South Africa: Transformed by truth and democracy

This summer I had the opportunity to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, through Howard University School of Law. The experience did not prove to be exactly what I expected, but in the end it was much more than I could have ever imagined. During the grueling 26-hour trip, I conjured up images of what I thought the Motherland would be like. Most of my fantasies consisted of the stereotypical depictions broadcasted on various media outlets. I expected to see dark babies with sagging skin and potbellies roaming the streets while flies circled their bald heads like vultures. I thought I would see a makeshift hospital filled to capacity with HIV patients neighboring our living quarters, and I knew I would experience at least one of the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant) menacingly trampling through our village. My expectations were so off the mark that, as I write this, it is difficult for me to concede the extent of my ignorance. 

When we finally landed, our group was transported to a luxurious hotel, which housed an extravagant restaurant and a spectacular winery, right in the heart of Cape Town. After unpacking, I toured the city with my roommates to get a feel for the environment. I kept a pocket full of rands, South African currency, just in case I ran into any of the indigent images shown on television. I did meet a few homeless individuals that I was able to assist, but the great majority of my brothers and sisters were “dressed to the nines.” The tremendous European influence on fashion and culture overwhelmed me. The never-ending parade of double Windsor knots and Rock & Republic jeans made the streets of Cape Town resemble a runway in Paris. I was perplexed. I had been in Africa a full day and had not seen a single wild animal or lady transporting water on her head from a communal source. I did not even see Sally Struthers telling me how I could save the world for only a nickel a day. From that moment on, I decided to relinquish all my preconceptions and to become a student of the true nature of South Africa. 

When classes began, we were delighted to learn that our Comparative Constitutional Law instructor was an internationally esteemed South African Constitutional Court Justice. His name is Albie Sachs. Justice Sachs also served as one of the framers of South Africa’s relatively young constitution, so we gave his knowledge of the document the benefit of the doubt. In his younger years, he devoted his life to being a freedom fighter for the African National Congress. As an advocate, Justice Sachs zealously challenged South Africa’s apartheid regime; consequently, he lost an arm and an eye in an apartheid proponent’s attempt to assassinate him. During his lectures, Justice Sachs’ dynamic voice barely registered above a whisper whenever he described the atrocities and indignities endured by the victims of those previously in power. In contrast, his face would illuminate with joy when he spoke about South Africa’s strides towards justice with the creation of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered assistance to victims of the old system and amnesty to perpetrators of hateful acts that came forward to admit their crimes. 

The great courage and dignity of the people, along with the astounding beauty of South Africa, impressed me in ways beyond explanation. The light of democracy has shone over that nation calming its inclement social and political climate, and witnessing that transformation has been one of the highlights of my life. The significance of what is transpiring over there rivals both the strides towards equality made during the Reconstruction Era and the commitment to change displayed following the Civil Rights Era in our own nation. Great things are on the horizon in South Africa, and I encourage all capable of making the journey to bear witness to history in the making.

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October 2007Volume 18Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)