A Walk to Remember

By on January 30, 2008

Braff, 12 students and three professors traveled to South Africa for three weeks as part of a lab for their documentary making class this spring semester. The group spent time in Cape Town and Kruger National Park from 12/28/07 to 1/19/08. Entries from Braff’s travel journal appear in italics.

Upon my arrival back to the United States, I sat on the plane reflecting on the whirlwind three weeks I had just experienced. I thought about what I had come away with, and how I would become a better person by having been on this trip. It did not take me very long to know that what I had seen would change my life forever.

I was a couple feet away from lions, cheetahs, leopards and baboons in their natural habitat, was almost stomped on by elephants on two separate occasions, and climbed a 3,500 ft. mountain. But these experiences, which were great ones, pale in comparison to the experience of setting forth into the townships of Cape Town.

Walking through these townships was like walking through a different world. We were witnesses to lives we would never live. All 13 of us were witnesses to a human injustice; witnesses to remnants of an era that reverberates through the 2 million shacks lined up in a row built by hate.

“Yesterday we went into the townships. I knew it would be bad, but not this bad. These townships epitomize what is wrong with our world. People should not have to live like this. Thousands upon thousands of shacks lined up, some made of cardboard, the rest of tin and even newspaper. I remember walking down the street in the first township, and my brain just could not process everything my eyes were taking in. This can not be real. How is this happening? How can we allow this to happen?”

The townships are a result of Apartheid, which was a system of legal racial segregation drawn up by the South African government that lasted from 1948 to 1994. The country was led by the all white National Party even though the vast majority of South Africans were of color. The white governemnt was unmerciful to people of color, often censoring, imprisioning, torturing, and even murdering people of color for unjust reasons. Apartheid categorized people into different racial groups and had separate laws for each group. During Apartheid, blacks were stripped of their citizenship and by extension of their right to vote. Meanwhile, the government created townships to house blacks in communities on the outskirts of the Western Cape while they provided cheap labor inside the city.

Media production professor Liam O’Brien, who has led students on the documentary class trip to South Africa each year since 2005, has brought the students to the townships during every trip. “(I bring the students there) to turn them upside down and a bit inside out,” O’Brien said. He explained that the students go from “majority to minority status and from dominant language to minority language.”

Media production professor Rebecca Abbott, who has been on the trip three times, also feels it is essential for the students to witness the townships.

“Every young American should spend time getting to know people in countries other than America to get perspective of the life of an average person,” Abbott said. “It shows you how lucky you are. Money is not so important. Health, education, and family is what is important.”

One junior media production major who went on the trip, Josh Schnitzer, certainly walked away that day with new outlooks.

“Visiting the townships was the ultimate reality check for me,” Schnitzer said. “Sure I have seen homeless people before and low income houses, but the sheer amount of poverty I witnessed was mind-blowing and emotionally draining.”

Junior Nicole Trowbridge, one of three occupational therapy majors on the trip, was touched by the visit to Langa in Cape Town. The township is the oldest township that was designated for black Africans during Apartheid.

“There is no way that one could walk through a township and not come out a completely different person,” Trowbridge said. “It’s hard to explain how your thought process changes, but I would like to think that I am less materialistic and more motivated to make changes.”

More shocking to Schnitzer was the gargantuan gap between the waterfront of Cape Town and the townships.

“Cape Town is a super modern city, with a booming economy, five star hotels and a very active night life,” Schnitzer said. “Yet only a few miles outside of the city in an area that in the United States would be the suburbs, is poverty and hardship on a massive scale.”

One of the townships our group visited while in South Africa was Khayelitsha – the third largest township in Southn Africa. The township is home to over 1,000,000 people – about one fifth of the Western Cape’s population.

For Trowbridge, visiting the townships also unveiled a different side of South Africa.

“Taking the tours through (the) townships opened doors to other aspects of South African culture by allowing us to ask people questions firsthand, such as about schools and health care,” Trowbridge said.

“It was the saddest thing I had ever seen, the most shocking thing I had ever seen, and gives me so much more perspective on life in general. I feel so bad for the children there, but they were so happy when we saw them. Yesterday my heart was breaking but warmed at the same time. The kids were fascinated by our cameras and would do anything to be on camera. Boy did they love seeing themselves on camera – they were movie stars for a day.”

While Cape Town is preparing to host the World Cup in 2010, new hotels and condos are springing up all around the waterfront while the townships remain relatively the same.

“I’ve noticed slow progress in the three years since the first time I’d been there,” Abbott said. “I was struck this time because of the contrast to see new expensive buildings in the Cape compared to the townships, where work needs to be done. I was more optimistic three years ago.”

O’Brien has also seen slow progress since Apartheid. He noted some improvement in electrification and running water, and “some improvement in replacing shacks with cinder block houses.” He noted that over 450,000 families are on waiting lists in the Western Cape for proper houses.

According to O’Brien, the townships are not only a reminder of the way people of color were treated during Apartheid, but also says something about today’s acting governemnt.

“The townships are both a legacy of Apatheid and now nearly 15 years in increasingly a failure of the ANC government,” O’Brien said.

The African National Congress (ANC) has been South Africa’s governing party since Apartheid’s end in 1994. Most recently the South African government has been known for being currupt more than anything else; ANC leader Jacob Zuma (likely the next president of South Africa) has been charged with curruption, fraud and rape in the past three years, and a recent report suggests millions of Rand (South African currency) in funds of a state owned company were funneled by the ANC. Also, last month, the ANC elected the new National Executive Committee, the highest structure in the ANC. Out of the 80 members of the newly elected committee, 16% of them are convicted criminals.

Unfortunately, the future of South Africa looks cloudy. Whether this means the future of the children of the townships look dim or not, it remains to be seen.

Hopefully one day the children of the townships who were so happy to see us will become movie stars for more than a day. But that day does not appear to be any time soon.


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