Liberty and Current Issues

Posted by stephanie on Jul 28th, 2009
Jul 28

To begin my exploration of freedom last June, I attended a seminar in Boston hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) on the topic of Freedom, Tolerance, and Civil Society.  Being a sucker for symmetry, I decided to end my year of travel by attending another IHS seminar, this time in Washington D.C. on the topic of Liberty and Current Issues.  The IHS seminars are intense exercises in academic stamina.  Discussions of liberty as it pertained to issues ranging from school choice to healthcare to foreign policy occurred for a week for more than 12 hours a day.  I felt a little out of place at this seminar, as it was geared to students with public policy interest and background, and while I have an interest, I felt woefully uninformed about so many important issues.  I did learn a lot about the different arguments surrounding various views on public policy issues.  The IHS is a decidedly libertarian organization, so I took all the information in through the lens that this was just one interpretation of what changes should be made to public policy.  However, you can’t beat a seminar where the housing, food, books, lectures, and stimulating conversations are all for free.  For more information on what the IHS is and how to apply for seminars, scholarships, fellowships, and internships, go to

There is too much that occurred at my week in D.C. to go into great detail all the information given through lectures and various conversations, but there is one quote from a speaker during the week that really stuck with me and which I found pertinent to my interest in exploring freedom at home and abroad.  The speaker was Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University whose research is primarily on the economics of culture.  Dr. Cowen was brave enough to sign up for an open Q&A session where the audience was allowed to ask him questions on any topics without his prior knowledge of the questions.  I don’t remember exactly what question he was asked, but his response to one of the questions was that “The greatest threat to liberty today is public opinion.”  He left it at that without expanding upon what he meant, but I think that it’s a quote that’s worth exploring and thinking about as well, as its implications for our society.  For me, this is another warning against the idea of the “tyranny of the majority,” which basically means that a society needs to have checks and balances in it to protect minority opinions.  It also means that we need to take the time to think through our own beliefs and figure out our own opinions, instead of going along with “public opinion.”  For example, with public opinion polls, say that in a poll most Americans are content with some aspect of society, yet you don’t know much about the issue at hand or possibly have different beliefs.  I think too many people are content with thinking everything is okay if public opinion is in favor of something.  If everyone adopts this view, though, then we lose dissenting opinions and the knowledge of an issue that they bring with them.  Our society is at risk if people stop thinking for themselves.  When this happens, it is easier for one side of issues to gain power, and often the side in power is not interested in maximizing our liberties.  Another speaker during the week, a constitutional lawyer, told us that one change he would like to see guaranteed in the constitution is the presupposition of liberty in cases in which the constitution or law is unclear.  The rulings should be made in such a way that the liberty of the individual is held supreme (unless it interferes with the liberty of another, which is always the sticky part of this interpretation, where do we draw the line?).

My week of thinking about liberty and current issues had me thinking about everything I learned during my time abroad, although I still haven’t hammered down exactly what freedom means to me because freedom to me does not mean one thing:  it means everything.  I am still grappling with the ideas of equality, moral obligations, democracy, and many more factors.  I’m a huge believer in individual freedoms and liberties, but my time abroad made me think that we have moral obligations as members of a global community to help those at home and abroad who were dealt a worse hand than us in the game of life.  How far should the ideas of equality go?  If all men (and women) were created equal, why are some starving while most of us are wasting?  Is democracy the best form of government?  Would it not be better to have any government?  I tend to believe in many libertarian ideals, but I can’t help but thinking that the free-market cannot solve all of our problems.  We have a better chance in the western world for those ideas to work, but what about the rest of the world?  What about the one billion people in the world who are in extreme poverty?  What are we doing for them?  What should we do for them?  Is it the obligations of governments or private individuals or some combination of the two to fix these problems?

I don’t have the answers for any of these questions, and it wasn’t the intention of my time abroad to come up with an answer for what freedom means.  If anything, exploring what freedom means only made me think of more questions.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from reading about, talking about, and exploring these ideas of freedom is that I know very little about what there is to know about everything really.  For me, learning is a bit like drinking out of the ocean…it only makes you thirsty for more.  I hope that my blog has educated you about current issues around the idea of freedom and made you think about what freedom means to you and possibly has inspired you to learn more about the world around you.  Just because I’m back on US soil doesn’t mean that I am going to stop thinking about and learning about freedom and the various aspects of freedom there are.  If anything, I’m more inspired and am already starting to plan the next great adventure.


Reverse culture shock: The journey home

Posted by stephanie on Jul 14th, 2009
Jul 14

From Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, I took the shuttle offered by the Nomad tour company back to Johannesburg, enjoying the extra room on Nina (our bus) as there were only 2 other people heading back with me on the 24 seater monstrosity.  It took two-days of driving 8-10 hours for us to finally reach our destination, and the day after arriving back in Joburg it was time for me to catch my flight to Dublin.  Heading to Ireland might seem a strange way to travel back home from South Africa, but the flights to Europe are surprisingly cheap, and thanks to the generosity of American Airlines, I had a free plane ticket home that I could use from any location that AA flies directly, none of which are in Africa.  So, I decided to go back to Ireland, a place where I lived for 5 months in 2007 as a study abroad student and hope to return to often. 

 I was in love with the Ireland a long time before I even had the opportunity to go there, and that love only grows each time I get a chance to go.  On my brief nine-day visit, I spent two days in Dublin, two days in Cork, two days in Galway, and three days in Sligo.  I had been to every other city before except for Sligo, and not much has changed in two years.  Ireland is as charming as ever.  My days were spent walking around, enjoying the cool Irish summer, reading in cafes, doing some sightseeing, taking in some trad sessions, and just giving myself time to come to grips with the adventure that I was about to conclude.  It’s hard to say goodbye to something so extraordinary, but when it has become such a part of who you are, then I suppose you really aren’t concluding your adventure but only really beginning it.

 My time in Ireland was a bit of a buffer time for me to transition out of the African mindset back to the western world. It was a bit challenging in Ireland this time, not because of any difficulties getting around, but because I could feel the change in me.  I have to admit that traveling around alone in Ireland was a lot more isolating and lonely than it ever was in Africa and Asia, but this was also compounded by the nostalgia I was feeling for the friends I made my first time in Ireland and the amazing experiences I had.  I missed the conversations that I would have with strangers throughout my travels and wondering what unexpected but inevitable obstacles would greet me each day in Africa.  In a way, I began to see that the western world works too well, and at the same time, not at all.  I am a product of western culture, so I do inherently like being productive and on time, but I feel like we miss out on so much of what life is about on our constant quests to minimize the time between points A and B.  Africa would frustrate me many times, but I learned so much about being a better human being there.  Even at Reach Out, where many times I questioned exactly what I was doing or could say I accomplished there, but at the end of 2 months there, I knew more about my co-workers than I did about people at Vanderbilt I knew for 4 years and considered good friends.  The focus on relationships and community is something invaluable I took away from my trip.

I’m not yet done with my travels, even though I am back on US soil.  On Saturday I head to D.C. to attend a seminar entitled “Liberty and Current Issues” hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies at Trinity University.  There are more observations about freedom to come, as well as a summary of what I learned and gained from my time abroad and in the US!

Speeding through Southern Africa

Posted by stephanie on Jun 22nd, 2009
Jun 22

I never knew I wanted to go to Namibia until I went to South Africa, but while in SA I met so many travelers who were going there that I decided to look into the country and see what everyone was so excited about.

Namibia is home to the Fish River Canyon, the world’s oldest and second largest canyon, the Namib Desert, where the landscape is a broad expanse of gravel plains and red dunes, Etosha National Park, where African wildlife roam free, and the cities of Swapkomund and Windhoek, which provide a taste of Germany in Africa (Namibia was a former protectorate of Germany).  Another interesting thing about Namibia is that it is the second most sparsely populated country in the world after Mongolia, which provides a bit of a challenge as a traveler because there really isn’t any public transportation in the country.  Getting around without a car is pretty much impossible, which is why I joined an overland tour through the region that took me all the way from Cape Town to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  I went with one of the most popular tour companies called Nomad (, and I highly recommend them if you’re looking for a bit of adventure in Africa.  The trip took 20 days in total, and there were about 21 people in our group (some people only did part of the tour and others joined in throughout the 20 days).  It’s such a different experience going on an organized tour after fending for yourself for nearly 10 months, and there are definite advantages and disadvantages to it.  One advantage is that you can sit back and relax, knowing that all the details are already taken care of, but a disadvantage is that there is less flexibility and a tighter schedule to adhere to each day.

In addition to geographical interest that Namibia holds, it also has an interesting recent political history as it only recently won independence from South Africa in 1990 after the Namibian War of Independence.   The war of independence was begun in 1966 by the military wing of the South-West Africa’s People’s Organisation (SWAPO).  It wasn’t until 1988 that South Africa agreed to end its administration of Namibia.  Nowadays, Namibia is one of Africa’s most developed and stable countries, operating under a multiparty parliamentary democracy.

Our route to Vic Falls also took us through Botswana, another of Africa’s most stable countries and a success story economically.  The World Bank even considers Botswana one of the world’s greatest development success stories.  Our tour took us through the Kalahari Desert and to the Okavango Delta, where we had a true bush camping experience, taking traditional boats to a small island where we spent two days and nights three hours away from the nearest civilization.  While traveling through Africa I was introduced to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series written by Alexander McCall Smith.  These books take place in Botswana and are about a female detective and are hard to put down!  One excerpt from the first book really summed up Botswanan freedom for me:
In the beginning, which in Gaborone really means thirty years ago, there were very few factories.  In fact, when Princess Marina watched as the Union Jack was hauled down in the stadium on that windy night in 1966 and the Bechuanaland Protectorate ceased to exist, there were none.  Mma Ramotswe had been an eight-year-old girl then, a pupil at the Government School at Mochudi, and only vaguely aware that anything special was happening and that something which people called freedom had arrived.  But she had not felt any different the next day, and she wondered what this freedom meant.  Now she knew of course, and her heart filled with pride when she thought of all they had achieved in thirty short years.  The great swathe of territory which the British really had not known what to do with had prospered to become the best-run state in Africa, by far.  Well could people should Pula! Pula! Rain! Rain! with pride (pg. 150).

The last part of our tour took us to Zimbabwe, and interesting place to be when one is looking at freedom.  The two guides on our tour were both from Zimbabwe, one from near Harare and the other one from near Victoria Falls, so they were definitely interesting to talk to about my project.

Zimbabwe started out as part of the British colony of Rhodesia.  Nowadays, Zimbabwe is under the control of President Robert Mugabe, who has held power as the head of government since 1980 (as Prime Minister from 1980-1987 and as President from 1987-present).  Mugabe’s rule has been characterized by economic mismanagement, hyperinflation, and human rights abuses.  I was able to buy my very own (3 in fact!) 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar notes for the low price of $1.  Zimbabwean currency has turned into a joke, and now the country is dealing in the more stable currencies of other countries, mostly the US dollar and South African rand.  Now that prices are in these currencies, everything is more expensive for the citizens, who struggle to obtain the necessities of life like food.  When perusing the BBC website, I came across something called “Harare diary:  Costly freedom,” which describes the life of a young professional woman living and working in Zimbabwe’s capital, and how her life has changed during the first 100 days under the Government of National Unity.    Take a few minutes to read what she has to say about the current situation in the Zimbabwean capital at (

The fact that my two guides were from Zimbabwe also highlights the situation of the refugees fleeing the country to live in other countries, mainly South Africa.  An estimated 3.4 million Zimbabweans have fled abroad since 2007, and about 3 million of them have gone to South Africa.

I spent several nights around the campfire talking to the cook on our tour named Norman, one of our two leaders from Zimbabwe.  At 27, Norman is responsible for supporting his family financially, so much of his paycheck goes back home to Zimbabwe, with his goal being to send his younger sister to university (an opportunity he could never afford for himself) so that she can have a life that isn’t dependent on who she marries—he wants her to be independent and self-fulfilled.  Talking to him made me really appreciate everything I’ve been given and all the opportunities I’ve been able to capitalize on, as well as how hard many people work to accomplish the same things that I too often take for granted.  When talking to Norman about freedom, he asked me “What do you know about freedom?”  This question really struck me because it got me thinking about what I do know about freedom, and lead me to the realization that in order to really understand freedom, you have to have it taken away from you at some point.  All the great icons of freedom, from Gandhi to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Mandela, have all had their freedom taken away from them at some point.  That’s why we look to them for guidance on issues of freedom.  They have seen both sides.  I have yet to experience both sides of freedom as I don’t think I’ve ever had my freedom limited or taken away.  Apart from getting myself arrested, I’m not sure how to limit my freedom while integrating back into life in the US, but learning about the struggles of others has made me realize what a gift this freedom is to me. 

My time through Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe was pretty fast-paced, and each country could easily be further explored for more than a few days, but it was great to be able to get a small glimpse into each country.  The Nomad tour was a fun way to wrap up my time in Africa.  Africa made a lasting impression on me, one that it makes on many people fortunate enough to travel there.  As Bob Geldof put it, Africa isn’t the “Dark Continent” but is more aptly referred to as the “Luminous Continent.”  Africa is such a diverse continent, but one that is full of hospitality, love, patience, and hope for the future.

The Long Walk to Freedom

Posted by stephanie on May 16th, 2009
May 16

After leaving Lesotho, I headed to the Wild Coast of South Africa for 10 days of rugged beauty and adventure.  This area is also known as the Transkei, which means “the area beyond the Kei River.”  This was one of the apartheid-era homelands for the black people of South Africa.  Nelson Mandela was born in the Transkei in 1918, and still has a home in Qunu, which I was able to see on my bus ride up the coast!  In 1959, the National Party government introduced legislation to create 10 homelands, divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, for black South Africans so that the government could pursue a policy of “Separate Development.”  The Transkei was one of the areas set aside of the Xhosa-speaking people.  Over the years, the area has become more of a tourist destination, drawing groups of people looking for a “real” African experience within South Africa, which is harder to find if you stick to the Garden Route and Cape Town.  My trip through the Transkei started in East London, then to Chinsta, Coffee Bay, and Port St. Johns.

I choose to travel through the part of South Africa because I wanted to see the homeland of Nelson Mandela.  I believe that so much of who we are is tied to where we came from, and in order to understand the life and legacy of Mandela better, I wanted to see for myself where he grew up.  I started The Long Walk to Freedom while in Uganda, getting about a third of the way through before having to return it to the person I borrowed it from.  I tried again while in South Africa, but if you’ve seen Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, it is huge!  I didn’t have enough space in my bag to carry it around!  Even without having read the book through completion yet, I have learned a lot about the life of Mandela simply by traveling through South Africa, and it is clear how much he means to the people of this country, not to mention the world.  From seeing Robben Island to visiting the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and seeing Mandela’s home in Soweto, I have seen many of the stops on Mandela’s long walk to freedom, and it was certainly a journey.

What struck me most about the Transkei was the blending of the past with the present.  Most of the people are still living in rondevals (the round huts) without electricity or water, building bricks from mud and dung to make their homes.  At the same time, though, you see everyone with cell phones, many of who are wearing western style clothing, talking about US politics in nearly flawless English.  There is so much tradition and culture in this area, but it is an area that is slowly changing, incorporating the new with the old.  It is not always an easy thing to do, being true to a past that is slowly fading.

Traveling has made me acutely aware of how much of who I am is shaped by where I came from.  No matter how much I see and how much I learn, that will always be a part of me.  Like the Transkei, I think I am in the process of incorporating the old with the new.  Reconciling new ideas, philosophies, information, and insights with past beliefs, former prejudices, and previous inaccuracies.  That is the benefit of travel, and I’ve been on my own “long walk” (and long flights and drives) to freedom.  Traveling by myself has been one of the most liberating and empowering experiences of my life.  As I’m nearing the end of my trip, I’ve been thinking back to all the experiences I’ve had, amazing people I’ve met, and unbelievable places I’ve seen and am amazed at how 9 months of travel has taught me and shaped me.  I look forward to the adventures of the next month ahead, the knowledge I will gain, and the ultimate freeing experience of it all.

South Africa elections

Posted by stephanie on May 16th, 2009
May 16

This post is a long time coming, but I headed to Lesotho before the official results of the South African elections were in, and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about them until now!  South Africans flocked to the polls on April 22 to vote in their 4th democratic election since the end of apartheid.  The African National Congress (ANC) was the ruling party going into the elections, and with the election of Jacob Zuma to the presidency, it continues to be the dominant political party in the country.  There were a lot of passionate opinions on all sides, and one thing that I’ve found while being in South Africa is that most people I’ve talked to have been so open and candid about the parties they support and the reasons why, some of the reasons for support having to do with everything from supporting the party of Nelson Mandela to voting for a party because that’s how their families always vote.  On Election Day I played the unofficial role of international election observer by heading to the polls to watch the South African voting process in action.  The line at the polling place I went to was enormous, which I think is a testament to South African democracy and how much it means to the citizens of the country.   I went back several times during the day to watch everything unfold, and at the end of the day, when the line had died down, I decided to get inside of the polling station and watch people vote, which I did.  There are no electronic voting machines in South Africa, so it’s all done by paper ballots and everyone then puts their marked ballot paper in a box.  Everyone also has to have special ID booklets to prove their identity.

I talked to a lot of the young people in the line about why they were voting and how they felt about these elections.  Many of the people had been inspired by the American elections, and how important the youth vote had been for the election of Obama.  There was also an overwhelming sense of excitement exuding from them about finally having the opportunity to vote, and feeling that it was their duty to go out and vote.  I was impressed how orderly and well run the elections in Cape Town were.  It was an exciting day to be in South Africa, witnessing the elections and democracy in action.  Having spent so much time learning about the history of South Africa, it was great to witness an important moment in the country’s present history that will certainly have ramifications for its future.

Election Day

Where to? Lesotho!

Posted by stephanie on May 15th, 2009
May 15

Where to?  Lesotho!
I’m a huge believer that there are no coincides in life, and that the people we meet and experiences we have are not the result of simply random occurrences.  While on a three-day trip to Stellenbosch in early April, I met a Peace Corps volunteer named Jen who has lived in Lesotho for the past two years.  She is nearing the end of her volunteer service, and invited me to see her site.  So beings my adventure to Lesotho, the tiny country engulfed by South Africa.

I might be crazy, but I decided to take the minibus taxis to Lesotho, leaving from the Johannesburg taxi rank, possibly one of the most dangerous places to be by myself.  I arrived in Joburg a day early in order to be able to leave for the taxi rank early in the morning the next day.  I stayed the night at a B&B run by a very nice, middle-aged, Afrikaans speaking couple who were visibly perturbed by my plan to take a minibus taxi to Lesotho (the only white people you usually find on these taxis are foreigners, and even those are few and far between).  They did, however, agree to take me to the Joburg taxi rank at the train station, and I could see the mortification on their faces as they dropped me off just outside of the entrance, and I am almost certain I heard their tires squeal as they peeled away as quickly as possible.  There I was, left alone early in the morning at the train station, on the public holiday of Freedom Day.  I knew that it was a bit of a crapshoot traveling on one of the many public holidays of South Africa.  Either the minibus taxi could fill up quickly, or I could be sitting around for my many hours.  It was six hours, to be exact, that I sat alone in the minibus taxi, waiting for other people to come alone.  Luckily, during my time in Africa I became slightly addicted to the Twilight book series, and had the final book to keep me entertained for my wait.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in Africa, it’s how to be patient.  After arriving at the taxi rank at 7 am, we finally hit the road at 1 pm, but we didn’t get far.  We arrived in Soweto a bit later, and waited around for about another hour.  At this point I was concerned because it gets dark around 5:30-6 pm in that part of South Africa, and I didn’t want to travel at night not having any idea where I was.  The drive to the border of Lesotho from Johannesburg takes about 4 hours, so it was dark by the time that we got to the border town of Ficksburg.  I decided not to chance it that night and cross the border, and instead spent the night at a hotel in town.  I crossed the border the next day by foot, and ended up in Lesotho where I had to take another minibus taxi to Butha Buthe, where Jen lives.  There are about 80 Peace Corps volunteers in Lesotho, so I met a couple of others in Butha Buthe with Jen as well.  I was even given a new name by the man who worked at the Kodak photo store.  He said my name should be Mamaylo (I’m not sure of the spelling), which means patience.  It was pretty named me “patience” because he didn’t even know about my 6-hour minibus taxi wait.  It did seem pretty appropriate, though.

Jen has been working on HIV/AIDS education at her site, and also works a lot with the youth of the area.  I also met several other PCVs in the area, some of them working at teachers in the schools and others helping to give the local teachers additional training and tools for teaching.  Another volunteer was working at a nature reserve.  The work of the PCVs is certainly varied, and highly dependent on the knowledge and motivation of the volunteer.  I had the opportunity to live like a PCV for several days, in huts with no electricity or running water and glorious pit latrines.  I was happy to have a warm shower when I visited the capital of Maseru, though.  Jen and I went to Maseru to go to an international food festival, which was delicious.  I did have a very “it’s a small world after all” moment while at the festival.  I saw a guy who looked very familiar, and thought that maybe we had gone to Vanderbilt together.  However, after we got to talking we realized that we had both worked as volunteers at the Clinton Global Initiative conference that I went to in Hong Kong in December.  He was also in India at the same time I was, and dated one of the Fulbright scholars that I had met during my time in Delhi.  The world is very big, but it can also be very small at times.

I had a great visit to Lesotho, which is a beautiful, mountainous country with equally beautiful people.  It was nice to go back to “real” Africa after spending so much time in Cape Town, which is a place that can make you forget that you are indeed still on a developing continent.


How Bill Cosby saved South Africa

Posted by stephanie on Apr 24th, 2009
Apr 24

The other day I had the privilege of sitting down and chatting with Dave Steward, current executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, former UN Ambassador, and former Director-General in the Office of the President under FW de Klerk (basically the Chief of Staff for the prez).  FW de Klerk was president of South Africa from 1989-1994, and is best known for engineering the end of apartheid in South Africa (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 alongside Nelson Mandela).  Therefore, Mr. Steward played an intimate role in the government that ended apartheid in South Africa, so you can imagine how much of an honor it was for me to meet him.

The FW de Klerk Foundation was established in 2000, and its goal is to promote peace in multi-community states and to maintain the constitutional government.  The Foundation sees the key to the peace in the 21st century as accommodating cultural diversity in states, especially in an increasingly globalized world.  The main work of the Foundation is done through its Centre for Constitutional Rights, which was established three years ago to support and uphold the South African Constitution, monitor developments, test legislation with regards to constitutionality, inform people of their constitutional rights, put together coalitions, and offer pro-bono legal advice for constitutional matters.  It works to uphold the legacy and goals of FW de Klerk’s administration.

In our discussion of South African history, politics, and freedom, Mr. Steward and I were in agreement that freedom and democracy, though used interchangeably by many, are in fact, not the same thing.  Mr. Steward used the example of Hong Kong to illustrate his point that while not a democracy, Hong Kong has quite a free society, especially when looking at it economically (it is ranked #1 in terms of economic freedom in the world).  Mr. Steward believes that free societies are those that allow for the most individual freedom, which in turn leads to more personal empowerment.  The measure of a society’s freedom is the sum total of the citizens individual freedoms.  In fact, his definition of freedom is “the maximum ability for individuals to take decisions with minimum interference from the state or other outside forces within the framework of the law.”

Mr. Steward went on to describe South Africa as a 5-tiered cake, based on its diversity of socio-economic statuses and multi-racial communities.   The first-tier is made up of around 13-14 million South Africans.  This group includes the black populations still in the tribal homelands operating under tribal institutions and laws.  The second-tier includes around 4 million people.  This includes black and colored workers on white-owned farms.  The people in this tier live in large communities (a farmer’s family can have up to 100 tenant workers) and have low wages.  There is a paternalistic relationship between masters and workers.  The third-tier consists of 12 million South Africans who are first-generation city dwellers.  These are the township dwellers, many who live in the shantytowns.  These people come to the city looking for economic opportunities.  The fourth-tier is the urban working class—families who have lived in the city for a couple of generations.  They are more educated, have jobs, and higher expectations.  This group is more politically motivated than the third-tier, and more integrated with western culture.   The fifth-tier of South African society consists of 6-7 million people who live to a first-world standard.  This is now composed of about half white and half non-white populations.  This tier has experienced rapid change since 1994.

To put this into perspective with the major South African political parties, the ANC has wide-appeal across the country, but Jacob Zuma in particular appeals to the Zulu population, which is the first-tier of South African society and one of the largest segments.  The DA appeals to the upper layers of society, but Mr. Steward believes they have a growth ceiling of 15-20%.  COPE is a new political party for this election and has support among the Xhosa supporters and supports of the former president Mbeki.

An important point that Mr. Steward made is that that changing economic relationships change outmoded social and constitutional relationships.  During the FW de Klerk stage of South African history and the time preceding it, there were great socio-economic forces at work in the country.  The end of apartheid did not come over night, or was the result of one incident or event, but began a few decades before the official end came under FW de Klerk.  In the 1970s in South Africa there was rapid economic growth within the country that brought black South Africans into the economy.  The gap changed from the enormous share of the economy belonging to the whites to a much smaller divide that resulted in changing power relationships.  There were also huge developments in education, and by 1994 there were more black kids in university than whites.  In Steward’s opinion, apartheid was destroyed by ordinary citizens making their own economic decisions, which was more effective than international sanctions.  Also, the introduction of the Cosby Show to South Africa changed many people’s view of the relationship between white and black people, and showed a different model than many people were used to.  The Huxtable family is quite impressive, but who knew they played such a big role in ending apartheid in South Africa?

Another important factor to the end of apartheid was the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The National Party (the party of FW de Klerk) didn’t do in 1980 what it did in 1993 because of the concern about the communist affiliations that the ANC had.  The NP did not want South Africa turning into a communist state, so many of the policies that it wanted to enact had to wait, but were quickly put into motion after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Steward grew up in a diplomatic family, spending much of his childhood in Canada and the UK, which he believes definitely shaped his view of the races and why he helped to end apartheid in South Africa because he didn’t grow up with the same ingrown hatred of many, whether from the Anglo-Boer tension or tensions between different races.  It is always interesting to think about how much of who we are is shaped by who we were and where we came from.  We can learn from who we were and change, both for better and worse. Different ways of life and upbringings can also help change and shape those when they become exposed to them.  I think that South Africa is learning from who it was and changing for the better.

Elections and Erections

Posted by stephanie on Apr 18th, 2009
Apr 18

Last night I went to a play written by and starring South Africa’s most famous cross-dresser, Pieter-Dirk Uys.  The play, entitled Elections and Erections, is a satirical look at two things that were illegal in South Africa for most of his life, democracy and sex, and how his interest in politics arose because of an erection.  Using the medium of theatre, Pieter-Dirk Uys exercises one of the most important rights to him—his freedom of speech (  Against a backdrop of past and present political posters, Uys presents himself as a series of characters to comment on the political situation in South Africa and the world (the were plenty of references to politics in America…even dating back to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and more recently to the optimism that the election of Obama brought to the world).  With national elections less than a week away in South Africa, Uys wants to make the message clear on how important voting is for everyone, and does it in such a humorous and moving way that I’m about ready to get in line to vote on Wednesday.  As an outsider to South Africa, and a newcomer to trying to understand the politics and psyche of the country, I cannot say that I understood all of the nuances or references in the play (not to mention the parts that were in Afrikaans), but I had a great time.

He opens the play with a sketch involving Hilary and Bill Clinton, and then goes to a skit with him portraying an older white South African woman as the cleaner in the White House that is now occupied by an African-American family (reversing the idea of the role of master and servant in South Africa based on racial lines).  He parodies the problems and solutions at the Home Affairs office.  He also discusses the lack of legacy left by Thabo Mbeki, the singing, dancing, and preaching of the soon to be president Jacob Zuma (and of course parodies the infamous Zuma response that taking a shower after having unprotected sex with an HIV positive person will prevent AIDS).  In a more serious moment, Uys sits and talks candidly to the audience about an experience he had growing up with a coloured boy that changed his sensibilities about races and the divides that exist in South Africa.

The second act of the play involves Uys famous alter ego Evita Bezuidenhout.  This part of the show involved audience participation, and even allowed the audience to ask Evita questions about the upcoming election because, as Evita says, democracy is about asking questions and demanding answers.  There are also many references to the hope and optimism of the 27 April 1994 elections that brought Nelson Mandela into power and lifted South Africa out of the shame of apartheid.

Although the play is a satire at heart, it is also remarkably inspiring.  Uys recognizes how young and fragile the South African democracy is, saying that in South Africa, the democracy is so young that its voice hasn’t even broken yet (although just about everything else about it is broken).  Another one of my favorite moments was when Uys talks to the Zuma doll he had made, and the promises Zuma makes to the country are to “yield to the left so that nothing is right.  And to yield to the right so that nothing is left.”  Uys wants his message to be to the politicians of South Africa that “No, you can’t!” (in reference to Obama’s campaign slogan Yes We Can!) No they can’t continue with the ridiculousness and corruption that is creating a bad image of democracy in the country and not allowing the country to move forward.  South Africans must keep their politicians accountable, and to do this, everyone must vote.

Election Day

Museums in Johannesburg

Posted by stephanie on Apr 13th, 2009
Apr 13

Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum is located in Johannesburg and one of the main reasons why I wanted to add Joburg to my itinerary (and definitely worth it!)  The term “apartheid” derives from Dutch and means separateness.  Basically, apartheid propagated the idea that people not of European descent were sub-human, and it stifled the culture, education, and ambition of other races, most severely that of the Blacks.  Apartheid policies were implemented in 1948 when the Afrikaner-dominated National Party took control of the government under D.F. Malan. People were classified into the racial groups of White, Black, Colored, and Indian.  Segregation became the norm, and Blacks were even stripped of their citizenship.  Hendrik Frensch  Verwoerd is considered the most influential politician in the growth of apartheid, called it the “policy of good neighborliness.”  There is a lot to know about apartheid, and I spent about 3 ½ hours in the museum, so I don’t think I can get into all of the specifics here!  I walked away from the museum drained because of the amount of information and the weightiness of the topic, but it is a fantastic museum.  The remnants of apartheid can still be felt today.  Apartheid was dismantled from 1990-1993, culminating in the elections of 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president.

Hector Pieterson Museum
This museum was a surprise addition that we didn’t know what included in our tour of Soweto, but incredibly interesting and informative.  It basically tells the story of the June 16, 1976 student uprising in Soweto and is named after a 13-year-old boy who was sadly the first student to lose his life during that day.  These protests erupted because of the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English.  Police opened fire in Orlando West on 10,000 students, and 566 people died.  After this event, economic and cultural sanctions were placed on South Africa from abroad in protests to their apartheid policies.  Soweto and other townships became the stage for violent state repression.  There was a poem in the museum that touched me the most and captured for me most beautifully the impact of this event.

First victim…
A bullet burnt
Into soft dark flesh
A child fell
Liquid life
Rushed Hot
To stain the earth

He was the first victim
And now
Let grieving the willows
Mark the spot
Let nature raise a monument
Of flowers and trees
Lest we forget the foul and the wicked deed

-Don Mattera, 1976, Azanian Love Song


Soweto is not a museum, but is instead home to approximately 1 million people in Johannesburg.  The largest township in South Africa, it still reflects the racial policies of the apartheid government.  Townships in South Africa were formed as a way to force Africans out of the city centers.  Soweto is a group of townships south west of Johannesburg (Soweto is an abbreviation of SOuth WEstern TOwnships).  Soweto is also the only place in the world where two Nobel Prize winners grew up on the same street—Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  I think this is a true testament to the human spirit that even those who grow up under policies meant to oppress them can fight for their own rights, then go on to lead their country based on policies of unification and forgiveness.  What really interested me about Soweto, though, is how nice a lot of it is.  There is definitely an emerging black middle class, and many of the streets and houses in Soweto looked like a suburb out of the U.S.  Of course, the disparity between the way that many white South Africans life and the way that black South Africans live is still really great.  There are also shantytown portions (informal settlements), where there is much poverty, but Soweto is definitely an emerging place, full of culture, and hope and optimism for the future.  From what I saw of Soweto, I really liked it.  People were walking around and there seemed to be more of vibrancy in this community than the walled-in, guarded homes that are so common in Johannesburg and the country.

I recently read a book called Khayelitsha about a white South African journalist who moved into the largest township in Cape Town called Khayelitsha.   Basically, there are no white people in townships, so it was interesting to read about his experiences living there for 2 years.  He had to confront his own prejudices as a white South African, but enjoyed living there and became a part of the community, learning in the process that much of the fear and paranoia many in South Africa experience is more made in their heads than actual reality (although there is a lot of crime in townships and elsewhere because there is so much desperation, don’t get me wrong).

There are so many museums and books about South Africa and its recent history and the apartheid past.  It is nice to know that the country is confronting its issues and not forgetting about them.  Hopefully the problems of the past will stay there and South Africa can move into a brighter future.  I think that it is well on its way.

Cape Town Museums

Posted by stephanie on Apr 13th, 2009
Apr 13

My time in South Africa has been busy with visits to museums.  In this post I hope to summarize some of the history behind the museums I visited and what they have to teach about the struggle for different types of freedoms in South Africa.
Robben Island
Perhaps the one of the most famous museums in the world, Robben Island is home to the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for part of his sentence and one of the most iconic places in South Africa for the struggle for freedom.  As one of the most popular attractions in Cape Town, we had to get our tickets a few days in advance (keep this in mind if you are planning a visit!)  We hoped onto the ferry at the Nelson Mandela Gateway and took it across the harsh water for about 25 minutes (while not too far from the mainland, the waters are quite treacherous and many people died in them trying to escape Robben Island).  After getting off of the ferry, we were then put on buses for a tour of the island and given a brief history by our entertaining guide.   People lived on Robben Island thousands of years ago, but since the Dutch settled the Cape in the mid-1600s it has been mainly used as a prison—a place of banishment, isolation, and imprisonment.  Under the apartheid regime, Robben Island became a maximum security prison in 1959, and between 1961-1991 more than three thousand men served time here as political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela.  Former political prisoners themselves conduct the tours of the prison.  This is a way to guarantee employment for the political prisoners.  Unemployment in South Africa is incredibly high, so it is not that the political prisoners necessarily want to continue to stay tied to the place where they were imprisoned, but they do it out of economic necessity—another type of imprisonment I suppose, but at least they are being given a voice and the troubles and mistakes of the past are not being forgotten.

From my experiences in Burma as well talking with former political prisoners, I personally cannot imagine the dedication and self-sacrifice involved in committing oneself so fully to a cause.  Sometimes I try to imagine what I would do if I was alive during certain times, and I always want to think that I would be one of the people involved in advancing higher and noble causes.  I guess that it is important to that freedom means different things to different people.  If everyone was a freedom fighter, then who would be home to feed children, who would be a doctor, who would make sure that people in a society could function?  But if nobody took on the role of a freedom fighter, then oppressive regimes and societies would be allowed to continue.  That’s why I think it’s important for all of us to evaluate what freedom means to us individually.  Freedom for all doesn’t mean that you have to organize protests, be involved in politics, become a political prisoner, etc.  Freedom can be making a cup of tea for your grandma, practicing a religion, visiting a sick friend.  So while I’m not sure if I could ever have what it takes to be a political prisoner or freedom fighter, I can still advance freedom in my own way in my own life, and probably in the lives of others as well without even knowing it.

District Six Museum
Also located in Cape Town, the District Six Museum tells the stories of the forced relocations of 60,000 inhabitants of this former inner-city residential area during the 1970s during the apartheid era.  The District Six area was an incredibly lively part of Cape Town, and the most racially diverse area of the city, which the apartheid government saw as a threat and wanted the separation of races.  The government wanted to create a “Whites Only” residential area in its place.  Residents of District Six were relocated to the Cape Flats, about 25 km outside of the city.  In 2003, work began on rebuilding the area, and in 2004, some of the original residents were allowed to return.  There is a lot of freedom in home ownership and in being able to be secure in where you are.  District Six was at one time the heart of Cape Town, and mainly in respect to the people’s lives that were uprooted during the apartheid area, the land is now quite empty and desolate.  It is a symbolic reminder of what you get when you are ruled by policies of hatred.

I’ve visited lots more museums in Cape Town, but I think that those are the two most important in terms of understanding apartheid and issues of freedom and race in the country.  Since this post is getting a bit lengthy, I’ll continue to tell you about museums in Johannesburg in the next post!

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