It sounds barbaric to say that when Europeans came to South Africa, they divided blacks from whites in an effort to make them more civilized, but that is precisely what happened in the beginning of apartheid. Africans eventually used the very thing that divided them to come together and unite. As the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Black unity and black power is the core of South African pride and nationalism today. Despite 50 years of being held back, diminished and excluded, blacks rose above it and overthrew oppression. Politically, this is a feat and there is a lesson to be learned. But psychologically and even philosophically, there is something everyone can learn from South Africans—stories of courage and determination.
Today, South African news sources and research questions have a single focus: post-apartheid healing and reducing poverty. The Mail & Guardian
is one of the best newspapers in South Africa. It comes out once a week and covers topics ranging from politics, pop culture, business, arts and more. The Economist
also frequently has articles on South Africa’s development.
After studying abroad in the country, I have seen the immense potential of its resources. I have also seen how much of it is wasted because the government, in its own deadlock, simply cannot see the needs of its own people, and that is why the economy is slipping, politics is becoming more heated and people are losing hope and living in poverty.
It should be simple to reclaim the land from which the Africans were forcibly removed, but a lack of deeds and entitlements make this a very difficult and complicated process. While the “BEElionaires,” recipients in the Black Economic Empowerment program, has garnered a lot of foreign investment for South Africa and financial aid for business owners, it has created a social divergence between black elites and regular black South Africans.
Shantytowns are the typical semi-permanent housing one sees in many other underdeveloped countries: homes made of corrugated steel, dirt paths for streets and littered with refuse. Most of these homes are a result of people who were cast out from the cities during apartheid and have never had the means or the desire to move back. Although today, the inner cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg are very well-off and appeal to the tourists and business people, relocating the impoverished residents into the wealthier areas would bring a host of problems: crime, possible sanitation issues, competition in the job market and homelessness. Yet could they be relocated to more permanent housing projects which could be built outside of the city? I do not have the answers, but it’s something to think about.
If we are going to study people, I think we need to consider the human condition of those we wish to research. During my last few weeks in Cape Town, I went to a place called Rehoboth, a place for the elderly who suffer from Alzheimer’s and Dementia. One morning, I helped push a gentleman in a wheelchair to the cafeteria, and at first I felt a sense of pity for the elderly man. “What a life to have to rely upon others for help,” I thought. Then I realized that this man probably didn’t want to be pitied, but simply helped, even if it was pushing his wheelchair down the hall. It was as this point that I realized that somewhere this man was listed as a statistic. A number. To most people seeing a number, they do not think about the man, the man’s family, how he feels about his illness, if it causes him pain, etc. It was a rather humanistic moment for me.
Money cannot bring what human contact can. It is human contact which develops human capital. Normally this is done through education and the trading of ideas and technologies to enhance workers’ productivity. While money is certainly an issue, the most important thing is to create the incentive for a worker to do their best in the first place. This is done by sharing the encouragement to create the capacity and develop the personal and professional relationships to help that person accomplish such a goal. The key is to be present with people spiritually, emotionally and sometimes physically. Theories on government policy and economic development cannot teach these lessons. Real development starts at the bottom, with the very people those policies are intended to affect.
People can be peculiar. Sometimes they meet the expectations we hold for them, and sometimes they exceed them. I believe that when we begin to treat African nations as formidable players on the international stage, they will have a role to live up to. They will rise above their differences, true to the African spirit, and leave a mark on the world.
Everyone, especially in a developing nation, has a dream to do their best and to want the best for themselves and their loved ones. Everyone has a story to tell. As the saying goes, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Take time to discover people rather than judge them. One person I met was, at first glance, disheveled to say the least. He was older, and his thick African dialect made conversation difficult, but when I was able to break down the language and communication barrier, I heard wonderful stories of how he was a sailor and he traveled the world. He had led an amazing life. Had I kept up my walls, I would have never heard these stories and I would have never learned that there could be excitement waiting around any corner. Learning comes from experiences and no two experiences are the same.
Ryan Freer is a student of political science at Eastern Illinois University. His future plans include pursuing his graduate studies in economics. This was his fifth trip outside of the United States. Further information on his trip abroad can be found in his blog documenting the journey, www.pantherintheorangefreestate.wordpress.com.