Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents

Personal Histories & Important Conversations

October 4, 2019
By Keren Stearns, CAS '21

Keren Stearns is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents, writing and sharing her experience abroad during the Fall 2019 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their student takeovers on the @pennabroad Instagram beginning September 23, 2019.

Semester Abroad
CIEE Cape Town, South Africa: Arts and Sciences

Just a few weeks ago, two other study abroad students and I had the opportunity to have lunch in the home of a local family. Merle, the wife, is of Indian descent, and Sidney, the husband, is Xhosa, an ethnic group that resided in the Eastern Cape Province and is South Africa’s second-largest black population after the Zulus. Although starting with a description of a family’s race in the United States might appear impolite, the fact remains that even today, race is a central aspect of life in South Africa. During Apartheid, it would have been considered illegal for Merle and Sidney to be married because they fell within different racial categories. This is admirably expressed in Trevor Noah’s worthwhile read, Born a Crime, since Noah’s parents were each of a different race and therefore forbidden to even be seen together.

When we arrived at the family’s home, Merle welcomed us with open arms and brought us to her living room to sit. She discussed her job as the executive housekeeper at a hotel in Newlands. She told us about the hardships she has faced while working, and how precise and punctual housekeepers are expected to be. After stepping down from her position for a couple of years, Merle was approached by the hotel and asked to resume her position. During her leave, about three housekeepers had issues with the new management and quit. In Merle’s fifteen years of working at the hotel, not a single housekeeper had any major issues that resulted in terminating employment. She explained that to succeed in an executive position, it is critical to understand the work and personal circumstances of the employees you are supervising; she learned this on her own since she had worked as a housekeeper before she took on her current position.

Merle is extremely kind and giving. She made us wonderful food, from curry to custard. As we ate, she told us about how she enjoys spending her time. For her last birthday, instead of throwing a big party or inviting friends over, she visited a girl in the hospital who she had met through an acquaintance. She discovered earlier that she and the girl shared the same birthday, and on that day, the girl was hospitalized because her body was rejecting a liver transplant. Merle decided to celebrate their birthday together and to focus on the girl. She also told us that she urges her hotel to deliver extra food to homeless shelters. Merle was pleased that her hotel also recently donated a lot of sheets and blankets to children.

Following this discussion, Merle’s husband, Sidney, joined us. We talked about race relations in South Africa as compared to back home. Sidney told us that he is the first Xhosa to own a travel company. We talked about how race seems to play a defining role in South Africa and he explained that even after Apartheid, he often encounters blunt racist remarks. While people like Sidney are trying to grow the conversation and to combat racism, Sidney acknowledges that it is very much “a process” – one that is long, perhaps never-ending, yet remains vital to acknowledge and confront.

This conversation offered me a glimpse into the life of a successful South African family. Sidney comes from a township, a shantytown created during Apartheid that still exists, even following Apartheid’s formal conclusion. We talked about how important it is to discuss people’s backgrounds and circumstances, rather than overlooking stories that provide rich insight into the ongoing role of race in South African society.

The townships remain ever-present in Cape Town. As soon as you leave the airport, you pass Khayelitsha, one of the nation’s largest townships. During my spring break, we visited Johannesburg and toured Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. I was glad that I had the opportunity to visit the township and to experience it from the viewpoint of a local. Our guide was a young man who grew up in the township. He told us about what it was like to live in Soweto, and he even took us inside the home of one of his friends. The man’s home was small and humble, but it was well-kept and clearly showed that he has pride in where he lives. We learned that the guide spoke all eleven national languages and that almost all people who have lived in Soweto for at least five years should be able to speak them as well. Our guide showed us the constantly flowing taps spilling water onto the dirt roads, and explained how the electricity in Soweto is stolen from nearby businesses. The community keeps the water running as an act of defiance against the government. Visiting Soweto highlighted the remarkable contrast of the extraordinary poverty of people living in townships versus the extreme wealth of people, especially Afrikaners, in Cape Town and Johannesburg, a contrast that Sidney routinely observed growing up.

We also visited Robben Island, formerly a political prison thirty-minutes by ferry from Northwest of Cape Town. Before he became President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, as part of the African National Congress Party, was kept there as a prisoner of war for about 27 years. Our guide was also a former ANC political prisoner. He spoke emotionally about his experience, as well as the experiences of his fellow inmates who endured brutal treatment throughout those challenging years, yet found ways to become better educated and more dedicated to combating the racial injustice of Apartheid.

During our home visit, Merle told us the story of her cousin who lived on Robben Island for several years. The inmates were limited in what they could have with them on the island; the letters they received were heavily censored, and they were only allowed a Bible to read. Yet, Merle’s distant relatives found a way around this rule. They sent her cousin the Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by encasing it within a cover of a Bible. Merle’s cousin shared this treasured play with his fellow inmates, so they could educate each other and enjoy reading it together.

South Africa is a country filled with many past and ongoing hardships, along with wonderful stories such as Merle’s family’s noteworthy act of resistance. Although Apartheid has formally come to an end, its aftermath still circulates Cape Town and South Africa today. As Sidney explained, it is a process. South Africa is such a rich society, filled with remarkable beauty and wonderful people. Yet, there are inequalities, burdened with the aftermath of racial injustice, in virtually every aspect of life that need to be discussed and addressed. My time in Cape Town has given me the opportunity to talk with people like Merle and Sidney about how South Africa continues to have a long way to go despite the promise of Apartheid’s formal ending.

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.