A Publication for the faculty, staff, administrators and friends of California State University, Chico
October 7, 2004 Volume 35/Number 2

Inside Stories

Tales from Africa


Rob Burton, English, was part of a study tour of South Africa designed to train teachers in diversity. This is the second of three pieces on the summer 2004 trip.


A group of Fulbright-Hays scholars recently had the opportunity to spend the summer in South Africa as the country celebrated its decade of democracy. There was a notable CSU, Chico presence in the tour group. The project director, Hassan Sisay, is a professor of history at Chico State, and five of the other participants are affiliated with the University (Tracy Butts and Rob Burton, English; Rita Mulholland and Judith Kerrins, Education; and James Luyirika-Sewagudde, International Studies).

A common set of questions concerned us. To what extent have South Africans learned to live together in the post-apartheid era? Has the Truth and Reconciliation Committee helped to heal the wounds incurred by 50 years of racial segregation and division? How is the HIV/AIDS issue talked about and treated in public, as well as private, spaces? What hope do schools and universities offer for the future of the rainbow nation? How has South Africa’s new constitution (ranked as one of the most progressive in the world) helped to set its citizens “free”?

We hoped we might answer some of these questions by visiting schools, universities, cultural centers, hospitals, and street markets. Inevitably, we were to discover over the course of our five-week stay that the answers were complex, sometimes contradictory, and often multi-layered.

The following passages are taken from my journal:

HIV/AIDS in South Africa (June 28, Johannesburg)

Our study group has been privileged to hear the thoughts of two medical doctors on the subject of AIDS. One, Dr. Sam Mhlongo, has impressive credentials as a campaigner for the African National Congress, as a result of which he served a three-year prison sentence on Robben Island followed by forced exile in London for two decades. He continues to insist that there is no HIV virus and that the South African government would be better off directing its resources towards the improvement of basic survival programs (for example, nutrition, sanitation, running water).

The other doctor, Dr. Harry Moultrie, is a young, fresh-faced, white doctor who heads the AIDS clinic at Baragwanath Hospital in the township of Soweto. He firmly believes there is a virus (in fact, there are two strains, he says) and dismisses those who think like Dr. Mhlonga as “dissenters” and “lunatics.”

Here’s what both doctors have in common. They are both energetic humanists, fully committed to the future welfare of their country. They both prefer to talk of real lives rather than abstract data. They are both articulate and generous with their time and hospitality. And yet this fundamental difference in their perspective on the virus means that they operate in different circles, with different worldviews, and with radically different social and political implications.

Post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation (June 30, Johannesburg)

I admire the honest, open manner in which post-apartheid South Africa has confronted the ugly truths of its 1948–1994 history. The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation campaign was to forgive but not to forget the crimes against humanity perpetrated in the name of racial supremacy. Both the Museum of Apartheid (in Johannesburg) and the Hector Peterson Museum (in Soweto) are public spaces committed to this ideal. They do not flinch from exposing the viewer to horrors experienced by the majority of South Africans under apartheid: random police arrests due to the Pass Laws, forced removal of homes and communities under the Group Areas Act, the shooting of more than 100 schoolchildren during the 1976 Soweto uprising. Yet, despite these chilling reminders, the overriding message here seems to be embodied by Nelson Mandela’s words etched prominently at the entrance to the Museum of Apartheid: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

On the Cape of Good Hope (July 19, Cape Town)

At such an auspicious meeting point of waters (the Atlantic and Indian Oceans), each bearing different climates, topographies, and historical legacies, it was surely right and proper to scoop up a handful of water and gently rub it over my face. It was refreshing and salty. It also felt as pure and as holy as baptismal water.

—Rob Burton, English

 

 

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