Lessons from South Africa

South Africa-Botswana
Students listen to a presentation by a tour guide at Langa Township.

Having read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Shiwei Huang ’15 knew about the “dom passes” that black South Africans were required to carry during the apartheid era. But when she visited Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and saw an exhibition on black South Africans’ fight for citizenship, she truly understood their plight.

South Africa-Botswana
Students visit the Old Fort Prison Complex, where political activists, including Nelson Mandela, were once detained.

“You can learn history from a book, but at the museum, you saw it, in videos, documents and pictures,” she said. “It had a big impact on me.”

That was one of many lessons that Huang and 15 other Wheaton students learned when they visited Cape Town and Johannesburg for the January course “Witnessing Contemporary African Society and Culture,” an interdisciplinary program launched in 2008.

The one-credit winter-break course, taught this year by professors James Freeman (economics) and Marcus Allen (political science), focuses on “trying to understand the culture, the sociology, the politics and the economics of post-apartheid South Africa—sort of witnessing the evolution, if you will, of a society reborn,” Allen said.

In the fall semester, the group prepared for the trip in two class sessions and through readings such as Long Road to Freedom, the Mandela autobiography.

The students stayed in South Africa for 15 days, visiting townships, museums, historic sites and a wild game park. They attended lectures and met college professors, students, civic leaders and ordinary citizens.

“When I teach this course, my hope is that these visits and interactions nudge students to approach issues of power and privilege, injustice, inequality, poverty, housing disparity, and so on from multiple perspectives,” said Freeman, who has co-led the course four times. In past years, faculty members from English, psychology and sociology have also co-taught the course.

Alicia Alvarez ’15 was stirred by a visit to Langa Township, a community outside of Cape Town that was designated for black South Africans before apartheid. Alvarez found that despite poverty and overcrowding, people there maintained cultural pride and compassion for other community members.

“This experience showed me that no matter what challenges you are going through, you can overcome them and work to become the person you want to be,” she said. “It also taught me that having strong bonds with the people you care about is the most important thing in life.”

The group visited Robben Island and Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, the site of the nation’s supreme court and the now-closed Old Fort Prison Complex, where political activists such as Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were once detained.

“They tore down part of the prison structure and used the materials to rebuild part of the supreme court,” Allen said. “Every brick you see when you walk inside the chamber used to be part of the structure that housed prisoners. They were able to marry something tragic with a notion of hope, while also making sure that the prison remains part of our memory.”

For Jonathan Wolinsky ’10, a political science major who participated in 2010, the course meant he could go abroad without being away for a whole semester.

“I had not planned to study abroad,” he said. “I was involved in student government and my campus job, and I loved being on campus.” Then, early in his senior year, he learned about the Africa trip. “I remember thinking I wouldn’t have to miss anything at Wheaton, and I could go to Africa.”

Wolinksy said the experience was “an 11 on a scale of 10.” Now an admissions officer at Wheaton, he stresses to prospective students that Wheaton’s study abroad options offer something for everyone, “from a semester in Bhutan or London to three weeks in Africa. Wheaton commits itself to making these exciting opportunities available.”