I visited Cape Town for the first time in 2012 with the LEAD: Global program. As a rising sophomore, Cape Town was the farthest I had ever traveled. The program was fantastic; it served as both an educational experience and a cultural exchange. After I returned home, and as years passed by, I realized that, in my young age, I hadn’t fully appreciated South Africa in all of its sociopolitical uniqueness. My desire to return to South Africa with a fuller understanding made traveling on this particular SAS voyage that much sweeter.
And oh was it sweet.
While on LEAD, I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit many of the more “touristy” attractions and sites, so I set out to visit them this time around. The morning we docked, I went on a trip to visit the notorious African penguins and Seal Island around Cape Town. I found the penguins to be incredibly funny and the seals to be equally as charming. Most notably, while walking to Boulders Beach, I ran into the Africana House (the dorm I live in) Fellow at Oberlin. The expression “it’s a small world” has never proven more true to me than on this voyage.
In the afternoon, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a reception in honor of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. With his light but commanding presence, he spoke of the gifts young people bring to the world. “God depends on you to make God’s world a better place,” he offered. When I had the opportunity to briefly speak with him, introduce myself and my background, he responded with “free your people.” This comment still sticks with me, and I continue to struggle in understanding what it means.
That night, I ran into two of my professors on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. They invited Deja, whom I had met up with prior, and I to join them for dinner with their respective families. We shared a great meal, but what most resonates with me about the experience is how much it felt like home. Back at Oberlin, it’s not uncommon for a professor to invite a student out to coffee or to their home for dinner. One of the amazing benefits of attending a small liberal arts college is the opportunity to develop close and meaningful relationships with faculty—an experience replicated on Semester at Sea by nature of the program.
My fantastic first day was followed by an amazing second day. I spent the majority of the day on a field class for my Globalization, Sustainability, and Justice course. As a class, we journeyed to the top of Table Top Mountain for an aerial view and discussion on the geographic diversity of Cape Town. Once we went returned to our regular altitude we visited the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and toured Langa Township. I loved one excursion, but not the other.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was amazing mainly because of the people it introduced me to. The organization focused on building South Africa up from its deeply troubling apartheid past. Several employees at the IJR spoke to us, but two particularly stood out. Jodi, a recent graduate from Stellenbosch University, worked at the IJR after spending a great deal of time on the front lines of the #FeesMustFall campaign. She engaged the entire group in robust discussion on many of the issues of justice facing South Africa today, and used the opportunity to promote a comparative contrast to the United States. I saw so much of myself, my activism, and my passions represented in Jodi. As were many moments in Cape Town, the encounter was a moment of comfort and familiarity.
Touring Langa Township was different. I’ve had many reflections on poverty tourism on Semester at Sea recently. I understand the importance of exposing people to the reality of world, but a great part of me truly believes that we don’t have to go around the world and gawk at people less materially wealthy than us to do that. Alas, when this sort of tourism is to be done, I prefer it be done with as much dignity as possible. My professor, Will, did a great job at ensuring that the tour was an enlightening but dignified affair. We did not enter anyone’s personal home or space, which made me more comfortable about touring this predominantly poor (and Black) area. However, I did face a few issues with identity management. The visual of myself and my friend Shermee traveling through this Black community with a group primarily composed of white Americans was something that did not sit comfortably with me. Honestly, I haven’t been able to assertively place a finger on why, but there was a palpable discomfort that I can still feel.
Day two was busy, but day three was wild. A few of my friends woke up before sunrise to drive hours into the country and visit a private game reserve for a breathtaking safari. The experience was magnificent. I love animals; I think that’s evident through my willingness to engage with them in so many different ways throughout this voyage. This love only made the game drive more enjoyable. Lions, rhinos, zebra, elephants, and a plethora of other species were within my reach.
A busy start in port made a resting period vital. Following a daylong safari experienced, we turned down the notches a bit for a leisurely wine tour throughout the Stellenbosch region. The wineries were beautiful, the wine was tasty, but the company took home the gold. I spent the day with a few of my best friends: Deja, Summer, Chanel, and Claribel. A communal experience, the tour also included others from various homelands. I met a lovely family from Boston as well as a Fulbright Scholar working in Mauritius.
[The Spring 2017 Semester at Sea Voyage intentionally skipped its planned stop in Mauritius over financial disputes. This made the encounter with Ryan, stationed in Mauritius, a playfully salty experience.]
Pursuing social justice is always on my mind, so it wouldn’t have been right to visit South Africa (again) without taking a day to appreciate and understand its past. The last time I visited South Africa, Nelson Mandela was still with us. In an effort to honor his legacy as a freedom fighter, (among other intentions), I visited Robben Island. The museum was an amazing manifestation of heritage preserved. While I went in expecting to have an “awe” moment, I was simply taken back by the realities of apartheid, the conditions of imprisonment, and the courage it took for Mandela to forgive and flourish. In the spirit of forgiveness and recognizing history, I also visited the District Six museum.
South Africa’s democracy is still relatively fresh. I was fortunate to have arranged a tour of Parliament for my a few folks in my SAS squad of. Walking the halls of South Africa’s Parliamentary Building was breathtaking. As a poli-sci nerd, I’m already inclined to geek out over government. South Africa’s Parliament was the living fruit of the struggle of oppressed peoples. It was a tangible embodiment of generations of oppression overturned. And while South African government may face challenges, to know that the people prevailed will always sit well with me.