As the plane barreled down the runway in the mid-afternoon heat, I placed my neck pillow around me, pulled out my scratchy paper-thin blanket (courtesy of the airline), put in my noise-canceling earbuds and reclined my economy class seat right back into the gut of the person behind me, trying to get comfortable for the 17-hour flight ahead.
“You’re going to the motherland!” was the response I received from my friends and family members when I said I would be studying abroad in South Africa for the summer. There was an expectation among them that as a Black American traveling to Africa, I would connect to my history and identity in a way that I could not back home, and that I would for the first time be able to participate in a society that fully embraced my Blackness. I, a bright-eyed teenager having never traveled outside of the country and knowing very little about South Africa, bought into that idea.
But after crossing the Atlantic and touching down in Johannesburg, my trip soon turned into a series of subverted expectations.
On my second afternoon abroad, my travel group and I toured the Hector Pieterson Museum, located just outside of Johannesburg in the majority Black suburb of Soweto. It was my first real opportunity to learn about South African history.
After entering the museum, our tour guide ushered us through two broad doors into a narrow alley bordered by three immense museum walls. The ground below us lay covered in dark gravel and riddled with crimson bricks. Each brick was inscribed with a name and date.
Our tour guide told us that the bricks had been made in remembrance of each student killed in the Soweto student protests of 1976.
Nearly 50 years ago, the Apartheid South African government had declared all students were to learn in Afrikaans, the language of the ruling white minority, inextricably tied to the South African history of white supremacy. For years, Black students had been placed in underfunded schools and discriminated against in nearly every aspect of life; now they were forced to abandon their native languages in the name of conformity. Young people decided to organize, mobilize and protest in unprecedented numbers, bringing national attention to the issue. In response, law enforcement hunted and killed them.
As I walked through the museum, inundated with the pictures of students being brutalized and shot by police officers, my eyes welled up. Flashes of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and LaQuan McDonald appeared in my mind. I stood paralyzed listening to grainy audio clips of parents worried about their missing peers and young people telling stories of lost friends. I immediately thought of the parents in my hometown of Chicago who had to bury their babies and the young people in the city who lost friends so often it became ordinary.
In one corner of the museum stood an old wooden desk that looked like it would crumble at the slightest touch. I ran my hands along the rough ridges on its surface as I read about how Black students in South Africa were forced to learn in inhumane conditions, with overcrowded classrooms, rotting textbooks and dilapidated school facilities. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the schools on the South and West sides back home.
The Black students in South Africa were stripped of their humanity and violently silenced by an oppressive government. And yet, their stories were so similar to those from my city. I journeyed to a different continent to reconnect with a history and heritage that had been denied to me in America, but when I arrived I got the same story, told with different characters.
Before leaving Johannesburg for the second leg of my trip, I visited South Africa’s Constitution Hill.
To one side stood the Number Four Apartheid prison, which formerly held scores of high-profile political activists fighting for freedom. Tall concrete walls with white and red peeling paint and old barbed wire bordered an open courtyard, where prisoners were often lined up and humiliated by guards, forced to strip naked and dance.
To the other side was the South African Constitutional Court: a massive building with a sharp contemporary design. The name of the Court was written in the country’s eleven different languages and placed on a concrete wall above the main entrance. Mahogany panels, inscribed with sign-language illustrations of 23 themes from the South African constitution, stood to the right of the entrance, serving as a reminder of the principles the anti-Apartheid activists fought for.
Long low steps ran in between the structures, connecting South Africa’s history to its present.
It was there that I learned of the strength and resilience of the South African activists that toppled the Apartheid government. It was the same strength that I saw in the local students I met who used art and theater to bring economic opportunity to their town, and the teachers and community members I worked with to build a sustainable food forest in Cape Town.
What stood behind that powerful spirit of resistance was a sense of community rooted in the philosophy of Ubuntu, which emphasizes the interconnectedness and shared responsibility we have as people. The philosophy demands empathy, love and understanding. It asserts that life has meaning beyond itself, as a small part of a collective. It suggests that purpose can be found in service to other people.
That idea manifested itself in the way people spoke to and interacted with each other. Many of the citizens who lived in small towns shared meals, played games and even watched each other's children. Nearly everyone I met greeted me with “Molo, bhuti,” a Xhosa greeting which translates to “I see you, brother.” Community was at the heart of everything they did; through good and bad, it remained a priority.
Though economic inequality and racism remained pervasive problems, there was a commitment to progressive change that allowed so many South African citizens to overcome economic and political challenges and continue fighting to improve their society.
It has been a bit over one year since I traveled to South Africa, and now America stands at a crossroads in the fight for racial equality. The deaths of countless Black people, as a result of police brutality and COVID-19, has led activists to push the boundaries of our nation in unprecedented ways. As our nation pursues justice and seeks to bring forth a new era in American life and politics, we must do so with an acknowledgment of our country’s past and a hope for its future, with a love for others and a passion for progress, with Ubuntu.