Affirming My History Major: the Importance of Remembering

On May 24, 2012, I entered my lecture with the thought that it would be completely delivered out of a book or through a PowerPoint, a normal lecture. I was gladly mistaken. Our lecturer Zenzile Khoisan introduced himself as a journalist and a former Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) member. My jaw dropped and the History major in me became entranced with every word, story, and opinion this man told us all. He was there, he was in the investigative unit, and he was the best primary resource I could dream of.

He shared his first-hand experience with Apartheid; the violence, corruption, and works of both the Apartheid government and the African National Congress (ANC). His involvement in the investigative unit led to the discovery of thousands of documents that could prove the violence victims of Apartheid wanted to contest during the TRC. He shut down a military base, police stations, and lived in constant threat. He and his coworkers provided many people the proof to their cases and his contribution to South Africa’s people cannot be put into words.

He wrapped up his lecture talking about how important it is to remember history and the past. For if you don’t, things will repeat but usually tenfold. In this moment I found my heart affirmed to me, in a room full of Women and Gender Studies majors, that my passion for history and my major is valid to the world. I can help people remember. I find that to be one of the most important things I can do.

I could have listened to him speak for hours but I am completely grateful for the hour and a half I was able to hear.

^K. Vavere

Khoisan’s Recent Book, Jakaranda Time


My First Time in Africa

South Africa is going very well for me. Whenever a random person comes up to me and says “Hello brother,” I get excited. I have even met random people at restaurants and we have had deep conversations. We talked about topics dealing with leadership. One particular man told me that I should take my knowledge back to the United States. Of course I am going to share my experiences with friends and family, but I know not to take anything for granted. I may not be in the nicest building throughout all of Cape Town, but at least I have a place to stay. Some people do not have showers, food, clothing, and warmth. At least my basic needs are met and I am loving this experience. I know that I am privileged to receive a great education, but it is about what I do with this privilege. My knowledge will be passed down to other people and the legacy will continue from there. Special thanks to Grand Valley State University, Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Women’s Center, and the Women and Gender Studies Department for making this trip possible for me and all of my classmates. 

^D. Westbrook

Enlightened Inspiration: Challenging Inequalities through Politics

Everyone has a source of inspiration; for some it may be a family member, a friend, or a public figure.  This past week, I have found my newest source of inspiration (next to you, Mom!).  Her name is Lynne Brown and she is the current Minister for Finance, Economic Development and Tourism and the former Premier of the Western Cape of South Africa.  In her lifetime, Lynne has been involved in the United Women’s Organization, United Women’s Congress, United Democratic Fund, African National Congress (ANC), and the ANC Women’s League.  Lynne became an involved activist at the young age of 17 when she joined the ANC as an undercover soldier to aid in the fight against Apartheid.  I don’t know what you were doing at 17 years old, but I know I wasn’t doing anything even nearly as cool or influential as that!  Prior to this trip, I had never been given the opportunity to meet a woman with as much political power or experience, and to be completely honest it was incredibly refreshing.  I am saddened that girls in the States don’t have as many women like Lynne to look up to, but I am completely honored to have met and spoken with her.


GVSU Group with Lynne Brown

In addition to being blown away by meeting her, the lecture she gave was extremely enlightening.  Lynne spoke on the disparity between South Africa’s exceedingly progressive constitution and what is actually carried out in townships.  She stated that although there may be equity and protection of the most oppressed groups of people (women, the poor, LGBT individuals, non-whites etc.) written in the constitution, this is not translated into the townships as a traditional stance is usually taken regarding these groups and the issues they face.  For example, women are still offered fewer opportunities than men, individuals born into poverty will most likely stay in that socioeconomic status their whole lives, gay men and women are beaten and raped in the hopes of restoring their heterosexuality, and non-white individuals must work exceedingly hard to even slightly reach the same amount of resources available and monetary success as White individuals.  Lynne also spoke on the racialized interactions which occur due to a recent rise in ethnic identity.  I do not believe she was condemning Africans for being proud of their heritage, but she did mention that such nationalism was one of the factors that played a role in the oppression of non-whites during the Apartheid era.

What struck me most during this lecture (or as Lynne called it, this discussion) was the strong connections that can be made between the issues occurring in South Africa and those in the United States.  It’s mind boggling to me that the United States, a first-world “power house” which everyone puts on a pedestal, is still struggling with offering equal pay to women, adequate governmental assistance to those in poverty, and job protection to LGBT individuals, among many other injustices.  In addition to these issues, racism in South Africa is just as prevalent (and becoming just as covert and institutionalized) as in the United States, and Apartheid ended only less than 20 years ago!  How is it that the United States can have so many more resources and time to stabilize than South Africa, yet we face the same issues?  I have been increasingly asking myself this question as the days pass by in this beautiful country.

With the information I’ve gained and connections I’ve made regarding these disparities and inequities, I am extremely motivated to make change in my community, state, nation, and world.  Prior to this interaction with Lynne, I had already planned on working to close the gaps between the mental health services needed and received by victims/survivors of gender violence in my own community, who often face the most challenges receiving them.  Now, however, after being invited by Lynne Brown herself (yes, I’m bragging) to eventually come back to South Africa and aid her in this service, my plans may be changing.

^D. White

Doing Good?

In response to the reading “The Uncertain Business of Doing Good: Outsiders in Africa” by Larry Krotz, I learned many people come to Africa in the name of “doing good” but more often than not, they end up painting a negative image of Africa to the world.  For example, Mary Louise Pratt cites the opinions of Frenchman Michael Andanson in Histoire naturelle du Senegal (1757). He introduces “a country overspread with misery, whose landscape consists of burning deserts, rivers and torrents, populated by tigers, wild boars, crocodiles and serpents, and other savage beast. The inhabitants, Negroes and Moors alike, are described as “poor and indolent though friendly and docile” (Krotz, 2009). Although this book was written in the 18th century, the same description about Africa is still being portrayed today. The only difference is that the form of communication and the way the message is relied to the audience has changed. For instance, the “CNN Effect” and the “ Pornography of Poverty” are used by outsiders to get funds to run their charity programs in Africa. As much as the money is going to help the poor, the use of voyeurism to trigger the emotions that cause this action is the main problem.

After going further into the lecture about this article, I realized something I had never thought about before. According to the Professor, all the images we are seeing from Africa displayed to the world are a form of neo-colonialism. In other words, it is a way of displaying “Africa as helpless, passive, chaotic – as a child’ (Krotz, 2009). This was a completely different angle brought into the topic of “doing good” and that made me aware that colonialism is still there, however, it is in a disguised form. That idea opened up my mind to all the possible ways in which neo-colonialism could be perpetrated and also the benefits first world countries could get from it. Third world countries are a mirror to first world countries that show how much better they are and how far ahead they are in terms of development and quality of life. Even though there are pictures of children with malaria or AIDS, stretches of landscape perched with drought, wars, corruption and atrocities that reflect the truth on some level, they are also untrue at the very same moment. It is because of the stereotypes used by the “do-gooders” that ‘belittle Africa and that make it seem like a child that needs to be managed and looked after all the time’” (Krotz, 2009).

Another issue that we talked about was the ways in which people underestimated Africa and African people. For instance, when Wangari Mathai, a professor in veterinary medicine at Kenyatta University won the Nobel Peace Prize, many people in Europe and North America were astonished; every report stated how “unexpected” the choice had been. Some people even went to the extent of questioning the validity of her project. According to Larry Krotz, the line of questioning was, “how could something so good, so effective as the Green Belt movement come out of the heads of people so passive and helpless as we had come to believe Africans to be? Could it possibly happen without some North American or European NGO organizing or paying for it?” This gives us a clear example of how “critically oppressed” Africans are viewed to be and that is why those people were shocked to see one of them win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. How ignorant and uninformed can some people be?  How long will we believe every stereotypic news event created by shallow-minded individuals who claim to know Africa very well?

After the lecture, I am left with some questions: How can people be enlightened about the truth concerning Africa without perceiving it to be like a “child”? How can we change the current stereotypes about Africa without necessarily removing the truth out of the matter? How can we help Africa as allies without necessarily making them seem as subjects? I believe those questions will help a lot in understanding Africa and relaying the correct message about the continent at large. I believe in Africa and I know there is a lot of untapped potential in both its people and the land. Everybody should be viewed for their capabilities and potential because we are all equal regardless of the location we are in the world.

^J. Kottutt

South Africa through the Eyes of a History Major

For the summer of 2011, I was signed up and prepared to go to Egypt for Study Abroad. I would receive 6 credits towards my history major. I would get to see one of the greatest ancient civilizations and experience the culture and people of Cairo for six weeks. About a month prior to the start of orientation sessions, the revolution in Egypt broke out, and chaos followed. Those of us signed up for the trip kept being told that it would be possible for us to still go. I checked BBC every day, multiple times a day, to keep up with the revolution and to try to get an idea of what I was getting myself info. Finally, I received the e-mail that I had been dreading for a month; the trip was canceled. The disappointment that I felt was unexplainable. I was all set to forget about study abroad and just complete my last four years at GVSU without going anywhere. Last fall, I found out about the trip to South Africa through the Women and Gender Studies program. I was a bit nervous, because I didn’t think that my experience as a history major would be as fulfilling as it would have in Egypt, but I was wrong. South Africa is full of rich, moving, emotional history that everyone here seems eager and willing to share.

Johannesburg was an incredible starting point for my understanding of South Africa history. We visited sites such as Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Peterson Museum, Soweto, and the Cradle of Human Kind. Entire books could, and have, been written on the unlimited history found at each and every one of these sites. Touring the prison at Constitution Hill was unexplainable. Standing in a spot and learning about the horrifying atrocities committed there enacted a range of emotions. I feel that the experience and emotions I had were truly unexplainable, and can only be felt by someone who shared a similar experience.

Cape Town has also opened up a wide range of emotions and historical perspectives. The museums and lectures are great, and are necessary to the understanding of what has taken place in South Africa, but I have gained a greater understanding by talking to the people. As a historian, it is easy to learn the “who, what, when, where” of a historical event, but it is extremely difficult to understand the “why” of an event. Speaking to the people here has given me access to not only the history of South Africa, but also the emotional history of the people here.

The amount of history that I am learning on a daily basis is often a bit overwhelming. To process this information, I often compare it to the history of the United States. Within the past year, I have taken History of the Civil Rights Movement and History of African Americans. I didn’t realize how much these American history courses would help me with the understanding of South African history. Many Americans are unaware about the history surrounding the Civil Rights era, and even the continued issues with race today. One of the most comparable sets of events between South Africa and American histories are the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and marches within Birmingham in 1963. I got the feeling that many of my group members were astonished at the violence towards student protestors in Soweto. Thousands of students were protesting the institutionalization of the Afrikaans language in their schools. They started a march, which was met with violence. Students were beaten, arrested, and killed. For many people, the thought of young children being injured and killed by the police is horrifying. We wouldn’t let something like that happen in America, right? Wrong. In May of 1963, Civil Rights leaders organized marches in Birmingham, Alabama to protest segregation and to promote Civil Rights. They decided to pull the children out of schools to participate in this march. Bull Conner, the local Police Commissioner, reacted exactly how the leaders wanted him to. Police were ordered to use fire hoses, release police dogs, and make arrests. Video footage shows the violence used towards the children. School buses that were used to pick students up in the morning were now being used to bring children to jail.

I am so thankful to have decided to go on this trip because it has really opened my eyes to not only the history of South Africa, but also as a learning experience on how to process my own history at home. The constitution in South Africa is one of the most progressive in the world, and I feel that it became this way because of the acknowledgement of the history of this country. Though there are still a large amount of social issues in South Africa, it is still incredible that they have been acknowledged, and the people here are willing to acknowledge their historical problems. I feel that the United States is making strides toward accepting and acknowledging their complete history but we still have a ways to go to understand a complete national history that includes all histories and doesn’t try to hide anything.

^K. Zachman


Roommates and Privilege

I have never had a roommate. Unless you count family vacations, I have always had my own space. Even in college I never had a roommate. My freshmen year I lived in Niemeyer with my own room and I only had to share a bathroom with one other person. This past year I was a resident assistant in Kirkpatrick Living Center and though I constantly had guests in my room it was always my own and I always remained in control of my space. My first night in Cape Town with my two new roommates went very well. They are both very kind and very sweet. In the morning though they woke up earlier than me and while at first I slept through their noise, they eventually turned the light on and abruptly woke me from my sound sleep. The light burned my eyes and I immediately became irritated. Later in the day when I had calmed down, I asked them if they could at least wake me and warn me before they turned the lights on. As we are all equals in sharing this space, I felt it was acceptable to ask them this, but after all I saw today I realized the amount of privilege I have in being able to ask that favor of my companions.

When touring Nyanga and Khayelitsha, it was drastically apparent how little space was available for a very large amount of people. Our tour guide, Jack, told us that extended families would all live within one small house which was sometimes only a shack made of tin scraps. He stated that 4 or 5 people could share one small room. Here I am complaining about my roommates turning the lights on a little too early and in those homes they may not even have lights and may have to crawl over one another just to get out of bed. I whined because the light burned my eyes, but I never heard anyone in the township complain about their living conditions.  They all, as Jack conveyed, had accepted their circumstances and simply sought improvements where they could. While they cannot buy themselves out of their situation, they aimed to fight for what they needed in order to survive.

America is very obviously a materialistic country. Our materials and products have even spilled into this nation. When I arrived at the house in Cape Town, I went into a bit of cultural shock. All of my so called “needs” like wash cloths, hangers, and more than one pillow had not been met. My first reaction was to complain. I quickly became sad and angry and whined to anyone that listened. After today though, I feel like a spoiled brat. Who was I to expect such petty desires from SHAWCO when they were desperately trying to aid their own people in their fight for survival? Through our tours today, I think everyone realized that this is not a luxury vacation, but a fight for a cause. We are here to aid, to learn, and to reflect; we are here to help and not hinder. It is important for each of us to realize the blessings and the privilege in our own lives, in order to better understand the circumstance of others and truly empathize with those people. ^D. Meirow

Constitution Hill & Apartheid Museum

Individual Reflections from our tour in Johannesburg on May 12, specifically Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum.

I was really moved by the power of collective resistance against oppression. And I was left asking myself what principles I am willing to die for. ^DD

Constitution Hill reminded me of the importance of space in creating change and striving for justice. Relics of the past can be used as thoughtful reminders for the future. ^BD

I was in awe of the hope in South Africa in light of all that has happened. It made me think of the U.S. and our continual inability to own the oppression we have caused. We have so much to learn from South African’s process of truth and reconciliation. ^MKB

Being in South Africa studying abroad and doing all of these wonderful things thus far has really caused me to look at my own privilege. I wish that everyone could have these opportunities, and it has been challenging to deal with the fact that I am here, gratefully, but also knowing many others cannot be. ^JK

The main thing that has stuck with me is the resiliency of the people in South Africa. Both during and after Apartheid they stayed hopeful and continued fighting for equality. The Apartheid Museum made me angry and sad, but also motivated to work towards the same goals in my community. I am incredibly grateful for this experience! ^D. White

Having the opportunity to view Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum, all I could reflect on was “forgiveness.” Many people in South Africa were fighting and killed; innocent people and those wanting freedom. Throughout the whole struggle they never gave up on hope, but forgiving those who hurt them has become a difficult challenge. As I view this challenge, I reflect on my own life and compare those who I haven’t forgiven to the individuals’ people in South Africa haven’t forgiven, and I feel silly. My challenges would never amount to the challenges they endured. ^V. Hunter

From the Apartheid Museum and Constitutional Hill the thing that sticks with me the most is “why?” Why were the black prisoners treated worse than the whites? (I know it’s about skin color) but can it be something more engrained? Weren’t they all, according to the law, criminals? How can such injustice have gone on so long? How can any government allow its people to be murdered in cold blood and do nothing (There is footage of them picking up their shell casings)? My heart is heavy. ^JT

I decided to shut all emotions off at the Apartheid Museum. I was so emotionally drained from Constitutional Hill that I knew another four hours of it would cause me to have a breakdown. As a black woman things like that tend to hit me a little harder than others. ^Anonymous

I felt anger. I wanted to yell. I wanted to run. I wanted to cry. I kept thinking to myself, “How can fellow man be so cruel to each other based on the color of one’s own skin?” I was in tears when I read about how the black Africans were treated in jail and in the mines. I was happy to see that South Africa has made great progress to ensure that Apartheid never happens again. ^L. Jones

Sometimes, the world can be a cruel, yet beautiful place – bittersweet. Humanity represents all that is divine and treacherous, and in some cases humanity uses divinity to wreak havoc and cruelty on itself. This narrative has been told and retold throughout history. Within each ring, each passing year, in the tree of humanity – stories are told of the triumphs and failures of (wo)man land. Wars have been waged, first world (core) countries colonize, societal constructs are created, resources are hoarded, heternormative\ norms are imposed, and Capitalism can consume one’s soul. Yet there is much to be said about all the beauty in the world that is created by humanity working with one another.
When the Civil Rights movement, the women’s lib movement, the anti-war movement, the sexual liberation movement, and the drug counterculture were all forming in the U.S., an Africanist fight for ending Apartheid was well underway in South Africa. It hasn’t been very long since Apartheid ended, the U.S. has never given the indigenous peoples from the states an opportunity to tell their story. Claiming an identity and having a sense of ownership over it is crucial for any group’s freedom.
The ANC and Nelson Mandela made it possible for an entire nation to address via atrocity. People were given a voice and an opportunity. Being able to learn about the strength of the people of Soweto and the passion for justice held by South Africans has confirmed my beliefs in what humankind is capable of. My faith in humanity has been improved.
In South Africa there is a term used, Ubuntu, which means humanism – A concern for the well-being of others. This concern for my fellow people has me anxious to come home and own my privilege through working for social justice.
“Motho ke motho ka batho” – A person is a person through other people ~ African proverb
^M. Tumbleson

Visiting the Apartheid Museum brought about a host of feelings and concerns for South Africans. Reading historical facts, quotations, along with visual aids brought this 48 year tragedy to life. As an African American woman, I must admit it was extremely difficult to envision this ordeal that many South Africans endured. It felt as if I was learning about the Civil Rights Movements all over again. The unfortunate aspect is that Apartheid, however has fairly recently ended and therefore is still fresh in the minds of South African people, young and old. “We are not anti-white. We do not hate the European because he is white, we hate him because he is the oppressor” – Robert Sobukwe, 1959 ^Keyah W.

Touring Constitutional Hill was inspiring. There was a painter who created pictures of what life was like behind bars. She was able to smuggle them out and share them with the world. She showed a bit of truth and the dangerous and degrading life behind bars. What stuck with me was the emptiness people who are arrested during apartheid were set free. The prison is used as a historical reminder of what was, the past has built into the present and future. Unlike the U.S. whom continues to overcrowd their prisons … looks to build and open more jails and prisons. It makes you wonder, who is really a criminal?
“Shutting those brave, just men away for long years in the brutal and degrading prisons of South Africa will leave a vacuum in leadership. With them will be interred this country’s hope for racial cooperation” – Chief Albert Luthuli
I was walking towards this room at the Apartheid Museum; there were these strange dark circles on the floor, it created this very scary feeling. When I walked in and looked up, the dark circles were the shadows of 50 or more nooses hung from the ceiling representing the numerous persons who were hung during their detainment during apartheid. When you believe so powerfully in something, death is just one of the millions of foreseeable and unforeseeable paths to obtaining that dream for all.
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that enhances and respects the freedom of others” – Nelson Mandela ^D. Womeldorf

Today was hard. It wasn’t that I didn’t know these things were happening in our world… it’s more the fact that living in America I was protected from them. Never in my life have I been oppressed for reasons beyond my control – things I was born into. It hurts. I feel a sort of survivor’s guilt because while I was living a happy life in America, children my age in South Africa were being segregated, persecuted, tortured, and even killed. I will always be inspired by South Africa’s ability to demand the truth of what happened during the Apartheid era and to even offer forgiveness to those whose actions were truly horrifying. I am still trying to process what I experienced today. ^JE

Our day at Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum was an inspiring day. I wasn’t very sure what to expect at first but I ended up walking away from both experiences with a new respect for South Africa and its people. At Constitution Hill, seeing all of the places great men were kept and how they were able to survive prison with their spirits intact was amazing. The whole prison felt like a very powerful place. My favorite part was the Constitution Hall that all of the judges sat at. The meaning behind each and every brick, seat, floor, ceiling, and wall was awe-inspiring. It made me reflect on the United States and all of the symbols of power we have. Nothing about equality, it was all power. The constitution in South Africa was made in modern times, they are very lucky for this. Our constitution was made when all races besides whites were oppressed, women were oppressed, and LGBT were oppressed. The South African constitution leaves out nobody and ours feels so limited. I wish that the United States could take a clue from what they were able to do here in South Africa and not be so bent on tradition. I feel like South Africa has had an amazing opportunity to create a nation for themselves. Our trip to the Apartheid Museum only re-enforced my thoughts at Constitution Hill. Seeing the struggle and pain a whole nation endured and what they were willing to do about it was absolutely amazing to read about. I feel like the quality of their fight for equality exceeds I’ve ever seen from a group. The passion and conviction in their work was just amazing. Everyone, even school children, fought to have the human rights they felt every person should receive. I wish that people in America could care for their freedoms and justices just as much as these men and women did. After going through the museum and exhibit I had these profound thoughts, asking myself, “What is it I can do for others and the world?” It makes me think twice about how I live my life and how I want to live it. At the hotel I had a 2 hour discussion with Katrina on our thoughts and that banter really helped develop my feelings and thoughts towards South Africa and the amazing, beautiful people residing in it. ^Katrina V.