When I was preparing to come to South Africa at the end of first semester, my friends committed themselves to a stream of facetious comments that all sounded something like this: “Ami thinks he’s going to save Africa,” or “Can’t wait to hear about your African awakening.” The comments were no more than friendly chiding, and they made for amusing dinner conversation.
But the jokes were fair game because they touched on something real: The not-so-crazy idea that a white, liberal American student could spend some time in Africa to assuage his moral conscience and come back thinking himself the Great Deliverer of the destitute.
My time in South Africa has been illuminating. I’ve learned about the way people in townships live, about the reasons fifty-something Afrikaners think differently than I do, about the stalwart challenges—in education, mobility, resource allocation, racial progress—that still hold this country in their clutches and rarely tremble, or show signs of letting up. I know about a lot more now than I did five months ago.
But I don’t really know the way people in townships live. I don’t know why older Afrikaners think the way they do. And I certainly don’t know the history and its implications firsthand. I know about those things.
To know them, and to feel them—to claim an understanding that truly transcends theory and caricature—would require an experience bitterly more intimate and deeply more vulnerable than the one I’ve had here.
Nearly a thousand students each semester saturate the University of Cape Town with an intrusive foreignness. It’s called “cultural exchange.” But we’re a thousand tiny documentarians. Our being there changes the nature of the space and the candor of the people, and we’re looking through a window as tiny as ourselves.
I don’t “know” South Africa or the African continent. I don’t “get” it. After every afternoon in a township high school, I went home to a white suburb with air conditioning and a house full of ambitious American students trained on their studies. At the end of each cab ride, I paid the driver with whom I’d chatted about “the real South Africa,” and often never saw him again. And at the end of this semester—during which I did engage with the place, its people, its ideas, smells, bigotries, histories, and trenchant challenges—I’ll get on a Boeing 757 in Cape Town and step off 20 hours later, back in my own reality.
Let there be no ambiguity around this issue: This semester was for me, not for South Africa.
Last December at Emory I marched in the campus protests after the Eric Garner decision. As our crowd entered the library and chanted “No justice, no peace” and a handful of other rallying calls for nearly twenty minutes, I couldn’t unhitch my eyes from the students on the other side of the turnstile. Hundreds of them lined the cavernous foyer, taking Snapchat videos and watching us, idle. It was a show, a spectacle to write home about but not—God forbid—to step into. I felt proud of myself, like I was standing on the right side of the turnstile and the right side of history.
And then, at the end of the protests, as we cleared out of a bustling intersection that we had blocked, my friend Joe—president of a black fraternity and a vocal participant in my American history classes—spotted me. He walked over, gave me a hug, and said, “Thank you for coming.”
That was an unsettling moment. What do you mean “thank you”? I’m here because it’s an issue I believe in. I’m here for civil rights. What gave Joe ownership over this protest?
Everything did: Two hundred years of slavery did. More than a century of a discriminating legal code did. The color of his skin and the skin of the men over whose deaths we were protesting did. It was his march; I was just there.
In South Africa, as in Atlanta, I’ve been walking in someone else’s march.
If I leave these months with one lesson, it will be this: It is the responsibility of people of privilege to create spaces where people who don’t share that privilege can express the way they see things, why they see things that way, and how they propose things ought to change.
The goal isn’t to capitalize on the opportunities when we happen upon them; it is to work with fervor to identify and create such spaces—in classrooms and civic centers, at dinner tables, in businesses and daily conversations—and then to listen.
This is not a novel idea, and I am not its paragon. I’m still learning how to do it. I suppose this probably reads as callow and ridiculous to those who have felt crowded out by white, liberal, assertive male voices that are just trying to make that last point—my own, all too often, included. But it’s the lesson I’ve begun to learn here.
I’ve learned it from sleepless Rhodes Must Fall activists, from cab drivers on the nineteenth hour of their shifts, and from black baristas with a cup of coffee and a cause.
I’ve learned it from teenage inmates with crude stick-and-poke tattoos, from UCT students who hear with intentionality and contribute with humility, and from American study abroad friends who decided to spend a night in Soweto instead of on a wildlife reserve.
And I learned it from the Cape’s immortal mountain, visible from every street corner and every angle in town—from the potholed avenues of Langa to the glinting coves of Bantry Bay—who started listening before we were talking, and will have the last word long after we’re gone.
I haven’t had an “African awakening,” and I don’t think I rescued anyone along the way. But I learned how to march and how to listen. For that, and for these five months, I am grateful.