Brooke Goes Global: South Africa’s Fight for Land

October 29, 2018

For the past few weeks, I have wandered between realms of ignorance and reality. My role as a tourist, as a student, and as a local, has immersed me into one sphere, then forcefully dragged me into another. Each sphere lives its own separate life, yet social and political consequences successfully transcend these borders. As a tourist, I have gasped and awed at the picturesque South Africa. The mountains have been climbed. The restaurants have been visited. The tickets for adventure have been paid for. As a tourist, I have the money and the time to experience the luxurious — and predominately white populated — areas of South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of ignorance.

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The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront — a popular tourist destination.

As a student, I have been awestruck by the powerful history of this powerful country. I learned of the racism, the inequality, the systems of oppression of the past and the present. I listened to lectures on colonialism. I read journal articles on the nation’s economic inequality. “South Africa has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the world,” they tell me. It enters one ear and goes out the other. Surface level knowledge and surface level comprehension of a life in South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of awareness.

Living in a homestay, I have been pushed into the life of a local — to a life beyond beautiful pictures. I have lived with families who have very real struggles with gentrification, land rights, and economic opportunity. These struggles are no longer ignored. They are no longer just a written fact. These struggles are real and immediate. As a local, I see how the oppressed overcome hardships to find dignity and humanity. Here, I live in a sphere of reality.

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My homestay mom is on the left, Mama Thembsi, with one of her best friends, Elizabeth.

 

From 1948 to 1991, South African citizens lived under an oppressive Apartheid regime — apartheid literally meaning “apart.” In an attempt to make Cape Town an all-whites city, people were categorized according to their race. These classifications, including Indian/Asian, Colored, Black, or White, determined everything. If you were not white, you were forced to live in the outskirts of the city. If you were not white, your daily movement was restricted and monitored. If you were not white, manual labor jobs were your only economic opportunity. You did not vote. You did not own land. This was the law. And if you did not obey the law, you were subject to brutal whippings or execution. Children included. The oppressive and racist Apartheid government focused on protecting the population minority and repressing the majority.

The African National Congress (ANC), a protest grassroots organization, gained popularity in the latter part of the Apartheid government through promotion of its core principles. After people of color were stripped of their land and homes and herded into segregated areas outside the city, the right for land became a main pillar of their political platform. In 1991, the Apartheid government “peacefully” ceased power after years of protest from the ANC. I simplify this cession that includes stories of brave South Africans, powerful and peaceful protests, violence, and international relations. Instead, I wish to concentrate on a less popular topic — South Africa’s expectation of democracy versus its reality.

In 1994, the African National Congress came to power with something as simple yet as influential as the right to vote. Nelson Mandela, backed by the ANC, was elected President of the newly formed South African democracy. The ANC created a progressive and powerful constitution, granting its citizens the right to health, education, water, and housing. And land — its redistribution was mentioned in the constitution. Though to this day, land redistribution still has no explicit plans for change.

This brings me to where I am today, the rural community of Zweletemba. I went from center city Cape Town, known as the Europe of Africa, to a former blacks only township created during Apartheid. The 200,000 people population in Zweletemba are unique in their stories but not in their struggles.

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A main road in the neighborhood.

In the center of the neighborhood, most roads are paved and houses are constructed in neat, straight lines. Electricity poles stand erect at block corners. Hidden pipes bring water to homes. Children jump rope on the dusty roads. Dogs roam looking for attention. But as you move to the outskirts of the town, electricity poles become more and more rare, eventually going extinct. Public toilets become the street’s only source of sanitary plumbing. And houses take the form of four walls constructed of sheet metal.

Zweletemba is a neighborhood of subsidized housing. People, families move in because they can’t afford housing anywhere else. They construct a house out of the supplies they have, apply for government housing, and wait. After many years and much citizen advocacy, the government finally constructs the housing it so plainly labels as a human right in the nation’s constitution.

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An informal settlement in the outskirts of Zweletemba.

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Zweletemba is in the district of Worcester. Three families own over 70% of the land in Worcester. This land was attained during Apartheid when it was stolen from people of color and distributed to whites for farming. Most of this private property today is unused and vacant. Much of this land surrounds Zweletemba. Families are desperate for land and desperate for houses, so they build informal settlements on this vacant, privately owned land. The desperation of poverty is forgotten by the rich, white land owners. In an attempt to remove families from their unused land, they call the police to enforce eviction. Barbed wire barricades are put up so the land cannot be further infiltrated. And lawsuits are filed against the families.  And so goes another fight for the land, as there are merciless efforts by the rich to push impoverished families out of their homes.  Yet the actions of these families are hardly affecting the everyday lives of the rich.

Currently, the government is trying to buy this privately owned land for its people. The land, after purchase, would be public land. Houses would be built on the government owned land and given to families in need — this of course is an extremely simplified version of the process. One of the main bureaucratic dilemmas is the task of negotiations. The government has very little leverage power. They, the government and the people, are desperate for the land while the rich land owners are not desperate for the sale. The last sale of land, bought for the townspeople of Zweletemba, was valued at 6 million Rand. The government purchased it for 17 times its worth at 102 million Rand. The wealth gap keeps growing. And the profit of stolen land seems to be contributing to this exponentially growing gap.

In 1991, whites were greatly advantaged politically, economically, and socially. They had been given almost everything for over 40 years while the people of color had almost everything taken from them. In 1994, all races were granted political, economic, and social equality. Opportunity was now available to all. But, there is a tragic flaw in this logic. When someone starts a marathon 10 miles ahead of you, how are you expected to finish at the same time, let alone within the same hour? This illustrates the historic effects of inequality that still manifest today in South Africa. Linda Norling, a freelance journalist in Cape Town, writes “although political power has been in the hands of the black majority since the dawn of South African democracy 24 years years ago, economic power remains with white people: white households in 2015 earned 4.5 times as much as black households, and whites hold more than 60% of top management positions, despite accounting for only 10% of the working population. In universities, black people account for not quite 35% of academics, despite making up about 80% of the population.” This is the reality for many. As a tourist, student, and local, I have the privilege to move out of this sphere of reality. With this privilege, it is my responsibility to speak up and make a change.

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Here to make a change for this adorable generation of South African citizens.


Janus in Singapore

March 14, 2017

SMU is in the heart of the city and is surrounded by buildings like this one. Among other names, Singapore is known The City in a Garden, and many of its buildings and streets try to incorporate vegetation in its design

Singapore Management University, or SMU, is a relatively new institution. Established in 1999, SMU is unique among Singaporean and even Asian schools because its teaching style is based on the teaching at many American colleges, and modeled in particular on the teaching style of Wharton’s undergraduate program. Despite its youth, it’s already established itself as one of the best universities in Asia, known in particular for its School of Business.

When I read in my syllabi that class participation would account between 15-25% of my grade for my economics and operations management classes, I was a bit surprised. Even at Richmond, where many of the business and economics classes had small classes relative to the rest of the U.S., class participation didn’t play as large a role. Students w ere encouraged to ask questions and offer answers to in-class examples, but rarely were we actually graded. I thought that it would be similar in SMU – as long as the professor knew your name, and as long as you asked a question or offered to do an example every other class, you could expect a B+ or an A- for class participation.

The outside of SMU’s school of business. Like many parts of Singapore, SMU is constantly under renovation and expansion to meet greater demand.

It turns out, SMU earned its stellar reputation; class participation is taken so seriously at the university that every student is required to bring a nametag to place at the top of his or her table, and a graduate student is assigned to each class to take notes on the comments made by each student and assign a grade at the end of each session. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon to observe. At Richmond, even during my FYS experience, at most you would have a third of the class that make up the majority of the participation, another third that raises their hand on occasion if they’re feeling particularly ambitious, and a third that spends most of the class watching their nails grow or doodling or swapping groupme messages. At SMU, you can expect half of the class’s hands to shoot up as soon as the professor asks for a volunteer. During in-class problem sets, students will race to complete the questions and offer their answers out loud.

A typical classroom at SMU

Whatever the founders meant by a Singaporean university based on “American colleges,” it definitely did not mean the same thing I had in mind when I applied to SMU. Truthfully, I am a bit disappointed that I’m not enjoying the totally stress-free, light workload I expected out of a study abroad experience, I think the opportunity is a bit refreshing. Each class is exciting and important because you hear how other students process their ideas and approach problems, and more importantly, interesting conversations happen because participation plays such an important role in the final grade that everyone has no choice but to do the readings, and no choice but to make an effort to participate in in-class discussions.

There’s something to be said for the “American” style where professors tend to not care if you participate or not. There’s the idea that by the time you’re in college, you’re something of an adult, and whether or not you make the most out of your $60,000 year is up to you to decide. You can ace courses at Richmond and at many other universities by sleeping your way through class and cramming for the midterms and finals, but we all know that isn’t the most wholesome or effective way of learning. Part of me thinks that I could have benefitted from a system like SMU’s, as I think I fall into that category of people that laze away until the hell weeks of the semester. At the same time, I think it also puts too much stress on many of the Singaporean students.

While I’ve made a number of friends among the exchange students from making dinner plans or seeing each other out during the weekend, it’s been a bit more difficult to do so for native Singaporeans. So many of them are busy meticulously preparing every portion of our class readings and powerpoints that I often would just skim at home, busy staying in all-day meetings for a group project that I would just create a google doc for, or busy doing integration and differentiation practice problems for a finance exam that I would otherwise consider doing but end up being too lazy to do. It’s a bit of a shame, because I feel that this level of preparation is thorough to a fault. Even at Peking University, China’s top institution, the students had enough time to interact with me outside of a classroom environment.

Midterms at SMU are without question the most difficult exams I’ve ever taken in my life. In high school and college. I’ve experienced two kinds of midterm/final exams in college and high school: the first are exams that literally just test whether or not you know the material, like the ones in many of my math classes where they give you a difficult, multi-layered problem and ask you to solve or prove it. Some require more critical thinking and may not necessarily have a correct answer, like many essay-type questions in social sciences. I expected my exams to fall into one of these two categories at SMU, but not both. In my operations management, financial mathematics, and international trade exams, we were given cases studies that either too much or insufficient information, and were required to ignore unnecessary information or make additional assumptions before we began the process of solving an often multi-step math problem.

Recess week could not have come at a better time!


Clara in Italy: Montecassino

November 29, 2016

So remember when I wrote an entire post about how much I hated the Cappella dei Principi? I spent some time later thinking about the decor because I do really love inlay work, but my professor mentioned that it was so overwhelming and contrary to her design aesthetics. I wondered if that was also playing into my general hatred of the space in addition to the horrible power dynamics.

But then we stopped at Montecassino on the way to Naples, and I think yes, there is something to it.

Here’s Montecassino:

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Or at least, a part of the courtyard. It’s hard to get a picture of it in totality. Montecassino is one of the first (or the first? I think) monasteries of the Benedictine order. It was basically razed to the ground by Allied bombing during WWII, but has been reconstructed.

But look at the interior of the church!!

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None of this is original of course, but it’s still really beautiful. And golden. Here’s where it gets really cool though–look at this stone inlay work!

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What!! It’s everywhere.

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But I really like it here as opposed to how much it gave me the really bad shivers in San Lorenzo. Somehow, it feels warmer, you know? I still have my bones to pick with Christianity (I never won’t), but this place is lovely.

Interestingly, there is still a Medici buried here.

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There he is. Piero the Unfortunate. (The Pieros of the Medici family really got the raw end of the deal when it came to being remembered, by the way. Piero the Unfortunate and Piero the Gouty. Yikes.) He was driven from Florence during the French invasion, but was eventually given this tomb here. Still a large, imposing, obnoxious Medici tomb, but you know. It’s a little different when you’re Piero the Unfortunate instead of Cosimo the Grandduke of Tuscany. :/ He didn’t even ask for this tomb. A later Medici pope (can’t remember which?) had it made for him.

Also, there are some bronze doors from Constantinople outside, which is pretty rad, though we couldn’t figure out if these were replicas or the real thing.

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That’s my art history professor being a nerd. She’s great.

What’s the point of this post? Honestly, I don’t know. I liked Montecassino. It felt serene and safe and magical. Even though it had similar decorative techniques to the San Lorenzo chapel (even similar motifs!), it was just. Nicer. Kinder maybe? Perhaps this is just because what I know of the two places informs my impressions, but anyways. I’d definitely recommend going to Montecassino over the Cappella any day.

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Stay determined.


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