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Southern Africa Fall Semester: Johannesburg!

Students who will be spending the semester in Namibia have started their semester with a 10-day travel seminar in Johannesburg. Johannesburg, being one of the main hubs of Southern Africa, provides the students with great resources to build a foundational knowledge about the region as a whole. The official title of this travel seminar is, “An Orientation to Southern Africa” because both historical and currently, Johannesburg has been the center for economic, political, and social development. Johannesburg has a rich history of colonization, industrialization, revolts, uprisings, and students are given an opportunity to explore these themes by talking with speakers who are very knowledgeable in these fields either from first hand experience or through educational studies. Students are also given access to museums and other historical landmarks. Since Namibia was under South African rule from 1910-1990, starting the semester in Johannesburg provides a great introduction to the rest of the semester in Namibia.

Students have been extremely busy thus far this semester. The students spent the first week of their semester meeting with various speakers to learn more about the history of South Africa, apartheid, what is going well in the country, as well as current political and social challenges. Students had the opportunity to hear from individuals who were members of the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprisings where the school children decided to no longer stand by and began to take an active role in the liberation struggle. When Afrikaans was declared the official language of instruction in the schools, the students began to protest, which led to the 1976 uprising.

CGE students also got to meet with members of some of the political parties, academics, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and community members who are acting as agents of change in their communities. The students got to hear from speakers young and old, as well as speaker who represented different viewpoints and opinions to contribute to a well-rounded understanding. After hearing from various viewpoints, students are able to form opinions for themselves.

In addition to hearing from various speakers, students also have gotten the opportunity to visit numerous museums and historical monuments. Some of the sites that were visited included the Hector Pieterson Museum, Kliptown, Constitution Hill, Apartheid Museum, U.S. Embassy, Freedom Park, and Voortrekker Monument. The Hector Pieterson Museum is dedicated to Hector Pieterson who was one of the first causalities during the Soweto Youth march on 16 June 1976. The museum is dedicated to all the youth who lost their lives in the struggle for liberation. Kliptown is a historic town where the Congress of the People met in 1955 and where the Freedom Charter was signed into existence. The Freedom Charter is a document that was created by South Africans to express what they wanted to see in South Africa. The first line of the charter states, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”.

Constitution Hill is the site of South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The site is also home to one of Johannesburg’s most well-known prisons. It was notorious for its harsh treatment of prisoners, which ranged from political prisoners to individuals who violated various apartheid laws. Students got the opportunity to walk around the site and hear not only about the history of the site, but about the transition to democracy. Students were able to see this transition by noting that a notorious apartheid prison was turned into the site of the new Constitutional Court—a transition that shows the efforts to move towards a new South Africa. Towards the end of the week, students also got the chance to visit the Apartheid Museum. The Apartheid Museum provides detailed account of the history of apartheid through written information, videos, artifacts, and visual displays. The students found that the Apartheid Museum was a powerful tool to help organize the information they have been learning about all week. While there was a lot of information, many of the students say that after visiting the museum, hearing from our speakers, and doing the required course readings, they felt as though they had a much stronger understanding of what apartheid was and the impact it had on the people of South Africa.

The US Embassy was a visit that sparked a lot of feelings and conversations. The purpose behind the visit to the embassy is to learn about what the US Government is doing abroad, and in particular, what is their role in South Africa. This visit forced students to examine their opinions and beliefs on US Foreign Policy. While some were critical of what was said by the foreign service officers, other students who are interested in a future in foreign policy or international relations found the visit extremely enlightening and helpful when considering future career plans.

Our last two visits were to Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument. These two places provide contrasting histories. Freedom Park is government funded park and museum that pays tribute to all those who lost their lives and fought for the liberation of the country. While the liberation struggle is the most recent struggle for liberation, the park also looks at previous struggles such as South Africans who participated in both World Wars, Slavery, the South Africa War, and pre-colonial struggles. The Park came out of a recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a memorial site as a way of healing. However, just across the road from Freedom Park is the Voortrekker Monument which memorializes a completely different history. The Voortrekker Monument celebrates the great trek of the Dutch settlers across South Africa and is considered a celebration of Afrikaner heritage. Viewing both monuments in light of the other allowed students to see two different sides of history and to understand that there is never one side to history. While many students felt uncomfortable at the Voortrekker Monument, it allowed students to consider the history of the United States and how they portray their own history.

Finally, one of the most exciting aspects of the trip to Johannesburg is the opportunity to participate in a homestay! Students were paired up and sent to spend the weekend with various families across Soweto. Students arrived at their new homes on Friday afternoon and were picked up on Monday morning. While each family did different activities throughout the weekend, all students said they felt as though it was a positive experience and contributed greatly to their learning and understating of the area. By spending a weekend with a family, students get the opportunity to form their own connections and relationships with a family, ask questions, and observe both similarities and differences to their families back home.
As you can see, the first week has been extremely busy! While we have had a very packed schedule, students were able to increase their knowledge about the history of the region as well as start learning about each other and building their community. After a quick flight to Windhoek, Namibia, students will be spending the rest of the week orienting themselves to Namibia, touring the city, and preparing for their internships and course to start. Best of luck to all of the students in Namibia throughout the rest of the semester!