Glimpsing the Rainbow Nation

A year ago, my school asked if I would be interested in chaperoning a trip to South Africa this summer. In between my shock and jaw dropping, I managed to say “Yes! Absolutely!” and spent the next few months wondering if it would really happen. It seemed too good to be true.

I love traveling, and I have always dreamed of seeing the world (all credit to my parents, who relocated us around the U.S. every 2-3 years, plus made me do Geography Bee – by eighth grade, I was a little obsessed with going places). I never dared dream of South Africa, though, which is probably one of the best things about this summer’s experience. Getting to spend two weeks in South Africa, a place I never thought I’d get to go, was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done.

I’m still processing the trip two weeks after our return; I’m just starting to go through photos, and even now, I haven’t talked about it much with anyone. It’s hard to explain experiences like these (and I never know if someone’s gotten bored with the stories). Today, then, I thought I’d tell you about my experiences engaging with South African history – at least in pieces.

I spent the past few months reading everything in the school library about South Africa; from large, historical overviews to focused works on post-apartheid South Africa, I read it all. I revisited Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton) and laughed and cried through Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I finally read The Power of One and watched the movie. I listened to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedomand made my husband watch the movie. I sobbed through Desmond Tutu’s account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in No Future without ForgivenessAnd I eagerly counted down the days to my arrival in the Rainbow Nation.

What I thought of most in those days was this: I knew I could read all I wanted about South Africa, but without spending time there and getting to know its people, I would never really know how accurate my vision of South Africa was. As I read and learned, I wondered things. I wanted to know more about the legacy of apartheid. I was eager to understand my colleague and co-chaperone’s experiences growing up as a colored man in apartheid South Africa. I wanted to know if what I read was true, or at least some form of true.

We split our two weeks across several sites, visiting Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal province, and Capetown. Here’s a bit of what I learned.

Mandela House - EntranceWe began in Johannesburg with a trip to Vilakazi Street in Soweto, the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived (Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela). Here, we stopped at the Nelson Mandela House Museum. I’d seen the house in the film Long Walk to Freedom and of course learned about the home in the book, but what surprised me here was how the narrative was not, ultimately, only about Nelson. As the tour guide pointed out, Mandela only lived in the house for a few years: his second wife Winnie lived there most, because Mandela was in prison.

This is the home where Winnie kept up the fight against apartheid while her husband was hundreds of miles away in prison. It’s the house that authorities set on fire, and raided, and arrested her from time and again. It’s a small house, but it was a very moving experience for me, especially to begin the trip by seeing the historical narrative refocused – if ever so slightly – on women’s leadership. This is a story that I did not easily locate this past spring, but one that I so want to know. (Visit the Mandela House Museum website to see more images of the house and to learn more.)

Just around the corner from there, you’ll find the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum, commemorating the 1976 Soweto Student Up

IMG_2701.JPGrisings. You may have seen the iconic photo on the left of the photo of the memorial. I don’t know how much our students took away from this, but to me, it’s huge: children their own ages fought for their educational rights and, as a result, died or were imprisoned during this time. At the center of it all was the issue of what language students were taught in: the white government decided that Afrikaans – a language spoken only in South Africa and nowhere else in the world – would be the primary language of instruction. The students resisted, peacefully – and met resistance.


On our way to the Apartheid Museum, we stopped briefly at Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, which commemorates the 1955 signing of the Freedom Charter. When the African National Congress (ANC) adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955, it was a document of hope for what the nation could be. In 1996, the 12 platforms of the Freedom Charter became the foundation of the South African constitution. These are platforms that call for equal rights and equality before the law, and note the importance of education for everyone. I hadn’t heard of this site, but the few moments we spent here were important to me: here, the history went from the page to something real. I hadn’t made the connection between the Freedom Charter and the Constitution.

Sisulu 2

To be honest, I was most looking forward to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I was a little shocked to discover it’s located right next to an amusement park (the amusement park was there first), but the museum itself is spectacular. Our guided tour was a whirlwind – probably just about right for the students, and honestly, probably for me, too. A part of me wanted to spend a long time looking around, but getting a focused rundown of the key pieces was a good way to see the museum. Two moments moved me in particular:

  1. I’d read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Tutu’s account of it, but didn’t expect that I would actually see it. In the latter part of the 1990s, the TRC was South Africa’s way of trying to help heal the nation and bring it together. Tutu talks about it as an alternative to something like the Nuremburg Trials: the TRC focused on trying to identify crimes that happened under apartheid, and reckoning for those crimes, but also amnesty and forgiveness so the nation could move forward. Toward the end of the museum, there’s a small auditorium where video clips from the TRC play on a loop. We happened to walk in just before Winnie Mandela’s clips began. I’d read about her time in front of the TRC, but seeing it, rather than reading the transcript in Tutu’s book, made me weep.
  2. It was fitting, then, to wrap up the tour in a large square room filled with two piles of rocks. The website explains this a bit better, perhaps, but I’ll have a go: visiting this museum is an intense experience, and they don’t want you to leave feeling hatred or fear, but instead help to find a better way forward. They ask all visitors to take a rock from the right-hand side, symbolizing any negative emotions you’ve experienced, and leave it on the left as you exit.

Between that first day and our final three days of the trip in Capetown, we did very little historical site seeing. In KwaZulu-Natal, we visited a Zulu Village that still lives by pre-industrial customs. We learned about conservation. We spent three days at a rural school, learning a little, along the way, about education in South Africa. I met an amazing school principal who has dedicated her life to educating the young people in her community, beginning with a classroom outdoors under four trees. She tells her story in this 3-minute video below:

In Capetown, we toured Robben Island and the District Six Museum, both of which I’m still thinking through (and probably will be for a long while). But one thing that struck me so much on this trip was education. It’s a persistent theme, from the history of the struggle against apartheid, to the legacy that apartheid continues to leave on the nation.

Twenty-three years after apartheid ended, there is still so much work to be done to realize the vision that Mandela and so many others like him fought for. The country has come so far, but there’s still so much. Educational access remains unequal and unemployment high. There’s corruption in the government – as always – and yet many people who care passionately about telling South Africa’s story and making the nation a better place.

It’s hard not to make parallels between South Africa and the U.S., two countries with complicated racial pasts. They’re so different, but yet not. It’s interesting to contemplate the two different ways in which our nations have tried to confront and address those pasts, with all their successes and failures.

I don’t have a good way to wrap this up, but this is what happens when you’re just starting to scratch the surface of such life-changing moments. My journey to South Africa began on paper, continued on foot, and will remain in my mind for so many years ahead. If you ever have the chance, GO. A visit there will show you more than I ever could.

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