 1976 death of 12-year-old schoolboy Hector Pieterson, who was fatally shot in what began as a peaceful protest by school children against the Bantu Education Act in Apartheid South Africa and later became known as the Soweto Uprising or Soweto Rebellion. A famous photograph of Pieterson was taken by Sam Nzima after the boy was shot. In the photograph, Hector is being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo alongside his sister Antoinette. Today, a memorial and museum stand two blocks from where Hector was killed in Orlando West Soweto. Hector was one of hundreds of school children killed in the anti-apartheid movement.

The Hector Pieterson Museum was one of the first stops on the South Africa Social Justice Summer Experience, conducted in collaboration with the Oprah Winfrey South Africa Leadership Program. A total of 12 Morehouse College students and three faculty departed from Southwest Atlanta and traveled to the South Western Townships known as Soweto, as well as to Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town.

The Oprah Winfrey South Africa Leadership Program has conducted a social justice, and HIV-focused study abroad experience for over 25 years, exposing Oprah Winfrey Scholars to the beauty, inequalities, challenges, and victories of this great nation.

Near the Pieterson museum is the home of beloved former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. This is the home where Mandela returned after his release from prison in 1990, following a 27-year prison sentence. Their home has since been designated a historic site and turned into a museum. Standing outside Mandela's "matchbox" house, one can still see the bullet holes that riddled the brick house during their years there. Inside, numerous honors and accolades bestowed upon the couple decorate the walls. The Soweto township includes a massive football stadium, but in its shadows are rows of shanty homes without electricity or running water. Our accommodations were just a short drive away and stood in stark contrast and a world apart. We stayed in an area surrounded by elegantly landscaped homes secured by tall gates, barbed wire, and electric fencing designed to protect those inside.

It is hard for someone to resist drawing comparisons of the U.S. with South Africa. Both nations share unique but brutal histories of slavery and settler colonization. Both nations are multiracial and multicultural societies that grapple with the fragility of democracy, as illustrated by the 2021 insurgencies of January 6 in the U.S. and July 9 in South Africa. 

Our nearly two-week-long experience included visits to several schools and universities, including St. David's Inanda College, the University of Pretoria, the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, the African Leadership Academy, and tours of the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Museum, Mandela House, and Archbishop Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation, and the headquarters of NBA Africa. We visited the U.S. Embassy and stayed at Bakubung Bush Lodge in Pilanesberg. At Bakubung, we went on a game drive with glimpses of some of the big five animals and later visited an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atteridgeville, where we were greeted by familiar hymns sung in Zulu and Soutu. We had an opportunity to visit and have dinner with our host families and friends, including professors, authors, and former South African Ambassador to the U.S., Ebrahim Rasool. We also visited the Cape of Good Hope and other tourist sites.

In preparation for our trip, we attended outstanding lectures by Drs. Robert Trent Vinson and Levar Smith. Throughout our trip, we discussed matters of democracy and the realities of a post-apartheid South Africa and met with an organization named Democracy Works. In South Africa, youth born in 1994, the post-apartheid era, are referred to as the "born frees," but the young people of South Africa are facing challenging times. The nationwide unemployment rate for South Africa is 35%, with the highest rates (64%) amongst youth aged 14 to 24.[1] South Africa has seen a rise in violence, including gang violence, gender-based violence and LGBTQIA+ hate crimes, climate change, and many of the organizations and institutions that we visited grappled with how to improve the conditions of South Africans and Africans throughout the continent, with a focus on youth and leadership development.

We explored notions of “global Blackness” and Steven Biko’s Black consciousness and wrestled with comparisons of South Africa’s racial classifications with U.S.-based ideas on race. We visited Robben Island on a tour led by Yassin Muhammed, a former political prisoner and former member of the Pan African Congress. Muhammed regaled us with stories about Robert Sobukwe, known as "Prof," one of the founding members of South Africa's Pan African Congress and considered one of the most influential political leaders who contributed greatly to Steven Biko's ideas on Black consciousness. Sobukwe was a political prisoner on Robben Island, where he spent the entirety of his sentence in solitary confinement. 

We had the opportunity to visit Sonke, a men’s clinic dedicated to educating men on their health and advocating against gender-based violence. We visited Mohau Children and Youth Centre, a home that was originally founded as an orphanage for children impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and has played a vital role in supporting families during the COVID pandemic. We learned of the long-term HIV/AIDS survivors who had grown up in Mohau and are now thriving adults. The students engaged in a service project at a school for children of mostly vineyard workers in the Colored Township of Cloetesville, Stellonbosch.

The economic inequalities in South Africa are highly visible, as well as the current sociopolitical power structures. As visitors, we gained knowledge and an appreciation for the history of South Africa and those that challenged apartheid and continue to advocate for a more equitable society. We met with a group of Morehouse alumni who are based in South Africa and are making vital contributions in the form of economic development, education, the arts, and sports. By the end of our trip, our students reported that they had grown and expanded their worldviews and roles as global citizens.

On one of our last days in South Africa, we passed a group of children heading to the soccer field for practice. We asked if our students could join in for a pick-up match. Those young players took our students to school on the soccer field and will one day tell the story of how they taught men of Morehouse how to play soccer. We hope that experiences like this demonstrate how interconnected we all are, including some of the shared and unique challenges and opportunities.

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This experience was led by Drs. Jann Adams, David Wall Rice, and Sinead Younge. Mr. Emani Saucier documented our experience, and we look forward to sharing more from our students' perspectives this fall at the Study Abroad Symposium. We want to thank our hosts, Mr. Clayton Lillienfeldt and Shaheed Ebrahim.

[1] https://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=15407

Photographs by Emani Saucier