As 21 Saint Mary's students prepared to depart for a three-week South Africa travel course, they had a chance to speak with someone deeply involved in overcoming apartheid's legacy of legalized segregation and forming a new democratic country in 1994.
"Unifying the country (after apartheid) has presented serious challenges," said Kgoposto John, South Africa's vice-consul in Los Angeles. "But South Africa has made progress in making people from nine different African ethnic groups and white Afrikaaners look at themselves as one nation."
John, an African National Congress party member who has served in several government positions since participating in the anti-apartheid movement, gave a lecture in the Soda Center on Jan. 8. She briefed students in Linda Saulsby and Rebecca Carroll's Generational Perspectives and Challenges in Post-Apartheid South Africa class about what to expect when they arrive in her home country.
Students also prepared for the trip by examining documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, set up from 1995 to 1998 to provide a credible accounting of the crimes of the apartheid era. They've also read accounts of the apartheid period by South African Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
According to Vice-Consul John, South Africa is a unique case among African nations. It encountered a different set of challenges around racial reconciliation and nation-building after 46 years of apartheid, which allowed a white minority regime to continue ruling the country decades after decolonization had occurred in most other African countries.
"You cannot talk about South Africa without talking about without talking about the history of apartheid," John said. "In talking about the present, people always refer to what happened."
At the same time, South Africa today is a democratic political system with a level of economic development that sets it apart from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. A country of 44 million with an economy seven times larger than any of its neighbors, it's in many respects as wealthy and developed as European and North American countries.
"South Africa is the powerhouse of the African economy with infrastructure to match any first-world country, which goes against the perception that nothing good can come out Africa," John said.
Still, she noted, South Africans face problems presented by pockets of poverty, homelessness and a public health system coping with more than five million individuals who have HIV/AIDS - more than in any other country.
"It has characteristics of both a first-world and third-world country," John noted. "You will see very affluent areas but also areas that are poverty-stricken."
Saint Mary's students will travel across the enormous country by plane and bus, including stops in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. They'll be meeting with people from all walks of life, from elementary school students to senior citizens. In journal entries, students will talk about the differences between older South Africans who lived most of their lives under apartheid and those who have experienced its historical effects indirectly.
"We all forget that this only happened 15 years ago - it's contemporary history," said senior Erin Kaufman.
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Photo by Gabrielle Diaz '11