I’ve often said that the best way to familiarize yourself with the culture of a foreign country is to engage in back-and-forth communication with the local people. My impression of South Africans has thus far been a very good one – with everybody from Soweto to Pretoria being much friendlier than we are used to. As our trip has taken us out of the township and into the big city, we have continued to be pleasantly surprised. But yesterday’s visit to the University of Pretoria presented a valuable opportunity that we have not yet had – to speak to university students our age in an open forum environment.
I enjoyed speaking with many of the locals in Soweto very much – during our down time in the evening I was able to learn quite a bit about some of their personal backgrounds and views on what is going on in South Africa. But yesterday’s experience was something entirely different, because as I looked across the table I saw college students just like myself – both black and white – but knew that they were also different in so many ways. It was an opportunity to see how much of a difference those thousands of miles between us have really made.
I must admit that the first thing that struck me about this encounter was that we ended up with the white students sitting on one end of the room and the black students (plus our coloured tour guide) sitting on the other. While it may have simply been coincidence, I found it even more odd that when one of the black students walked in late and the white students pulled up a chair for her next to them and invited her to sit, she instead walked over to sit with the other black students at the other end of the room.
We learned a lot from the students. The ones who had grown up in Pretoria had vastly different experiences from the girls who had grown up in neighboring African countries, and all of them were vastly different from ours. Most of them seemed to reciprocate our curiosity, asking us questions about America and our own upbringing. But what really interested me was what happened when we asked the white students about their opinions on apartheid. They seemed hesitant to address the issue – clearly hesitant that we would judge them for their responses. But what they said did not strike me as racist at all – unlike many of the comments made by our tour guide at the Voortrekker Monument. They voiced legitimate concerns over the tyranny of the minority simply shifting to the tyranny of the majority rather than equality. They seemed particularly concerned about Julius Malema – the controversial former ANC youth leader whose “kill the boer” cries had incited several instances of murder. The rhetoric of Malema and others seemed unsettling to the white students, and I can understand why. Moving forward is never easy – but dwelling on the past and harboring hatred for the formerly oppressive minority is not the right course of action for black South Africans or South Africa as a whole.
Exploring the cultural differences between us and these students was fantastic, but to me, even more interesting was how this conversation about apartheid taught us even more about where South Africa is and how far it still has to go.