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,
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