I came to Stellenbosch without taking any class on South African history, politics or culture, so the only things I knew were of the general variety—that apartheid happened, that it ended in 1994, that Nelson Mandela was a hero.
But I came anyway, and I came a week early, figuring I would spend spring break in Cape Town and catch up on my knowledge gap. For a week, I hiked Table Mountain, visited the Kirstenbosch gardens, walked through Bo-Kaap’s colorful streets, visited the District Six museum, watched so many breathtakingly beautiful sunsets on the shoreline, and took many, many jetlagged and finals-week-exhaustion naps.
I also was able to read a few books. On my last weekend there, before the program began, I spent some time alone, drinking coffee in amazing cafes (check out Truth Coffee Roasting, a very not-insider’s-scoop because it was literally named the best coffee shop in the world) and finishing two books about South Africa.
The first, titled After Mandela, is a journalistic perspective from a white American author named Douglas Foster about the Mbeki and early Zuma regimes—how the African National Congress (ANC) political party has or hasn’t delivered on promises and what the political regime looks like from young people’s perspectives. I was particularly interested by the interviews he conducted with members of this Born Free generation, who are more or less my age—individuals born after apartheid ended in 1994. A significant gap exists between this younger generation and the older generations who lived through and fought against apartheid. True liberation, including economic empowerment of black and “coloured” (“mixed”) populations, freedom from HIV/AIDS and fears of sexual and physical violence, seems far-off, despite the post-apartheid promises of a nonracial, equitable world.
However, this was written in the perspective of a white American journalist. Though I haven’t been able to unpack his hidden biases completely yet (I’m hoping my global health classes will help me understand more clearly South African perspectives on traditional medicine versus antiretroviral medication, South African populism, and specific cultural values among all the diverse identity groups in the country), it’s safe to say that every person brings his or her perspective to bear on whatever it is they see, and in this case, report on.
I sought a true South African perspective next. I visited the Book Lounge on the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets, just down the road from Truth Coffee Roasting, and found Period Pain by Kopano Matlwa, an award-winning South African writer. This was a first-person perspective, fictionalized but based on lived South African experiences, from a black female doctor who works in a public hospital. The writing is structured in journal entries that are, in turn, anguished, personal, biting, deep. The words seemed to sink in and nestle in my chest, and I reread multiple passages. I sat in the bookstore café and read the whole thing through in one sitting. It’s 200 pages and riveting, with zero wasted words—about violence against African immigrants to the “exceptional miracle” of South African democracy, about sexual violence against women in a patriarchal society, about the idealized nonracial world that South Africans hope to live in—but without using these cumbersome academic words. The issues become personal, as these issues always are, and relatable, from an American perspective and an American society that now openly espouses patriarchy, racism, and sexism and calls is populism. I feel lucky to have read Matlwa’s words. They are so good.
So my spring break was, in every sense of the word, perfect—a perfect “pre-departure” trip, or in my case, a perfect pre-program trip. I rested after finals week. I hiked!—my favorite thing in the world. I read!—my second favorite thing in the world. Now I feel like I have a marginally less-meager background in South African culture. It’s still sparse and narrow and dated, but far more substantial than it was previously.
Now, I have three months to learn more, and hike more, and read more, and make new Northwestern and Stellies/Maties friends (University of Stellenbosch nicknames for the students and the sports teams, respectively). Here’s hoping that I walk away from this trip having learned a lot—about South African history, culture and public health, and about myself, as an Asian American woman who’s trying to figure out her post-graduation plans.