These reflections were first published in The Commercial Appeal on September 2, 2018.
Formation, resistance, restitution
by Allyson Smith
Waking up this past Fourth of July was one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking days of my life.
Usually, I would be barbecuing outside with the family, socializing, and seeing cousins I haven’t seen in years. This Fourth was different, as I was boarding a plane to Atlanta, wearing leggings and a grey hoodie, about to start my journey to South Africa.
I’d never been on a plane ride before, but the reassuring looks of the flight attendants and beautiful smiles of my colleagues made it all OK. This flight was the first of many, but after Atlanta, it was smooth sailing.
The fast pace movement in the airports made my adrenaline rush, and the next thing I knew, we were in a dorm room at Stellenbosch University, where we spent 10 days learning the ins and outs of production.
"Formation, Resistance, and Restitution" -- the three words that you can feel as you walk through the soil of South Africa. One of the places we visited was Robben Island, a former prison facility where the most "dangerous criminals" were held captive under the old apartheid system.
In actuality, the prisoners here (such as Nelson Mandela) were young political leaders who wanted equality for their black and brown sisters and brothers. These men were people who saw the corruption in the system and used their bones to work toward exposing and triumphing against the inequality.
We also went to places like the famous Slave Lodge, which is a museum that tells the horrors of slavery in Cape Town and the effect it had on the black African community. The museum also displays exhibitions dedicated to the masculinity of the male race, the LGBT community, and women who have endured hardships due to sexual assault.
We also went on a safari, took various nature walks, and visited a museum paying homage to the survivors of the apartheid system, named District Six.
This trip made me understand that there are people in our community who see the drive and ambition the youth in Memphis have. It is so imperative for us to have representation in our community because our voices have been overlooked too many times.
South Africa is still going through the trials and tribulations of apartheid, and this is evident in the younger generation that we interacted with. South Africa’s racial situation is much like ours, but it is on a much wider scale.
Memphis is definitely progressing, but there are so many improvements to be made. We cannot get too comfortable with our current situation because there are still so many disenfranchised groups in our city. When we realize that we are in this fight together, we will prevail as a people and community.
Allyson Smith is a senior at White Station High School.
Three races, one nation
by Alicia Taylor
I traveled to South Africa this summer as part of the Extern program of MMI Works. In many places, we saw the foundation of the struggles that are still taking place in that country to this day. Each place we visited gave us a unique and unexpected snapshot of understanding.
South African society is divided into three races: blacks are the native Africans and of darker skin complexion; coloreds are multicultural, or from parts of Asia and have lighter skin color; and whites are the descendants of the Dutch and British colonists. Cape Town has segregated living areas for the white, colored, and black citizens.
Memphis also has a considerable history of segregation, yet we are removed from it enough to tell the stories without much emotion. In South Africa, their history is all over the place, fresh and raw.
An example is the Slave Lodge Museum, which operates under the umbrella theme “from human wrongs to human rights.” This is the location where slaves were sold by the Dutch East India Company.
In addition to the history of slavery in Cape Town, other more modern and powerful exhibits were included, such as “1000 ladies 1000 stories”, intended to raise awareness around gender based violence; and “What It Is To Be a Man”, reflections on what it means to be a black man at this time.
We also visited the black townships of Langa and Gugulethu. After seeing how people live with very limited resources, I feel like Memphians take things for granted. It made me feel like I don't have the right to feel bad about the situation that I'm living in.
Though Memphis has issues that should be settled and discussed, it is superior to living in undeveloped conditions. South Africa is addressing the housing issues in Langa by building flats for the affected families, though this process is taking quite a while because of limited space and the large number of families.
On another note, college in South Africa is a less expensive than in America which could make it easier for students to attend. If your parents’ pay is less than a specific sum, you can go to college tuition-free there. Also, if your parents work at a college, you can go there for nothing. College is costly in America, and there are individuals who can’t go due to insufficient funds.
On our trip to Robben Island prison, we discovered a piece of history that we don't learn in school. Robert Sobukwe was a founder of the Pan African Congress and a prominent activist against the South African apartheid system. He was imprisoned for dissent. Prior to his release at the completion of his sentence, the South African Parliament enacted the Sobukwe clause which allowed the government to detain him for the rest of his life.
I learned so much that I will carry with me forever. The experience of visiting South Africa was amazing, and so incredibly different from my everyday life.
Alicia Taylor is a senior at Overton High School.
Apartheid, Jim Crow and God
by Tavian Williams
This summer I went to South Africa with four other students and two chaperones through this amazing company called Memphis Music Initiative.
I’ve only been here with them for two years now, and I honestly feel that I can say that it changed my life. The people I’ve met have been an amazing help with my progression through life. That includes my peers, my MMI fellows, and the people who work there.
I’m so happy to be around these people and truly blessed that through them that I got to go to South Africa on the trip of a lifetime.
I went to South Africa with an open mind and knew that I was going to experience a whole new world. I met people from all around the world at the Stellenbosch Music Festival, where we volunteered.
I knew that people not from America have different viewpoints about us as Americans, so I knew I had to stop the stereotypes that they might have had of us. My peers and I showed them that not all Americans are lazy, money-hungry fools. We showed them that we work hard and show love to people who aren’t exactly the same as us.
As we changed their viewpoints of us as Americans, we wanted to know what they'd thought of us before hand. They said they only knew us from what movies and the media. Which isn’t necessarily the best thing, especially since we are black.
On our trip, we went to Cape Town, South Africa and went to historic places such as Robben Island, Slave Lodge, District Six Museum, and even townships that are in use today.
Seeing all these places really puts you in a state of sadness and disappointment. Sadness because you can’t believe that such horrible things were done to people, and disappointment because of petty reasons these things were done -- especially based on something as insignificant as skin color.
In apartheid South Africa, race was the guiding factor of life, as it was in Jim Crow America. Sadly, South Africa is still behind in the war against racism, about where we were at the end of our Civil Rights Era.
More than 40 years later, we still know that we have a long way to go, and it hurts my heart to know that they have even further to go than us.
My heart weeps for them, but I do know that if it God’s will, then it will happen. So I give it all up to him that one day we will all be equal -- not based on gender, race or sexuality, but based on the way we act. The way we hold ourselves as one race: the human race.
Tavian Williams is a senior at Ridgeway High School.
Their community and mine
by ZaVon Glass
Going to South Africa on an externship was inspiring and a trip of a lifetime. Being selected to participate on this overseas excursion was an absolute privilege, and if I had the option to do it once again, I would accept it with open arms.
Initially, I can honestly say I felt hesitant and even a bit anxious at the thought of traveling abroad to another country because -- if I'm being honest -- I have barely traveled outside the tri-state area (with the one exception of going to Texas for All-Nationals).
However, the experience was a fulfilling one and I soon came to realize I was worried for nothing. What I saw that really amazed me was the cultural differences in South Africa.
We learned about the three major racial classes in South Africa, and how those categories tie into the socio-economic status of the people who live there.
Blacks in South Africa typically reside at the bottom of the social pyramid because they are found to have fewer advantages than those who are coloured or white.
We got the chance to see a bit of the lifestyles of most white and black South Africans and what we saw was truly a sight. It was evident that there was an undeniable divide in socio-economic privileges.
A hefty majority of blacks were staying in townships that were composed of informal settlements made up of whatever available resources could be found, which also meant that these homes lack proper infrastructure and therefore were unstable.
These townships typically lacked an abundance of necessary resources such as water and proper sanitation, whereas when you passed by white establishments you could see white people living in nice gated communities that had more than a sufficient amount of resources.
What really shocked me was the sense of community that I saw in the townships. Everyone was seen in a group sharing a laugh and playing with one another. Our tour guide told us that blacks who come back to the townships and build a better house do so not to brag, but to continue living where they grew up.
Blacks who live in the informal settlements and those who live in the nicer homes bear no grudge towards one another and continue to interact with each other. This huge disparity in living conditions gave me an entirely new perspective on many things in Memphis.
ZaVon Glass is a freshman at the University of Memphis.
History's lessons for us
by Jose Ayala
This summer I got the opportunity to go to South Africa and work with a production team at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival. That's where we spent our first week. We got to learn about video production, working a camera, and the process of making CD’s.
During our free time, we talked about differences and similarities between United States and South Africa, apartheid, and other things with many locals.
The conversations we had during that week opened my eyes to see Memphis as a place where we have so much to improve, such as segregation that exists around the city, but we also have many beautiful things, like the work of nonprofits such as MMI, Streets Ministries, and others that are impacting lives every day in Memphis.
After Stellenbosch, we stayed another week in Cape Town. During that time, we got to experience many of the incredible places like Robben Island, a Safari, The Slave Lodge, District Six Museum, and the Market.
My favorite part was the Market. Not just because I’m great at bargaining, but also because I enjoyed seeing that all market owners were working together to make an income. They were helping each other out. That's something I have seen most of my life in Memphis. My parents, their brothers and sister, and other people they are in community with are always willing to help each other.
My time in South Africa helped me learn about a beautiful place with an awful history and an ever improving future. It's a place that has many parallels with Memphis: Apartheid and the Jim Crow era; the segregation of whites, coloureds and blacks there, and the geographic segregation the exists here.
History teaches important lessons. Great people and organizations are at work on the everlasting improvement of our city. Memphis is a beautiful place to hang out and meet new people. I truly have learned to appreciate the amazing city that I live in.
Jose Ayala is a freshman at Christian Brothers University.