Looking Back and Moving Forward

As we enter our final week in Cape Town, I want to to look back on my time here in South Africa, in addition to contemplating my experiences from the past week. So rewind back to seven weeks ago.

My trip had a rocky start. My flight out of Atlanta was delayed to the point that I missed my connecting flight to Johannesburg, so Akahne and I ended up with an 8 hour layover London and arrived in Joburg the morning after everyone else. At that point we hadn’t changed or showered in almost 3 days (tmi?), and we went straight from the airport to the Voertrekker monument, where within the first few minutes of the tour, the guide spoke about natives as if they’re people who just get in the way of white expansion. I remember thinking “If the other tours are like this, you might as well put me on the next flight home.” The rest of her 2 hour tour built off her initial remarks about native populations. Oh, and the airline lost my luggage, which showed up 4 days after I did. It was immensely frustrating at the time, but now that I’m here in the final stretch of my two months in South Africa, I’m very glad I came.

I’ve had so many memorable experiences packed into just one summer (winter?). I learned a lot (I’ll get to that eventually) but I also had a lot of amazing moments just taking in the stunning kind of nature that I’ve only ever experienced here. Early on in the trip we all hiked Table Mountain. I had never done such a challenging hike. I came expecting a mildly demanding trek uphill, but hiking Table Mountain felt less like any hike I’d ever been on and more like those intimidating stair-climber machines at the gym. Still, once we got to the top, those two hours I spent climbing seemingly endless rocky steps seemed very worth it. The view was amazing. This past weekend I tried hiking again, but this time we did Skeleton Gorge. That was also unlike any hike I’d ever done because it entailed climbing up a small waterfall, being literally dragged over a boulder by my apparently very strong friends when I couldn’t find a way to get climb over it myself, taking lots of pictures of the orange lake at the top, getting lost while looking for Nursery Ravine to get back down (we weren’t about to try to climb back down the waterfall on the Skeleton Gorge trail) and spending an hour on the wrong trail going towards Constantia Nek, accidentally falling off a large rock into some very dense shrubbery while we were lost (shout out to the dense foliage for catching me), and then eventually walking down Nursery Ravine very slowly and making everyone wait for me because my knees felt like jelly by that point.

But obviously I didn’t come to Cape Town for its natural beauty or the opportunity to mix sightseeing with cardio and a lower-body workout, I came to learn about South Africa’s previous system of apartheid, how the people freed themselves, and how human rights lawyers fit into this setting. In the process, I learned more about myself and how I fit into this setting. Even though I’ve felt like the odd one out in white spaces for as long as I can remember, being here made me more conscious of my non-whiteness. Apparently it doesn’t matter that my ancestry is majority Western European with only a quarter Arab and a quarter Indo-Guyanese. In public spaces, I felt like I was perceived and treated differently than my white peers. In reflection sessions and in personal conversations, my experiences fit much more closely with the majority of what other people of color shared. It’s interesting to me that it took a DukeEngage program for me to see just how fully my “race,” or perhaps my lack of a single racial category, influences my daily interactions. I mean, I knew my non-whiteness served as a barrier in the small town I grew up in, but it’s interesting to see how it works on a DukeEngage trip. For the past two years that I’ve been at Duke, I’ve been sheltered from having to think about my race, because my friend group has almost entirely been either people who are South Asian or Arab and I comfortably nestled myself there because I had finally found a space where I felt like I belonged, after a decade of living in a very white area. But my DukeEngage experience has caused my self-consciousness of my minority status to return.

While it was a rude re-awakening to remember that I have never been and never will be considered white, and that I will never reap some of the of benefits that come with whiteness (see my previous post), most of what I have learned here has not been disheartening. My internship at the Women’s Legal Centre, as well as the group discussion we had with Sanja from Lawyers for Human Rights, made me more sure of my life goals – I want to be a public interest lawyer. Working at an office full of women lawyers also quelled my concerns about following a legal path as a woman. I’ve often heard, primarily from men, that it would be hard to be “successful” (what are you defining as success? but that’s a topic for another day) in the legal field as a woman if for example you’d prefer to to work less when your kids are small, because “the law” is a competitive field. Maybe that’s true for corporate lawyers, but it doesn’t seem to be the case in human rights law. It seems like while people will do anything to get a corporate law job, it’s a bit difficult even getting all the human rights law positions filled, and there’s an unceasing need for people to advocate or litigate for underprivileged people.

Aside from reassuring me of my own future goals, my time here has also solidified for me the importance of grassroots action. South Africa has experienced revolutionary change within its policy sphere, but the lived realities of its people haven’t changed much. Despite the Constitution being a progressive person’s dream, the level of economic inequality here is still greater than any other wealth gap I’ve ever personally witnessed, and women face alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based violence. Add xenophobic attacks against migrants or refugees from other African countries, and you have a bit of a mess. The ANC government writes policy after policy, and these policies are great but they’re not implemented. Clearly, the top-down approach that has been taken so far is not the way to make real change. For many of the proposed changes to take root, there needs to be a change in the public consciousness, or else the legislation will be widely ignored by the public and impossible to enforce. For example, in the case of violence against women, writing new laws isn’t suddenly going to make men value and respect women’s basic human dignity. Real work has to be done on the community level, by members within those communities, to make that happen.

While I can’t say that there has been much change, there’s such a strong culture of activism here that I haven’t seen paralleled anywhere else that I’ve lived. Several weeks ago we took part in commemorating Youth Day, a day dedicated to remembering the value of youth activism and encouraging it to continue. I think the importance of a day like this can’t be understated. I think it says something about a country when it has a national holiday encouraging its youth to challenge the country’s systems of operation. Another important day for South Africa was celebrated just yesterday (July 18)- the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday. It’s celebrated as Mandela Day, a national day of service. On our way to work we saw an initiative to give local homeless people clothing. Volunteers had set up a “shop” by tying ropes between several trees and then hanging donated clothes on the ropes. Then the volunteers helped people find the size and type of clothing they were looking for. It looked like a good way to help the community because it treated the homeless with dignity and respect, and it required active engagement between the “haves and the have nots” of Cape Town who otherwise basically live in different worlds within the same city. WLC had their own Mandela Day plans. Once we got to the office, we only stayed for an hour before getting into the SWEAT (Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Task force) van and taking part in an extended version of their usual outreach.

Usually a few WLC paralegals go with SWEAT each week to give condoms to sex workers, inquire about potential human rights violations against them, and help them fill out forms in the case of any harassment by the police or clients. But this time, we also brought cooked meals to them as workers in solidarity. Even though we were framing the activity as “workers in solidarity,” I spent a lot of the ride just being grateful that I was one of the workers in the van rather than one being helped. Solidarity is about mutual support, and it was hard to get into the solidarity mindset when it seemed to me that these women who were selling their services along the sides of rural roads realistically were unable to offer any support to us, a group of reasonably comfortable students and lawyers. Despite the discomfort I felt for their vulnerable situation, I hope taking part in Mandela Day with a solidarity-oriented approach made the sex workers feel respected rather than pitied.

From Day 1 up to today (Day 53!), I’ve been almost constantly challenged and changed with situations such as these where it’s hard to figure out exactly how to react to what is happening around me. But as our time here comes to an end, I think I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth from thinking through these challenges, and I hope I can channel all my other uncomfortable moments on this trip into teaching points.

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1 Response to Looking Back and Moving Forward

  1. Christine '96 says:

    “Real work has to be done on the community level, by members within those communities, to make that happen.” YES! Aliyah, I appreciate so much how open and honest you (and several other posters) have been in your posts. I have no doubt that, in time, you will be able to learn from all the moments you’ve experienced – both comfortable and uncomfortable. As a non-white person myself, I believe that your global perspective is valuable in a way that a white person’s may not be because of the experiences you have had (and will have) in the color of your skin. I am so excited for the the opportunities that lie ahead for you, and the work that you will continue to do.

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