Part 2: Apartheid

If you think about South Africa and apartheid, one of the first things that usually comes to mind are the townships. Townships are localized urban communities in South Africa that were created through systematic racial displacement and intentional separation of different racial groups in major cities. Today townships still exist throughout the country and are slowly being fitted with basic services such as electricity and running hot water. The topic of townships in SA is a deep and complicated one, so please keep in mind that a blog post will likely leave a lot out. I would encourage anyone interested in learning more to go to MSU’s website that looks to educate on issues of apartheid in South Africa at http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/.

I was working at a university that provided a tour of a local township near Port Elizabeth and I eagerly awaited the experience, though I didn’t quite know what to expect. Was it going to be dangerous? Was the township going to be a miserable and depressing place? Would I stand out with my shiny white pumas and digital camera? Only the latter ended up being true.

The township has created a social structure all its own with private enterprises running out of every kind of building you can think of. Want to start a business? All you have to do is pay a few hundred dollars for one of those crates you see on shipping boats, place it wherever there is open space, and go. Children were running around with smiles on their faces while adults sold and traded live chickens, haircut services, and “anything short of a human life” according to our tour guide. However, the reality was that despite this energy there were still 10 or more people living in a 1-2 room shanty. Not ideal living conditions to say the least.

Being the prolific photo-taker I am, I started to shoot away at this new environment bristling with energy. As I continued to do so in this mix of businesses and homes, I began to get an uncomfortable feeling. I felt like I was gawking at the South Africans that surrounded me and I wasn’t sure how to reconcile it. No one seemed uncomfortable due to my camera work, in fact the kids were enjoying it and posing at every opportunity. Still, I had to ask myself what I was trying to accomplish with my pictures. Were they simply “trophies” as another student warned they might become? Was I trying to simply remember my experiences? Should I tell a story with each picture I post to raise awareness about the conditions that still prevail for many Africans in South Africa? Ultimately, I think it’s a mix of my desire for the preservation of memories of the experiences I’ll have in SA and the need to expose others to how many South Africans truly live. This may be something to ask yourself…

Overall the experience in the SA townships gave me additional perspective on how many students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University live and some of the hardships they go through. To think that students have to come home (sometimes a commute of over an hour) after school to the potential of a two-room house with over 10 other people living in it makes me recognize some of the privileges that I have in the US. How many times do we complain about different aspects of our lives that inhibit us from studying? While they may be legitimate concerns, there are students all over the world who face much greater challenges to being successful in college. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about during my second year at MSU.

Coming up next week: Nelson Mandela’s legacy and the importance of learning about a place before you travel to it.

To read Part 1: click here: Antipode

Zach Tobin is a second-year graduate student in Student Affairs Administration at MSU’s College of Education. Zach was born in Seattle, WA and has had the privilege to travel throughout the world including stints in Central America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle  East. Along with traveling, Zach’s interests include higher education policy and Eastern European history and politics. Zach also serves as a Programming Intern at the Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS).