I just returned from South Africa—a country I have visited for the past nine years every summer. With me were 23 doctoral students all studying American higher education. As part of their doctoral program, they participate in a two-credit course on South African higher education, history, and culture. I have been teaching this course for many years, but am continually intrigued by my students’ reactions to discussions of race in South Africa. I thought I’d share some of their reactions. As you read, please keep in mind that this is a diverse student group, with Black, White, and Latino students of various ages, faiths, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Over the years, I’ve also taken Asian and Native American students with me to South Africa.
One of the first reactions my students have takes place right after being introduced to some South Africans. You see, many South Africans will introduce themselves and very quickly make their race known. Because of the recentness of apartheid, race permeates the air in South Africa. Many of my students are shocked by the immediate racial identification. They are also surprised by the frankness around discussing issues of race. South Africans tend to be quite comfortable talking about race, unlike many Americans.
Often my White students are surprised at the blatant forms of discrimination and racism that they hear about when we travel to universities and throughout the country. They recoil when they hear how people were treated under apartheid and are still treated by some citizens of the country. It is easy for them to judge and to see racism in South Africa, but much harder to see it in the United States. Many times during class discussions, African American students will say, “but the same things happen in the U.S.—you just don’t notice it because it’s not happening to you.” This is an eye opener for my students overall.
When I teach about racial issues in the United States, many students have a very difficult time seeing how racial discrmination and disparities manifest in schools, health care, housing, employment. Personal racism is a bit easier for them to see, but systemic racism often goes unnoticed. This is not the case when my students are in South Africa. As we passed by miles of shanty towns in every major city of the country (a leftover from apartheid—Black people from the homelands would set up temporary shelters near cities in order to get jobs), the students saw immense racial disparities. When we visited Kliptown, where my good friend Bob Numeng leads a non-profit dedicated to uplifting children in the shanty towns, the realization that there isn’t a school for the 45,000+ community revealed the impact of decades of apartheid rule. My students saw racism and its evils in South Africa quite vividly.
Perhaps the most difficult issue to grapple with for my students, especially Black Americans, is the differentiation in South Africa between Black (or African) and Coloured. To Americans, the Coloured people of South Africa (a mixture of Malay, Dutch, Koi, and more recently, Indian, and Black) “look” Black and my students often can’t understand why they don’t consider themselves Black and why they don’t align more closely with Black South Africans. In the United States, they think, these individuals would be Black. Why not in South Africa? My students also have difficulty with the use of the word “coloured” because of its painful history here in the United States. Race in South Africa is quite complicated and although apartheid has fallen, its trappings remain vivid. In fact, the entire affirmative-action system in the country is based on the historic racial categories in order to provide equity to those who were oppressed under the apartheid government. Many of my students were frustrated that these racial categories still exist, but could not think of another way to achieve equality within the country.
A few years ago, during a visit to South Africa, I took my students to the Apartheid Museum and the special exhibit was titled “American Apartheid.” Many, if not most of the students were shocked by the exhibit, some even asked me if it was true. They wondered how these atrocities could have happened in the United States. Of course, those students who had lived through the atrocities didn’t have this kind of reaction. As I listened to my students, I couldn’t help but think that we do a terrible job of teaching people about history—especially the history of which we are not proud. It is easy to judge another country’s track record on issues of race, but it is very difficult to look closely at our own issues and to have the hard discussions that move us forward as a nation. I often wonder what we are afraid of. The worst that could happen is that we might find out we have more commonalities than we have differences. We might discover that equity for all makes for a much stronger and better nation. We might figure out that having empathy for other human beings results in a kinder nation.
Interestingly, as we moved throughout South Africa, many people told us that they look to the United States as a model for moving forward on issues of race. Given the openness with which many South Africans discuss racial issues, I wonder if we might be better off looking to them for some ideas.