Journal South Africa
I am writing this column from Cape Town, where Laurie and I have joined 28 students in the Elon Winter Term course, “Th e Call of South Africa,” led by Prudence Layne, assistant professor of English and coordinator of African/ African-American Studies, and Sandra Reid, lecturer in human service studies. This is the first time Laurie and I have been on the African continent, and we feel immensely privileged to visit as a part of this special learning community.
As I write, Elon students are engaged in serious academic study around the world, taking part in 25 courses that combine experiential learning and reflection. Our class has participated in tours; lectures; visits to museums, hospitals, schools and theatres; mini-internships; journal writing; blogging; cultural explorations and much more. Prudence and Sandra offer a rigorous course.
Prior to the course, students met on campus for a pre-departure seminar, and Laurie and I joined them in completing substantial readings and viewing several videos that set an important context for our studies. More reading is assigned during the course, and frequent after-breakfast classes give us the opportunity to discuss the readings and our daily observations. (Note to students considering taking this course: it helps to be in decent physical shape to take full advantage of opportunities such as climbing Table Mountain, so hit the fitness center after you enroll!)
Our class is studying post-apartheid South Africa. In some ways, there are parallels to early U.S. history as we witness a young democraticsociety unfold following a dramatic struggle for freedom. That both democracies were born is nothing short of a miracle, and there are the obvious and painful connections to the American civil rights movement and ongoing problems of racism in American society today. South Africa and the United States share many other challenges as well, such as the need to invest in high-quality public education to compete economically, scientifically and technologically on a global basis.
In a meeting Professor Layne and I had with Rector and Vice Chancellor Brian O'Connell of the University of the Western Cape, O'Connell explained the challenges the university faces in receiving students woefully underprepared by under-resourced schools, a lack of qualified teachers and watered-down academic standards. Rector O'Connell is convinced that quality public education is the keystone to building a vibrant South Africa, much as it is to preventing further decline of America's position in the world. But South Africa must undertake school reform while at the same time combating hiv/aids and receiving an influx of refugees from other war-torn parts of Africa - terrible stresses for a relatively new democracy.
Our class has encountered a barrage of ideas and emotions during our visit. In our visits to the townships (shanty towns lacking essential services housing tens of thousands of people), we are reminded of the terribly oppressive ideology that created such conditions for disease, violence and poverty. But in these same townships, we have been inspired by women's empowerment projects that support women artisans and entrepreneurs and by the gradual rebuilding eff orts to replace shanties with decent, safe housing.
We sat in quiet awe in a prison cell on Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 19 years, and contemplated his refusal to engage in acts of retribution and retaliation to build the new South Africa into a true "rainbow nation." And we sat in quiet and in reverence in St. George's Cathedral with our friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who graciously agreed to meet with our class and remembers fondly his 2003 visit to Elon.
Winter Term 2010 has been a great adventure for Laurie and me, and we have been impressed with the intelligence, friendliness and warmth of each member of our group. We are inspired by the powerful learning experience Prudence and Sandra have created for our students. And, finally, we now understand the title of our course, "The Call of South Africa," because it is calling us to return!