On Saturday I had VCE training, or Voluntarism and Community Engagement training. It is an optional volunteer program, not academic credit bearing, but if you put in enough hours, complete all the fieldwork journals and reflections, Stellenbosch University will award you with an official program certificate. It involves working weekly with children in the townships and there are many different ways you can participate. Over a hundred international students showed up to the training, a number the coordinator, Grant Demas, was really excited about. He was tall and slender with darker skin and a lively face. He started by showing us a movie set in times of apartheid, demonstrating the complexities of the racial issues in South Africa. Then afterwards, he invited us for discussion. What questions did we have? What did we think? Before we could raise our hands though, he told us that his answers and stories were his truths and that they weren’t necessarily the same truths for others. The first question asked was “What positive changes have you seen in South Africa in the past twenty years?”
“Changes? The laws have changed. The laws have changed but that’s pretty much it. I feel allowed. Tolerated. Permitted. I feel patronized. Apartheid is still alive in the hearts and minds of South Africans.”
He spoke lightly of the first day of classes, when his students were convinced he was some sort of janitor or worker and how they were always so surprised when he turned out to be the professor. He talked about never knowing who he was in a room. Was he being considered as a fellow academic? Or did they look at the color of his skin and assume he got there by hand outs?
“This generation has inherited the system of apartheid. They are the children of the parents who enabled, enforced and kept up apartheid. ”
When asked if the government is trying to make change through education he said “Sure, the schools are open, any black child can go to any school. But let me give you some statistics. The average household income for a family in a township is 700 rand a month. 700 rand a month for a family. The average price of a white South African school is 3,000 rand a month.”
When asked about his experience with international students he said “White people who aren’t South African are able to just engage with us as other human beings”
What about the University? Has a shift been made here? This time one of his assistants, a young black girl named Carmen, stepped up. She told us that some say they have witnessed successful interracial interaction here on campus, others say no. But she says from her own experience that she felt there has been a shift. But we will have to make the decision for ourselves.
It was wonderful conversation and it eventually led back to the purpose of our volunteering. He wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t charity. What dignity was there in giving a poor child a new shirt? Instead we should empower them by teaching them how to mend a shirt, or sew a new one. “We are not doing things for them, we are doing things with them”. He said that young children recognize and feel the effects of apartheid even if they can’t name it and that our interactions with them become a method of healing that perception.
My favorite quote of Demas was this “Great leaders are first great servers. They carry the weight of their cross, which makes their necks strong so it does not snap under the weight of a crown.”
I’m really excited to be a part of this program and especially to work with Grant Demas, someone I found to be inspiring but also personable.
Later on that same day, I went to a wine festival with my friends (Stellenbosch is considered the Nappa Valley of Africa) and we made friends with a young guy around our age. He told me he lived in the Kayamundi, the local township. I told him I hoped to see him around at the bars later tonight and he kind of flinched and said he didn’t go there unless he was invited. “But I’m inviting you” I said, a little surprised. He smiled and asked if I was from the States. I said yes. He tells me, “You see, in America it’s all many different cultures all living together to create one big culture right?” “Sure,” I say, “I guess it’s kind of like that”. He nods, “Well here it is a little different, I don’t go there unless I am really invited.” It was kind of like a slap in the face. All day in training we talked about the effects of apartheid but I hadn’t really experienced it or witnessed it and now here it was, staring me in the face (someone up there is really trying to drive home the point with me). We talked a little more and afterwards when I said it was nice meeting you, he smiled and said he felt the same, “It was refreshing” he commented.