Our time in Johannesburg has been eye opening and deeply moving as we explore the political and social history that makes South Africa the country we know today. We have seen the thriving suburb of Sandton and the historically poor township of Soweto. All the while studying apartheid, its inherent evils and the inspiring leaders who helped this country overcome it. While it may be easy to focus on these black and white separations, South Africa has showed itself to be much more than that.
Sandton is a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg on the North side of the city that is the historic home of the white upper class South Africans. This area could be easily mistaken for an American city, with large houses, big businesses, and high-end shopping malls. The streets are lined with BMWs, Range Rovers and Audis that looks more like some cities at home rather than an African city. In stark contrast, Soweto had large shanty towns called informal settlements, barrack style housing called hostels, and many small government-funded housing projects. This township has made great progress since the end of apartheid and contains a few nicer areas. It’s hard to imagine how bad it was before. Nonetheless, Soweto is still a completely different world than the nearby Sandton. The juxtaposition of Sandton and Soweto is shocking, and illustrates an economic divide that still exists in the city.
The South Africans we have met so far seem incredibly hopeful about the country’s future. The blacks we have met speak of their struggles through apartheid often. One of our tour guides told us a raw account of his participation in the 1976 student uprising in Soweto that caused him to flee the country in fear for his safety. Now that he has returned, he spoke of the drastic changes and hope for future progress. It has been particularly interesting to learn how ordinary white South Africans seemed so unaware of the racial struggles at the time, due to such intense segregation, media censorship and propaganda. While I’m sure there are tensions existing between the two groups today, we have gotten the impression of great social growth in the past 25 years.
More than the black and white divide of apartheid, our time in Johannesburg has illuminated the wide variety of races, cultures, and languages that make up the rainbow nation. With 11 languages and diverse cultural traditions, from the Dutch, British, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and more. We have had the opportunity to learn about Voortrekkers, the hardy Dutch settlers trekking into the South African interior, experience the harsh gold mining conditions for migrant workers, and view the traditional dances of five different native tribes. In all, South Africa seems to be a nation working towards embracing its rich and diverse cultural history.
– Haley King graduated in May with a major in Political Science