Cheyenne in South Africa

Cheyenne is a junior from Dallas majoring in public policy, with a minor in economics and human rights. She traveled with a group of 15 students, faculty and community members on a trip August 2-12 to South Africa, led by SMU Human Rights Program director Rick Halperin. The trip focused on the events and landmarks of apartheid, the system of racial segregation enforced there by the white-controlled government from 1948 to 1989.

Goodbye, South Africa

Though there was some major pushing and shoving, we managed to find a bus transfer to Gatwick and we made the flight. Luckily the British Airways staff was at full capacity, without any incidents like our previous flight.

The first step off the plane I could feel the Texas heat. I had almost forgotten I had to come home to this, and got used to wearing a jacket everywhere I went. I was a bit glad to be back, but a little bummed we only had two weeks till classes started.

Before this trip I knew close to little about the whole apartheid time period. One of the reasons I chose this trip was because I knew embarrassingly little. It was exciting to be in South Africa when their democracy was still fresh and young. Though there has been a great change there, all South Africans felt even greater changes are yet to come.

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Rainbow’s end

Our last day in Cape Town we visited some of the famous government buildings. We saw the Company’s Garden, which was established by the Dutch-East India Trading Company for the sailors and ships as a halfway point and restocking center before they made their trip to the east.

We also saw the City Hall building and Parliament. Again we tried to visit Robben Island, but the seas were too choppy and the ferry was not running. It was disappointing not being able to see Mandela’s prison cell, as it was one of the major highlights of the trip. However we all felt it would not feel right if we got to visit the landmark without Dr. Halperin there with us.

The rest of the day we did some last-minute shopping and sightseeing on our own before we headed back to the hotel to pack up. We were all nervous about our transfer from Heathrow to Gatwick because we only had three hours and the airport was at least an hour away. On the way to the airport it had just rained and we saw a huge rainbow across the highway. We actually got to see the rainbow from end to end, a complete semicircle. I saw that as a good-luck sign that we would make our flight.

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Apartheid’s past

Today we experienced townships in Cape Town.

Grafitti.jpg We first visited the District Six Apartheid museum. The building was an old church and much smaller than the Johannesburg museum, giving off a more intimate vibe. We then continued to Langa, the oldest apartheid housing scheme in the Western Cape townships.

We then stopped in Guguletu Township and visited a shebeen, a pub, and sampled a bit of homemade beer. It tasted more like grass and cost 12 cents. We also visited the newer hostels, which are not like the hostels we think of, but other forms of government housing during apartheid. They are basic brick buildings with over-crowed, inhumane conditions.

We had lunch at a small cafe in the township and even got to visit a local African tribal doctor. The room was filled with old bones, herbs, bottles, just about anything you could imagine. There was also a dead owl stung up across the wall with his stomach freshly cut up.

AIDS aware
Next we drove to the JL Zwane Center and Church in the Guguletu Township. This church is different in that it welcomes and openly discusses and advocates the HIV/AIDS problem in South Africa. They make it their point to become involved in their community and help educate citizens about HIV and help citizens gain access to health care while providing an after-school and nutrition program. The sanctuary had a banner on the front with a red AIDS awareness ribbon with the quote “We care.” This is unlike most churches, which do not take a supportive role in the prevention of AIDS.

After our talk at the church we had to take Dr. Halperin to the airport. That was a sad goodbye, as he was a vital part of the group, and it also meant we too were about to say goodbye to Africa.

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A trip to the end of the world

Today was an extremely exciting day as we got to visit the Cape of Good Hope. This is the southernmost tip of the African continent. I liked saying it was like going to the end of the world.

Penguins.jpg We drove around Cape Town to see all the small beach communities. It was so beautiful to have the mountains and ocean right there. We drove though Simon’s Town, a small village that has a colony of penguins living on the beach. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip! The penguins were tiny and so fun to watch. The weather was great and no one wanted to leave that spot.

We had a scheduled tour to Robben Island to visit Nelson Mandela’s prison but when we arrived there the tour had been canceled because of choppy ocean conditions. All bummed, we decided to switch our Saturday morning plans around and take a tour of Table Mountain. Fog had rolled in up at the mountains, but we decided to go anyway.

We took a cable car up to the mountain and once on top it felt like you were on Everest. Once again, it was freezing and windy, and the fog gave it an eerie feeling. You could barely see off the edge of the mountain so the whole experience felt like a dream. That night was Dr. Halperin’s last night, so we all had dinner together at a nice local restaurant.

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Quakers in Cape Town

Today we left Johannesburg and flew two hours to Cape Town. We flew a local airline, Nationwide, that had much older, smaller planes. It was interesting to see how lax the security was flying within Africa. There was no limit on carry-ons, no restrictions on liquids, and we didn’t have to take off our shoes or coats or belts. The security guard even laughed when we started to take off our shoes.

We had a quick lunch then headed to the Quaker House Peace Center, which gave a new perspective on the struggle for NGO’s to prosper. Though the Quaker House was founded on Quaker morals, they do not involve any religion in their social services. It was interesting to hear how their funding differs from the other organization because they are affiliated with a religious name. Our guide told us how the Quaker belief is to simply see others as your own brother or sister, all as human beings, and therefore treat others with the same love and compassion you hope for yourself.

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Nature break, South Africa-style

Today we took a break from the troubles of South Africa and visited a game reserve, or as the locals call it, “the bush.”

We drove two hours outside of Johannesburg to Pilanesburg National Park. It was freezing that day, and our guide provided us with blankets to wrap up in. Dr. Halperin was especially cold and wrapped up in two blankets, providing all the girls on the trip with quite a laugh. We took just as many pictures of him bundled us as we did the animals!

Elephant.jpgThe scenery was incredible, surreal. We saw all the major animals: elephants, rhinos, zebras, baboons, antelope, the African springbok, giraffes, hippos, and warthogs. One of my favorite parts of the day was when an older couple drove up next to our jeep and asked in a heavy South African accent, “Have you seen any giraffes?” Each time we came upon a new animal I felt like a little kid beaming with excitement.

We had lunch at a lodge overlooking the park, and I was unable to eat meat after seeing all the animals.

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Human rights in action

Today we visited three NGO’s, all which were very different in their set-up, but striving for the same thing: to promote democracy and social justice in Johannesburg communities.

Helping young refugees
The first organization we visited was the Refugee Children’s Project in downtown Jo’burg. Our guide Paul became very nervous when taking us downtown, and told us he never brings white tourists to this area. Inside the building there was no heat, and I was freezing.

The organization was formed in 2002, and now has a staff of seven. Their mission is to integrate refugee kids in South Africa and advocate for children’s rights. They are broken up into two departments. The education department works to provide assistance in the form of transportation, meals, supplies, uniforms and counseling to locals and refugee kids. The advocacy department speaks on behalf of the children, striving to ensure local children and refugee children obtain the same rights and access to services.

Most child refugees come from central Africa and especially Zimbabwe, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Congo. Unlike America, South Africa does not limit the number of refugees allowed to enter their country. Because of the recent trouble in Zimbabwe, the RCP said there might be as many as 6,000 Zimbabwe refugees per week crossing the border into South Africa. We learned how the traditional African spirit of “Ubuntu” plays a role in South Africa’s loose immigration laws. Ubuntu essentially means “what’s your is mine, we are all human beings, therefore we shall all have access to the same opportunities.”

Building peace
Next we drove to the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. This organization was started in the late 1980s, when most people thought apartheid would never end. They strive to promote peace and reconciliation through advocacy research and partnerships with the local government and other NGO’s. There are six programs: the criminal justice program, peace building, gender-based violence, trauma center, transitional justice, and truth and reconciliation committee, which work together in achieving the center’s mission.

We meet with Nahla Valji, who is a young woman from Canada working on the transitional justice program. She was extremely intelligent and fascinating to listen to. Transitional justice is something I am especially interested in and hearing Nahla’s story about how she came from Canada to volunteer in South Africa was inspiring for most of us on the trip, especially all the girls interested in this type of work. She also touched on the different types of skills needed in the social services field. Some of the most needed skills in this organization are those that have the capacity to blend with human rights knowledge, like the need for a forensic scientist and physiologist with human rights knowledge would be of great help.

Growing democracy
The third NGO we visited was called IDASA in Pretoria, South Africa. This organization is designed to strengthen South Africa’s new democracy and promote social justice. They told us how they wanted to empower the citizens to take part in politics because the heart of politics lies with people. They also touched on the high crime rates in South Africa, the country with the highest occurrence of rape in a non-war country. The new South African government is unique in that it offers equal rights to all people, and IDASA works to ensure people are getting what the constitution states.

Also, one of the speakers noted how though South Africa has only had its democracy for 13 years, that they were way ahead of the U.S. in terms of guaranteeing human rights. She posed the question to all of us that though it was great we were coming to South Africa to learn about their situation, we should all go home and take a look at our own government because she feels there is more work to be done there.

Some of us in the group were a bit taken that she would say that to us, but I was kind of glad she did. It seems almost like we would be missing the point if we headed off to a beautiful foreign country to do human rights work when we would be leaving our own country, which needs a lot of work, behind. It was kind of good to be reminded that though human rights work in South Africa could be glamorous and appealing, America is in need of activists and citizens ready to tackle her own problems.

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The streets of Soweto, South Africa

SowetoII.jpg Today we got to go through the streets of Soweto, a village of squatters who live without plumbing and electricity. The scene in Soweto is like something from a documentary on poverty. It’s unbelievable to think how part of a city can live so well, while on the other side of the city, citizens live in sub-poverty conditions.

The boys of Soweto
When we first walked in, young kids, all boys, came up to us. They were sort of shy at first, but they wanted to know where we were from, how long it took us to get here, and how many brothers and sisters we had. They were also eager for us to take their picture. It was cold outside, and some young boys only had old socks with torn sandals. They followed us and marveled at our cameras. The kids told us they had to walk nearly an hour and a half to school every day, getting up at dark. In the public school there is no real pressure for kids to attend school and no truancy policy if kids skip school.

We had a different guide take us around Soweto. He was dressed as if he was from the community. We went inside one home where a mother lived with her four children. There was a tiny square stove used to warm up the whole shack, although you could not feel the heat unless you stood next to it.

The Soweto township is where tragic riots took place during 1976. The riots were started by students who were protesting the government forcing the end of Afrikaans language in the public school system.

Church and shield
We left Soweto and drove to the Regina Mundi church. The church is in Soweto and is the township’s largest Catholic Church. This church served as a shield during the community’s resistance to apartheid and as a gathering place for the student opposition during the riots. During this time the government did not allow people to gather, but the students chose to gather in this church.

We were able to stand in the back viewing area as a service was taking place. I was taken by the music from the choir and the members. It felt strong and full of emotion. There are still bullet holes in the ceiling of the church from when the government shot it, attempting to break the student opposition. Our guide pointed out a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary. She was holding out her arms but missing her hands. Our guide told us the government shot the hands off, but they could never figure why.

Nelson Mandela’s home
We then drove to Nelson Mandela’s former home in Soweto, which is now a museum. This is the home he lived in after marrying his first wife, Winnie, and before he went to jail on Robben Island. To get there we traveled by Vilikazi St., which is the only road in the world that two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu, lived on.

The former home of Mandela was packed with old artifacts as well as the honorary degrees he received. When he lived there there was no electricity or running water. A pair of Mandela’s boots were on display that Winnie kept out when he left for jail, and kept them out until his return 27 years later. After that we drove to the Hector Peterson Memorial Museum. He was a 12-year-old boy who was shot during the uprising.

We didn’t spend long there, and headed for a quick lunch stop at the famous restaurant Wandie’s. It was a small place in the township where tourists stop. It did not have a tourist feel at all though. The walls were covered in business cards and people’s signatures and quotes. We had a traditional African meal, which consisted of beef stew, mielie pap, and veggies.

Dr. Halperin left his mark there too. He left both of his business cards and wrote “Celebrate Life” and “Human Rights Now- There is no such thing as a lesser person” on the wall in a sharpie.

After Wandie’s we ended the day at the Apartheid Museum. On the outside of the museum there were huge columns stating the pillars of the new South African constitution, written after the first democratic elections in 1994. These seven pillars stated democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, freedom and respect.

When you enter the museum you are given a card that denotes you as either white or colored. Each entry takes you through a separate entryway, and the two meet inside in the museum. The museum was very modern and had a special area describing the role women played in the struggle to end apartheid.

Recording our memories
We headed back to the hotel after a long day. It gets dark around 7 p.m. in South Africa, which made me get tired earlier. That night we had our first tape-recorder session. We would all gather in a circle and talk about our reactions and feelings of what we saw during the course of the day. We talked into a tape-recorder so Pat Davis, professor of theology and part of the SMU Human Rights Education board, could do a study on how the trip affects people.

Everyone reacted in a different way and noticed different things about the day’s activity. It was good to hear everyone’s viewpoints and reflect on the day. Both helped reinforce the focus of the trip – to study human rights.

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Arrival in Johannesburg

We arrived at the Johannesburg airport the next morning around 8 a.m. By then we were really dirty, tired, and a bit stinky too.

Some of us exchanged money, and then we all met our tour guide Paul, who loaded us up in the van we rented for the trip. Since our hotel rooms would not be ready till the afternoon we decided to flip the schedule and go straight to our planned activities. We first drove by the Union building, which was where the white government controlled South Africa during the apartheid regime. This building was huge, ornate, and had impeccably kept gardens. Visitors are no longer allowed to go inside so we just walked around the outside and the gardens. This was also where Nelson Mandela gave his inaugural speech when he became president in 1994.

Dutch museum
After that we drove to the Voortrekker Museum, which is a huge square building on the top of a hill that symbolizes the struggles the Dutch settlers faced when first migrating to the land. It was ironic because this monument was built by the Dutch to honor themselves, but eventually it was the Dutch who mistreated the native Africans. The enormous monument was made to depict the Dutch as the ones who suffered hardships. Of course, there was no mention of this at the monument.

Church Square
Last for the day we drove by Church Square, the main downtown with historic buildings. Our tour guide was very informative. He explained how South Africa has three capitals, each city running a different part of the country. After that we all checked in at the hotel and took long-awaited showers. The hotel was very nice and strangely enough specialized in providing customers with apples in their room.

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First stop: London

This is my first update since leaving America on Thursday afternoon, August 2. We landed in London on Friday morning, August 3, and spent the afternoon in the city. Not wasting any time, we filled our day with activities that taught us about human rights.

First we visited the Imperial War Museum, and more specifically viewed the new Holocaust Exhibit. The museum was in a beautiful old building that had airplanes and tanks from WWI and WWII. There was also a graffiti piece of the Berlin Wall outside that said, “Change your life.”

Live from the BBC
After a quick snack at the museum we traveled by bus to visit the BBC. The name of the BBC building is called the Bush House, which our group found ironic. We got our security passes and received a grand tour of the BBC. We were guided by Martin Plaut, who is from South Africa and now works at the BBC covering all issues on the African continent. He lived in South Africa during apartheid and was able to give an interesting perspective on the past and future of the country.

When we asked what he thought about the situation in South Africa, he proposed an interesting point to think about. Plaut wanted us to think about what the country could take from that time period. He commented how the apartheid time proves how endemic race is. The country is still so much divided and everyone, blacks and whites, still has a chip on their shoulder. He also briefly explained how the crisis in the Central African Republic was about to explode and could be more devastating than the destruction caused by Darfur.

It was fun to walk in the building because we heard many different languages as we ventured around. We got to go into the main news room where writers were actually deciding the headlines for new news. We learned the actual news that goes on air is only 25 seconds long. Writers were getting new updates on their e-mail about activities all over the world. We also got to walk in the room while live news was being recorded on air.

On to South Africa
After the BBC we drove by all the famous British sites like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abby, Big Bend, The London Eye, and Downing Street. The group was all starting to fade on the drive to Heathrow. We boarded the flight to Johannesburg just as the sun was setting in London. I was excited because we got chicken curry for dinner! The flight was over 10 hours long, but everyone was already pretty exhausted from the day in London.

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