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Realm of the Incredible

By: Ashley Burke, Georgetown Univeristy, ThinkImpact South Africa Scholar

It’s so easy to forget, sometimes, that Apartheid only ended twenty years ago. As an American I learned about segregation in history class. It was a story told in the black and white pictures of horrifying atrocities committed against African Americans, and punctuated by the racism and de facto segregation I personally witnessed. I thought, in coming to South Africa, that I had a good handle on what it means for one segment of the population to be dehumanized. It turns out I had no idea.

South Africa is different from the other ThinkImpact countries in its advanced level of development. Unlike most African nations, South Africa is growing fast. Cape Town and Johannesburg are home to burgeoning consumer cultures and financial districts. But the reason that South Africa is included in the facts and figures of poverty economists, development gurus, and all their ilk is that the poor of South Africa are very poor, and the barriers they face are reinforced with the iron of Apartheid’s lingering effects.

I spoke with my host mother, Monica, on the morning of Mandela Day, and we got onto the topic of racism in South Africa. She and her husband have worked very hard for years so that she could finish her degree in childhood development and eventually get the job that she has now in a daycare center. All of her co-workers are white, and when she told them that two American girls were staying with her in her house, they were shocked. “Are they white?” they asked her. “Yes,” she answered, “they are white.” “Well, what do they eat?” they asked.”They eat what we eat,” she told them. “But how do they bathe?” they asked. “They bathe as we bathe,” she answered. “We don’t believe you,” they said to her, “no white person could live like that.”

I spent several minutes apologizing to Monica for her coworker’s behavior. My host family has given up a section of their living space for us without a word of complaint, and it hurts to imagine that anyone could convince them that my roommate and I are anything but grateful for their hospitality. Monica just smiled and told me, “It doesn’t matter. I have as much schooling as those women, and we all do the same work. But I wish they would understand that God made all people, and God loves us all equally.”

Monica’s way of casually brushing off the discrimination she faces in her daily life shocked me. After all, she worked so hard and gave up so much to get to this point. Could she have done all that just so some small minded you-know-what’s can banish her to a completely different walk of life without a second thought?

I have to do a reality check and remember that Apartheid was real. It wasn’t just a sad story we tell one another as a reminder of our humanity, or an excuse to force 67 minutes of community service out of everyone on Mandela Day. It was a really bad thing that people did to one another, and it profoundly affected the human relationships that followed. That includes Monica’s relationship with her coworkers.

It’s clear that I admire both of my host parents’ hard work. But my admiration turns into awe when I think about what their hard work is in response to. Both of my host parents lived through Apartheid. Their youths were spent under a government that treated them as second class citizens. Yet instead of giving up or raging against the people who had mistreated them, they decided to build a better life. Their actions go above and beyond forgiving, and enter the realm of the incredible. The privilege of staying with my host family makes me feel inadequate, but in a good way. And I’m going to miss them a lot when I leave.

The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.

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