Forgive me readers; with so many things coming at once, the start of classes and home-stay life and irregular internet access to boot, it has been difficult to share blog posts on a regular basis.
As of this posting, our home-stay in Langa has already come to a close. Not only that, but classes (and tests for that matter) have started for SIT as well and I’ve been preoccupied with trying to establish a routine. However, during the past couple of weeks, I have learned so much from just talking with and observing the life in Langa and correlating that to our studies. Almost every day has been a challenge and an opportunity for introspection, learning and cultural immersion. I’ve simply been loving it here in this beautiful place.
Kids, Family, Community and Ubuntu
My host family has truly become my family. It consists of my mama, her 30 year old son and the oldest bhuti, who recently became a father, and two younger bhutis, 7 and 9 years old, who are my mama’s grandchildren. The seven and nine year old drain the energy out of me like a carrot through a juicer on a near daily basis, but they are such wonderful kids, even if they shirk their manners and their schoolwork sometimes like I suppose almost every kid their age do.
One of the interesting developments that has occurred is that I had started to play a role somewhere between a loving big brother and a disciplinarian with no authority. My mama warned me right off the bat “don’t trust these kids Rich; they’ll take advantage of you!” Oh man, these kids are so clever it stuns me sometimes! They can play-cry extremely realistically (it’s become my policy to automatically assume they are acting whenever I see “crying”). When I got sunburned returning from the beach in Camps Bay, they exploited sunburned spots as weak points in play-fighting mercilessly. As a guest in my mama’s house, but also a big brother figure, I have been treading a fine line regarding discipline and the extent to how much I should be involved in their personal well-being. How can I discipline them properly when they misbehave? Should I even? What can I do when they mention real life problems they might have been dealing with such as bullying and teasing? I don’t think I left Langa with a solid answer except knowing that they have truly become my little brothers. And I hope that I left them with more than a Chinese guy punching bag (I’m Korean, but it is almost a futile effort to try to explain this to South African kids so I gave up trying) who never enough played PlayStation with them and cooked them fried rice that one time.
Watching my host-bhutis play with their friends, interact with the adults in their community and deal with the things you deal with when you are growing up brought flashbacks to my own childhood. As Stewart said in one of our classes, I think this is so important. I’m on a program that is concerned with the tensions that come with multiculturalism and human rights and its history of hate and oppression. I come from a country that is almost paralyzed with polarization from intransigent ideologues. How can people of two different worlds, with histories of hatred and misunderstanding, make things better? Perhaps having the minds and hearts of children is where the answer lies. Stewart mentioned that children are often the first ones that realize that someone is different when they first meet, but they never let that difference metastasize into a prejudice due to their innocence. When you can relate to children, you can relate to the heart and innocence of a child. And that is the hope for humanity.
I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:3-6 NIV)
Stewart told us that many families in the townships often do not have what we think are traditional nuclear families (AKA: a two parent household). I realized that not only was that true for my host-family, but that it was largely the case for a lot of the families that us students stayed with in Langa. In the past, as the men often migrated to the urban areas to find work, they left their kids with their wives, who often raised them nearly all by themselves. Nowadays, a lot of people have been known to leave their kids to stay with their kids’ grandparents while they commute distances to work. This is also a development of more women entering the workforce.
This introduces a little bit about gender roles in South African culture and history. Although South Africa is and has been largely a patriarchal society, women, and in this case grandparents and grandmothers in particular, have and continue to play an indispensable, critical and invaluable role.
As a result, I started thinking about the role parents play in a child’s life, particularly fathers, who are often missing or not as present in a child’s life from my observations of Langa. My mama has also indicated some hostility to my host-bhuti’s father (there was a family-related incident concerning him and her daughter, my host-bhuti’s mother. I was touched that she confided in me and for the sake of privacy, I won’t delve into further details) and that he is not present in my host-brothers’ lives. It’s hard for my mama to raise two young boys herself as a grandmother, so I understand her anger. Because I was lucky enough to be raised by a wonderful father, I wonder how my host-bhutis will do without a father-figure in their lives. On the same note, my older bhuti, who just became a new father, mentioned during conversation over dinner how although he didn’t plan to have a child at this stage of his life, he’s going to play a role in his son’s life, unlike other “deadbeat dads”. (It’s something to think about even in the United States; President Obama just announced an initiative to help young men of color, who are disproportionately challenged and at-risk. Fatherlessness is often seen as an important issue in regards that problem.)
My 9-year-old host-bhuti after he discovered the camera on my iPhone
My lovely host-mama and my mischievous but awesome host-bhutis! Ndiyakuthanda ifemeli kwa Langa!
One of the most striking things about life in Langa is the openness of entire community. There seems to be an “open-door” policy all around the township. Neighbors and people you know around town have walked into my house like it was their own. Guests were always common in the house, often in the house before I even woke up. During the funeral’s merriment (explained more below) people from all across the township and the country gathered together to celebrate the life of the passed person.
My mama explained to me that this was ubuntu, the African philosophy of humanity and community, the belief that as human beings, we are all bound together. Under ubuntu, it literally takes a village to raise a child. Under ubuntu, you are an extrovert in your approach to community, propagating sincere warmth towards guests, neighbors and even strangers. What a wonderful concept. If we had a little more ubuntu in our lives, the world would be a better place.
“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
Funerals in South Africa, Death and Remembrance
On my first day at Langa, my mama told me that an old woman that lived next door had passed away and that I was going to learn about how funerals were conducted in her culture. It would be an understatement to say that I did.
In contrast to the relatively quick funeral services that we have back in the States, funerals here are drawn out and take the course of a few weeks. The process begins with a slow movement of furniture out from the deceased’s house, often into the next door neighbor’s house (my first “family duty” was actually helping move a bookshelf from next door into our house). This is so that there would be enough space for the family members of the deceased who were expected to travel to the funeral, as well as for the neighbors. Afterwards, prayers are held every night in mourning. My mama went to prayer almost every night. There are also special prayers as well, such as a mothers’ day of prayer, in which because the deceased was a mother, other mothers in the community specially congregate for a night of prayer. After the sequences of prayers, each subsequent day of the funeral starts becoming more of a celebration. Food and drinks are served and merriment ensues. My mama even made homemade ginger beer for the celebrations (tastes like the wine of the gods by the way). On the day before the burial, a sheep is slaughtered for the celebration expected for the following day (I’m sorry to say I missed this due to class. Though I did see the sliced wool pelts outside in the backyard) and enough food for an army is started to be cooked. (I am not exaggerating in the least here. The women who were cooking used wooden stirring spoons the size of canoe oars and metal pots so heavy, I had trouble helping Mama put one away in the garage the day after the funeral. I wish I took a picture for documentary proof)
During the day of the burial, one final funeral service is held before the coffin is moved to be buried. After the burial, a general celebration occurs in the house of the deceased person and the entire community is invited. There is even an “after tears” party, in which the most current generation of the family line (in this case, the deceased’s grandson), who has been in mourning over the loss of his matriarch, has his “tears dried” by a party thrown by his friends. It lasted well into the night and led to some unexpected developments to say the least (the least of which involved my friend Niki to be stuck at my host-home for several hours because her home was where the after-tears party was occurring, unbeknownst to her knowledge and Mama asking me to help accompany an intoxicated man back to his house across the township because “I must learn about this eventually”)
The funeral that was held for here are so long because everyone should be able to come to mourn the loss of the deceased, including those who are far away and would have to travel. One relative of the deceased that I met came from Free State (a province in northern South Africa) and drove about 10 hours to get to Langa. It is also to give all those who knew the deceased enough time for closure. They also involve the entire community, an exemplary case of ubuntu in practice.
I’m not so sure how I feel about such long funerals and the celebration that ensues as a result. Perhaps because I am so oriented towards an American concept of a funeral and the connotations that follow. I personally found that African funerals do in some ways embody closure and celebration of one’s life better than American ones. When my dear friend Yla passed (in what would be 4 years ago this May), I was so devastated that I intentionally skipped her funeral. It took me years to find some resolution about it and put some of my emotional turmoil to rest (I visited her grave for the first time about three weeks before I left for Washington, DC last June) Would a South African funeral have helped me find closure sooner? Dealing with the death of someone you love is such a personal thing, but speaking a little from personal experience, the tears may dry sooner if a community of friends and family would dry them for you together.
I managed to quickly take a picture of the coffin being loaded to be taken to be buried. Funerals are a long, drawn out affair in South African culture and involve the entire community
Langa: The Township
Langa is one of the oldest townships in South Africa and played a key role in the anti-apartheid struggle. It also in many ways is not typical of an average South African township. Langa was the center for anti-pass marches during the anti-apartheid struggle and it was particularly chaotic during the late ’70s, where anti-apartheid sentiment was bubbling increasingly throughout the country. A pass was a form of identification that displayed one’s racial classification and were used to segregate. A black person needed a pass whenever they wanted to travel, without which led to arrest. Any white person can demand, unwarranted and arbitrarily, that a black person show them a pass, without probable cause. A person often ended up being considered an illegal immigrant in his or her own country and land.
I couldn’t help but think about things back home that are eerily similar to passes, such as voter-ID laws and Arizona’s SB1070. Often we forget or are insensitive to the fact that even symbolism resonates very, very deeply.
A pass-book from the museum in Langa. Hated signs of apartheid’s oppression, they were often called “dom passes” (dumb passes)
Langa was a hotspot for anti-pass campaigns and marches during the struggle against apartheid
Home is a concept that is very dear to South Africans, particularly for Xhosas. It is not uncommon to hear someone who has lived in Langa all their lives, but say that their home is in the Eastern Cape. This is an interesting concept; back home in the U.S., often home is where heart is, meaning that it is often somewhere that we choose to be. For instance, I may call Washington, DC my “home” in the future, if I choose to settle there. However, home in Xhosa culture often has more familial and ancestral connotations. Furthermore, this is something that is less pronounced among the younger generation, signalling a generational cultural shift.
As part of the program, we visited schools throughout the Cape Town area, with each group of students going to a different school. I visited the LEAP School of Math and Science, a magnate-type high school. LEAP recruits students from the townships in order to serve some of the more underprivileged children in South African society. Although it was a well-organized, the classrooms are not as decorated as those in America and are generally bare. I also felt that the teachers were more interactive, at least more so than some teachers I had when I was growing up.
The students, of course, were brilliant, bright kids, that could put some of their American counterparts to shame. It goes to show that if given the tools, resources and support, any child, even those from the townships, can succeed and go on to do great things.
When all of the SIT students got back together to discuss our day’s experiences and share our experiences, it became clear just how unequal education was in South Africa. Education is one of the most deeply unequal institutions in South African society. My oldest bhuti referred to it as “backwards”. As it is in the U.S., there can be an elite school with plenty of resources, feeding kids into Ivy League schools and a crumbling one riddled with crime, disciplinary problems, etc. in the same area. However, with youth unemployment around 40% in South Africa and education so unequal, the future is not just off in fairyland for some kids with so much potential, it’s a non-starter, not even an inkling in their heads. It’s a festering social problem that is tearing the social fabric of the country.
One of the most interesting dynamics of education in South Africa involves the language of instruction used in schools. Recall that South Africa has many official languages. A lot of the more elite schools use English or Afrikaans, a Dutch-like South African language that is associated with the white Afrikaner South African. During the 1970s, when the anti-apartheid struggle turned violent, black students and youth sparked massive protests against Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools, seeing Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor. The most famous of these protests were in Soweto on June 16, 1976, in which the white apartheid government opened fire on unarmed black student protestors. However, schools that tend to struggle more use languages such as Xhosa as instruction. It’s clear that language has social capital; why speak Xhosa when the upper echelons of society use Afrikaans or a more “international” language such as English? My friend Stace recalled a moment in which some family members of her host family, though they were native Xhosa, held speaking Xhosa in disdain. It also reflects some of the social-racial gap that is still present between the minority white and majority black in South Africa. I’ve also noticed that while my host-mama and the other adults in Langa had no problem communicating with me in English, it was clear that it was not their language of preference to use. They were much more comfortable speaking in Xhosa, their “mother tongue” as my host-mama put it.
I bring up some history behind Afrikaans because I think that the protestors of Soweto would be rolling in their graves right now if they saw how the language they fought against still plays such a big role in granting success to black South African kids in education.
Another parallel/point of comparison that I drew is Japanese colonization of Korea from 1910 until the end of WWII. The Japanese occupiers wanted to phase out Korean culture in public life and assimilate it with Japanese. One of the ways they did so was to require the speaking of the Japanese language in the public sphere, including in schools. The most controversial of these efforts were the forcing of Koreans to take on Japanese names and surnames. (A side note, this is the reason my grandfather, who grew up during occupation, is fluent in Japanese. My grandmother, perhaps indicative of the bitterness this caused, has expressed contempt for Japanese language and culture numerous times when I was growing up)
How would native Koreans feel if even after 20 years of freedom, the key to reaching the upper echelons of society and experiencing upward mobility is to speak Japanese, the language of the oppressor, in schools, the bridge to success?
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” (President Nelson Mandela)
Below is a video that we watched during one of our classes that detail the state of education in South Africa and its socio-economic ramifications:
South African Politics
Now we come to the good stuff! (I’m sorry; I’m a Government major and South Africa having no Netflix means that I can’t watch the Emmy-winning political thriller House of Cards here so I’ve been trying to follow South African politics to make up for the gaping political junkie hole in my body) I am in the country during campaign season, as national elections are to be held on May 7.
Richard Calland, a columnist for Mail & Guardian, a professor at University of Cape Town and an expert on the Zuma presidency, came to SIT to give us a background onto the South African political scene. It was easily one of the best guest lecturers we have had during the program. There are a lot of political issues in South Africa currently, so here are some of the more important dynamics present that I feel are key:
1. (This one’s a bit of a political science lecture, so you can skip this one after reading the first sentence) The Republic of South Africa is a parliamentary democracy that uses proportional representation in its national elections. This means that unlike in the U.S., but more similar to Britain or Israel, voters do not vote for a specific individual, but for a particular political party. The political party with the majority vote share in the national elections, in which seats in the parliament are proportionally distributed, then elects the country’s President from within the party and becomes the PIG (Party in Government), controlling the cabinet, etc.
2. The African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, has transitioned from an anti-apartheid, equal rights liberation movement into the majority/governing party since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, controlling almost 70% of seats in the National Assembly. (2014 marks the 20th anniversary of democracy in the country). It can be described as “left/liberal”. Like any political party, they have campaigned in poetry, but governed in prose, meaning that they haven’t lived up to all of their promises and have become increasingly “conservative” in the sense of trying to remain in power. As economic disparities and the worldwide economic downturn have taken its toll, protests and frustration has mounted against the ANC. Furthermore, as almost systemic in long-ruling majority parties, the ANC has been riddled with corruption. As a result of this, the ANC has made a notable shift in its campaign messaging and narrative, in which, rather than looking forward, it’s seeking to capitalize on its image and history of being a liberation movement (using the death of Nelson Mandela as a frame) to win reelection. “South Africa is a better place than where it was 20 years ago” is a common campaign line for the ANC. As the ANC is about to enter its most competitive election yet, it is yet to be seen whether or not this will be effective.
For example, see a common ANC political ad (in English; I’ve seen it in Zulu as well) that I’ve seen numerous times when watching TV:
3. The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, commands about 20% of the seats in parliament and are often classified as a “center to right” party. They have seen some gains in the recent years and controls the Western Cape, the only provincial government not under the hands of the ANC. However, one of the biggest problems with the DA is that they are almost all white and male in leadership and have long been associated as being “the white party”. It doesn’t help that Helen Zille, the current leader of the DA, has had a long history of articulating extremely racially insensitive comments on record. Many South Africans that I have conversed with have expressed utter disdain for the DA and said that they would never vote for the DA.
4. A rising party that has gotten a lot of media attention has been the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). They have been described as a “far-left” party. Their rise is extremely reflective of not just the rampant disenchantment with the ANC, but also the deep economic inequalities and opportunities that are festering in South Africa, especially among black South Africans, the majority of the population. What makes the EFF significant is that it has extremely high popular appeal amongst the youth in the South Africa. The upcoming election is also the first in which the freeborn generation, the younger generation of South Africans that were not born during apartheid, have a chance to vote. Many political analysts have said that the freeborn generation does not have any loyalty to the ANC’s role in bringing about the end of apartheid and political freedom as their fathers and grandfathers may have, and are more responsive to the economic situation in the country, hence the appeal of the EFF.
5. A little bit on the personality side, the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, seems to command little, if any respect at all. He’s practically a national joke, caricatured constantly and lampooned from everything to his appearance to poor public speaking skills. He has also a long paper trail of controversies, including, but not limited to, a rape allegation that garnered nationwide attention, corruption charges, his polygamy and his Marie Antoinette-esque flaunting of wealth. I’ve mentioned above the racially insensitive indiscretions of Helen Zille, the opposition leader. Similarily, Julius Malema, the leader of the EFF, is not without his own controversies, most notably his hate-speech conviction. Politics, in South Africa and elsewhere, is a battle amongst colorful personalities and egos. There’s a reason why Shakespeare wrote tons of politically-oriented plays. Politics is a human drama and that is one of the reasons why I love it so much.
A common issue that many of the students on the program have faced is being fed large portions at home by our host-families. This was because were guests at their homes. While this was a problem for some students on the program, I had no problem with any of the foods I ate with my home-stay family. My host-mama also cooked traditional South African/Xhosa meals almost all of the time during my stay in Langa, so I was very fortunate to experience some prime traditional Xhosa cuisine. Some highlights of my host-mama’s cooking include:
Cottish Pie – This is similar to a casserole with mince-meat, pasta, potatoes and cheese that are baked together. It’s out of this world.
Chicken Hearts with Steamed Bread – Speaks for itself. I could eat it for days.
Umngqusho – A traditional South African staple. It’s steamed samp that is often eaten with beans. It is the same material used to make pap, which I described earlier.
Aside from the food at home, we were lucky to have a day in which we learned to cook some traditional Xhosa/South African food! This was easily one of the best things that occurred throughout the program (I am so saving the recipes that we received). Another highlight was that we tried some smileys, cooked sheep’s head, and some umqombothi, traditional African beer that is drunk communally. IMNANDI!
I am also somewhat proud to say that I cooked my world famous (it’s a self-given titled) salmon fried rice for my Langa family for dinner. This actually proved to be a very interesting cultural episode. I was very surprised that my mama and her friends and neighbors that tried it perceived it as a health food. You would think that fried rice, oily in nature, is nowhere near a health food. But my older host-bhuti made me realize that when he said it was “too light for an African dude”, that it may seem pretty light after all given that traditional Xhosa cuisine is heavily meat and starch-based. Food truly is a means of cultural exchange.
A raw “Smiley” ready to be cooked and sold. It actually is not that bad!
My boisterous host-bhutis helping me cut veggies for my world famous salmon fried rice! Food can truly be a means of cultural exchange
Next up is Simonstown and our homestay in Tschabo!
— Richard A.