A Drive Through the Durban Townships

After completing our service learning volunteer work for the day, we decided to take a brief tour of two prominent townships outside of Durban, KwaMashu and Inanda.  During the apartheid era, non-whites were confined within these townships.  Today it is interesting to see that some larger homes are virtually overlooking a row of shacks.  It has been reported that the owners of the more upscale homes are less than thrilled to see the continued growth of shacks rather than homes outside their windows.  One could argue that the overpopulation of families in dilapidated two-room shacks is another prime example of how the local and national governments have not been able to accomplish their goal to expand urban development projects.  Nonetheless, despite their extreme poverty, many of the individuals we saw throughout the townships could not have looked more excited to be there.  Children, traditional healers, and young people taking vans home from work were all smiles when we passed by.  I find it heartwarming to see people who can manage to smile and appreciate the simplicity of the life they have been given, but I do hope that the township areas will be able to see more progress in the future.

This drive through the townships prompted me to consider post-apartheid socio-economic developments a bit more.  Many South Africans pride themselves as being citizens of a young nation that finally values equality.  Truthfully, it is encouraging to see how the ANC appears dedicated to reversing the shameful effects of the white majority rule.  However, it seems that change has been moving at a rather gradual pace over the last twenty years.  It is evident that countless non-whites still live in poverty, and a large number of whites in Durban hire blacks as maids, gardeners, or gatekeepers so that these individuals will not be out on the street.  Along the same line, self-service gas pumps have been banned in South Africa because the gas pump attendants rely on the full service option for their income; allowing the self-service option would actually lead to worker strikes.  These practices would probably never seem thoroughly acceptable in the United States, but the service industry in South Africa operates differently.  Because the apartheid era ended only a short time ago, it will no doubt take quite a while for the new nation to really begin to appear post-racial in the socio-economic sense.  I think South Africa has made a good deal of progress though, especially when compared to other countries within the continent.  In Durban neighborhoods alone, I have seen individuals from a variety of nationalities and religions peacefully coexisting without any supremacist or xenophobic concerns toward the growing influx of international immigrants to the area.  It will be exciting to see how relations continue to improve after another twenty years.

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Elephants, and Rhinos, and Hippos! Oh My!

What a gorgeous day for a safari!  After departing early at 5:00am to travel three hours away to the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, we were lucky to see a large amount of wildlife.  We saw baboons, warthogs, giraffes, rhinos, antelopes, zebras, elephants, and more!  After our main safari excursion, we made the short trip to St. Lucia, where we rode on a guided tour boat and saw a large number of hippos, crocodiles, and rare birds such as African eagles.  It was incredible to see all of this wildlife up close with only our vehicle to separate us from the animals!

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Service Learning at the Edith Benson Babies Home

Today I began my service learning project as a volunteer at the Edith Benson Babies Home.  Although this residence is referred to as an orphanage, it does not ultimately represent what one would call an orphanage in the United States.  An American orphanage typically houses children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned.  Edith Benson offers full-time residency for children suffering from these issues but also provides medical and day care services for children of extremely low-income households. As the Child Welfare Durban and District accurately describes, “with deterioration of social and economic conditions and the AIDS pandemic, the survival of the extended family is under threat”.  Thus, child welfare centers like Edith Benson may provide housing and services for children so that parents can attempt to create a more stable environment for their families.

As part of my work as a volunteer,  I assisted the staff with teaching the children in the traditional Montessori education style.  These lessons involved English instruction on basic terms such as the parts of the body, artistic exercises through sculpting and coloring, and logic puzzles with blocks.  I also helped to oversee the children’s daily activities such as mealtimes, naptimes, and playtimes.  It is heartbreaking to think of what medical or domestic conditions these children have suffered from over the years, but it is nice that Edith Benson is able to provide a safe place for those they are able to admit.  I am interested to learn more about the different welfare programs available in South Africa.

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Spotlight on a Local Gallery

Much needs to be said about my favorite gallery in town, the KwaZulu Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA).  In the two times that I have been here, I have seen a number of excellent pieces created by talented local artists.  Below are a few of my favorite works from the latest exhibit.

In addition to the impressive gallery, the KZNSA offers a host of exquisite paintings, crafts, and jewelry for sale at their gift shop.  Each gift that a customer purchases comes with a short bio or article about the artist.  Many of the featured artists began doing freelance work from a young age.  A few of them unfortunately died young, but the gallery cherishes their legacy and the artwork they left behind.  I am already so impressed by all of the artistic talents I have become acquainted with in South Africa thus far, and I can’t wait to see more great artwork soon!

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Indigenous Wildlife and Cultural Traditions in the Valley of 1000 Hills

Today I visited the PheZulu Safari Park, a popular tourist attraction in the stunning Valley of 1000 Hills just outside of Durban.  Not only did we interact with snakes and crocodiles, but we also sat in traditional thatched huts while Zulus educated us about their indigenous customs, weaponry, social exchanges, and foods.  We even observed reenactments of traditional Zulu dances and marriage proposals!  It was a great experience to see wildlife, demonstrations, and performances that I never could have viewed elsewhere.

I found it especially interesting to see how the Zulu people valued medicines from traditional herbs and plants such as ginger root.  After all, the debate over traditional vs. modern medicine appears to have strongly intensified as HIV/AIDS patients continue to rise in South Africa.  Despite concerns, some doctors are looking toward the remedies of traditional healers for possible links to find a cure for AIDS.  For more information on the traditional healer vs. modern medicine debate, check out this discussion paper prepared for the Treatment Action Campaign and this Slate article about fighting AIDS in Tanzania.

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A Uniquely Eco-Chic Durban July

Today I attended one of the largest events of the year in Durban: the Durban July.  When I heard that this was a horse race, I was rather skeptical about the event and didn’t think I’d want to attend.  However, I knew I had to make an appearance when one of my new local friends told me that “The Durban July is all about the fashion.  The horses are just the intermission.”

Sure enough, I was excited to see that everyone in attendance was dressed in a wide variety of styles that ranged from traditional race wear to wacky and wild.  The theme for this year’s fashion show was “A Material World?”.  No, it has nothing to do with the Madonna hit, as I initially assumed.  Rather, most of the fashions on the runway were created from recyclable materials.  Some of the most unique designs incorporated everyday materials such as paper, ink cartridges, compact disks, plastic spoons, license plates, tree branches, and bottle caps!  This event was certainly filled with original creations that allowed one to reflect on how eco-friendly fashion can become an enviable reality.

Here is the full text of the Durban July theme:


Seven billion people, the latest count.
Concern for the planet, the energies mount.

This event is red, that’s for sure.
But support for green, is part of the cure.

Spare a thought, for Mother Earth.
Need to save her, for all we’re worth.

Sustainably harvested, natural, organic.
Alternative fibres, no time for panic.

All these words, what do they mean?
For a start, change your routine.

Reduce, respect, reconstruct, ‘My Dear’.
Recycle, repair, rethink, ‘Monsieur’.

Show support, through what you wear.
Or what it’s made of, concern with flair.

Glitz and sparkle, are definitely in.
The overall impression, is what will win.

So for this day – Love red! Think green.
Your earth-friendly ensemble, will steal the scene!

The Vodacom Durban July
Africa’s Greatest Horseracing Event

And here are photos of some of my favorite designs and celebrities!

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For additional photos from the Durban July fashion show, check out these features from Times Live, City Press and Style Scoop.

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The Fight Over Secrecy in a New Democracy

Before arriving in South Africa, a professor sent me an informative article concerning the nation’s recent history of free speech issues and the newly proposed “Secrecy Bill” and Media Tribunal that could serve as a significant threat to journalists.  In “South Africa: The New Threat to Freedom”, Nobel Prize winning South African writer Nadine Gordimer explains how the Publications and Entertainment Act prohibited thousands of publications from 1950 – 1990, in addition to popular films such as Jesus Christ Superstar and A Clockwork Orange.  It is clear that the leaders of the apartheid regime desired to forbid South Africans from accessing taboo or controversial works, including those published by their own national talents.

The new, post-apartheid South Africa has certainly prided itself on its long-awaited democratic reforms that guarantee fundamental freedoms to all citizens.  Nonetheless, the Media Tribunal proposed by the government may challenge a number of freedoms guaranteed to members of the press.  This tribunal would require investigative journalists to have all topics approved before they begin to conduct their research or write their stories.  Whether the information submitted by the journalist is a threat to national security would be at the discretion of any government official.

New legislation from the South African government would not only affect journalists, but the public at large.  Under the Protection of State Information Bill (“The Secrecy Bill”) passed last November, anyone “who expose(s) the rampant corruption by individuals in government, industry, and finance” could face a prison sentence.  This could even lead to limited freedoms of expression for a number of writers and artists within the thriving South African arts and culture scene who may create avant-garde, satirical, or protest works that criticize the government.  To make matters worse, it seems that these controversial measures are merely the first steps in President Jacob Zuma’s plan for South Africa’s “Second Transition”.  The initial transition was from the apartheid regime, and the second one seeks to improve the overall quality of life for all citizens in this new democracy.  It appears that this transition will underhandedly involve the reduction of the power of the national judiciary, which Zuma believes should be subordinate to the powers of Parliament so that party opponents could not somehow utilize the courts to “co-govern the country” and supersede the power of the government.

These arguably extreme measures to prevent the exposure of national corruption scandals no doubt casts a questionable light on the leaders in power.  It is clear that there are mixed emotions regarding the public image and effectiveness of the ANC.  On the one hand, this 100-year-old organization has been responsible for a tremendous amount of growth in South Africa since its initial establishment as a direct apartheid resistance movement.  When the apartheid government essentially labeled them a terrorist organization and sought to turn all whites against them, they remained ceaseless in their efforts to take down a corrupt regime.  These methods of resistance became organized as strikes, boycotts, and eventually more militaristic efforts.  When they finally did become elected into power after the collapse of the apartheid regime, most would argue that the ANC passed many progressive reforms, including the abolishment of the death penalty and controversial segregation laws such as the Bantu Education Act.  It seemed that blacks could finally live in a world where they no longer were forced to assume an inferior position to the minority race in power.

Because of this recent history that is still very close to home for many South Africans, most of the black individuals I have spoken with in Johannesburg and Durban have expressed that they are trapped in a political quagmire.  When I asked for their thoughts on the proposed Media Tribunal and Secrecy Bill, they immediately acknowledged that these measures were not only unconstitutional, but also a “reissuance of apartheid”.  Nonetheless, while they are mostly disappointed with these proposed laws and with the failure of the ANC to fulfill a large number of its promises to the black community, they could never vote for any other party.  Since the history of apartheid is so recent, it is clear that the National Party continues to represent the party of the former oppressor while the ANC symbolizes the liberator who will always defend the rights of people of all colors.  Even Nadine Gordimer, who is of caucasian descent, expressed at the end of her critical article that she “actively supported the African National Congress during the liberation struggle against apartheid” and “continue(s) to support the ideals on which the ANC was founded.”  With these strong allegiances in mind, it is difficult to predict whether the ANC will ultimately follow through on its promises or resort to less than exemplary tactics to maintain its majority power.

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