Today we went to Union Building and the University of Pretoria. While our trip to Union Building was undeniably beautiful, as expansive gardens surrounded the building, our visit to the University proved to be an invaluable, once in a lifetime opportunity. When we first arrived on campus, we were given a tour and brief history about the University of Pretoria. From this I learned that the University started in 1908 and was called the Transvaal University Kollege, and consisted of only white students. While the campus was beautiful and the history interesting, lunchtime was the highlight of the day. During lunch, we met with both black and white students attending the University to discuss life in South Africa.
It was so interesting to hear about life from their perspective. Various conversations arose, ranging from their favorite American celebrities and common U.S. stereotypes, to more serious conversations about politics, race, and crime in both the United States and South Africa. As our discussion developed, an interesting dynamic emerged. Namely, the students representing the blacks were female while those representing the whites were male. The white male students took control of the conversation while the women only contributed when probed directly. Not only did this demonstrate to me the gender hierarchy in South Africa, but also the remnants of apartheid. Despite this, I was surprised to see that for the most part, the black and white students had the same feelings regarding South Africa’s current situation and where improvements need to be made. When asked if they felt that apartheid still existed, one of the students explained to us that while there are still remnants of apartheid in South Africa, those feelings are mostly a result of the older generations living in South Africa. This comment caused me to examine race in the U.S. I know personally, grandparents of mine held racist attitudes regarding blacks and whites. Similar to South Africa, I feel that as this generation dies off so will these segregated feelings.Slowly, our conversation emerged into a political conversation comparing our government to South Africa’s. I’m embarrassed to admit that the South African students knew more about the political system in the United States than I did. While I know a small amount about their government, I do so only from this class. Their knowledge about the U.S. is far more vast than mine and much more self initiated.
As a result, I found myself wondering why their stereotype of “naive Americans” proved to be so applicable to me. While I struggled to locate the answer on my own, our class processing session began to spur my thinking and directed my thought process. Since the majority of the class felt the same as me, Peter asked us why we feel we don’t know about international news or even U.S. news for that matter. We all spouted various excuses about not having enough time or not being given accurate information. Ultimately, I had to admit to myself that the only time I pay attention to news or politics is when it is something that directly affects me. As sad and selfish as that sounds, it is the harsh reality and although I won’t speak for others, I do believe that this may be the case for others my age living in the U.S.
Expanding on this idea, other countries, including South Africa, are very dependent on the U.S. Resulting in them being much more aware of current events in the United States, such as gun laws, the Boston bombing, and the recent abduction case. Ultimately, I’ve realized how wide spread events in the United States are compared to other countries. While something that happens in the U.S may directly affect South Africa, I don’t think the same could necessarily be said about events in South Africa directly affecting the U.S.
Nevertheless, due to my naivety, I found myself passively observing this discussion. Surprisingly, I think I might have learned more from observation than actively participating. Students highlighted areas of the U.S. government that surprised them to hear about and made me question the authenticity of our own government. Coming to South Africa and hearing about the crime rate and apartheid resulted in beliefs that the government was corrupt and far inferior to the United States. While this may be true to some extent, ultimately my eyes have been opened to the injustices that may be occurring in the United States. Conversely, hearing the student from Nigeria express her feelings on how fair and just South Africa’s government was in comparison to the corruption that occurs in Nigeria was also eye opening, as I truly could not imagine a government system that corrupt.
In the end, I found this to be an invaluable experience. While many of my own beliefs were challenged, I came away with one main take home message. Despite our upbringings, ethnicity, religion, or socioeconomic status, college students at heart are all the same. The love for good music, time with friends, and a beer or two after a long day of classes is a universal pastime– something that speaks volumes about the innate similarities amongst us all.