South Africa (Spring 2019)
Student participants in the Social Impact Field Seminar 2019 South Africa share their reflections on their learning experience in the below blog posts (unedited)
[I]f you choose to stand up for what is right, no matter how it does (or doesn’t) impact you, you will be able to make a positive contribution to someone’s well-being and consequently to the society.
Returning back from South Africa was an adjustment. Not only is your body clock all haywire due to the time difference, but also because the country impacts you and changes your perspective in many ways.
This made me think about how I can utilize the experience and knowledge I gained from my travel to this beautiful country, and do something positive and impactful here. Just because I am not working in this specific field shouldn’t be my excuse to not participate in socially beneficial initiatives and conversations. Some of these tougher dialogues that we often see around us but choose not to participate in, simply because it does not impact us directly, or we are not an expert in, may result in turning into a monstrosity of an issue that we did not see coming.
We learnt from the history of South Africa that if you choose to stand up for what is right, no matter how it does (or doesn’t) impact you, you will be able to make a positive contribution to someone’s well-being and consequently to the society. Not only did heroes like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko champion for the winds of change, but there were people like Neil Aggett and Denis Goldberg who fought for what was right no matter what and left a permanently positive mark in history. It made me realize that corporate social responsibility is something that I could participate in at some level at my company. I looked further into this and found many initiatives that are being run which I plan to join now.
The class for this seminar is structured beautifully and allows you to take a deep dive into the different aspects of how and why social impact is so important in countries like South Africa. The topic we chose was related to providing solar electricity to underserved communities in South Africa. We had multiple conference call meetings with the client that we used to understand the complicated topic and familiarize ourselves with the issues ‘on ground’ that we might not be aware of due to the different cultural and social dynamics than what we were familiar with. We primarily engaged with Elizabeth from our client company who was highly professional, knowledgeable and understood the challenges that we as outsiders might face in understanding the community. She was a great asset in guiding us.
After our initial research we presented our client with a high level draft of our suggestions that we would zero in on once they provided us feedback on what seemed most plausible. We were surprised to see we had a full room of employees and clients (okay, not full room but a lot more than what we were expecting!). The engagement from the room was pleasantly surprising. No one from our team had any expertise in the area and were a little apprehensive about the reception to our suggestions. However the client was genuinely interested in our views and how we, as outsiders, matched the issue with our suggested proposal. They were receptive and took a keen interest in the different case studies we found through our research, and parallels we drew with similar projects being done in other countries that they could possibly leverage.
After returning back, we took their feedback and applied it to our final report. Doing such a deep dive into a topic we had no expertise in was a positive learning experience that we did not expect. Walking away from the class, I felt like I had learnt a lot more than I had initially anticipated and I am glad that it was such a pleasant and educational experience.
Everything was in the exact place that I had left it in… but something had shifted, something felt different and I realized soon enough that something was me.
It’s been about two weeks since my return from South Africa and by now I normally would’ve adjusted back to the regular flow of my busy life. After this particular trip however, I have found it a bit difficult to go back to status quo. I’ve had moments of reflection about my experiences in South Africa both personally and professionally, and know that I have gained more than I ever expected to from this trip. I think back to my first night home, walking into my apartment and just standing there taking everything in. I clearly knew the space but it felt foreign to me in that moment. Everything was in the exact place that I had left it in… but something had shifted, something felt different and I realized soon enough that something was me.
I absorbed the beauty of Africa in Cape Town with its wonderful seascapes and breathtaking views from Table Mountain. In Johannesburg I met extremely talented business leaders that were passionate about changing the quality of life of South Africa’s citizens. However, as each day of the seminar passed my perception about South Africa shifted a bit more. The more I experienced the more I drew upon the similarities between South Africa and the United States in regards to the inequalities faced by people of color. I will never forget the words expressed to me by one of the business leaders I had a chance to speak with after our group presentation, “I know that your story is my story - even as we are in different continents”. These words looped through my mind as I walked the hallways of the Apartheid museum and experienced what South Africa once was. As I experienced the townships and took in the conditions that people of color were living in and heard about the obstacles they faced, all I could think of is how similar this situation seemed. The systematic disparities that exist in South Africa closely mirror those of the United States. Two powerful countries with great promise that are struggling to treat their citizens as equals and move beyond their ugly past. What’s even more astounding is the parallels that can be drawn between the two countries regarding upcoming political elections and increased attacks against refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. (Quartz Africa) ‘Securing our borders’ is a message being thrown around as the latest rhetoric in politics of both countries to keep those that “don’t belong” out. I find myself thinking about those that have been within the border their whole lives and still don’t feel secure… whose advocating for them?
When asked by family and friends about my time in South Africa, I tell them it changed me. I share pictures of beautiful beaches and crowded townships, discuss the highs and lows, but ultimately share my truth of what I experienced. The mixed emotions of finally not being one of the few people of color in a room, while also knowing that my “freedom of choice” has much more power than those native to the country. The reality that I, as an American, have so much in my life that is easily accessible to me and that I may not as appreciate as much as I should. I have learned so much more about the global need for social impact through this opportunity, I am looking forward to one day empowering others to recognize their own power and influence in the world.
Unfortunately my commitment to the people of South Africa may be over but I hope to carry their lessons with me. Not in a scrap-book for myself, but to be shared with others and remind us of the efforts necessary to build the communities we desire.
What will I tell people about this trip when they ask me? Will I discuss the beauty Table Mountain being blanketed by clouds during a smoldering sunset? Will I discuss the natural beauty of the safari, watching some of Africa’s Big Five prowl their expansive sanctuary? Or will I tell people about the educational challenges, health-crises and socio-economic puzzles of Johannesburg.
Experiences like this trip to South Africa challenge your perception of the world. At the same moment you are reminded how similar and different we are. South Africa is fighting for the same justices we are here in the United States. Access to education, the right to live wherever one chooses, the ability to provide for one’s family. South Africa is also struggling for things we take for granted. Access to electricity, the right to healthcare, the ability to drink clean water.
What is my responsibility to South Africa after this trip? After meeting not only with business leaders in the community, but also many members of those communities, do I have an obligation to continue to assist them when possible? Are these people and experiences destined to fade into distant memories, to be collected in a scrapbook, or referenced on a resume/interview for my own personal gain?
I worry this trip will be similar to conferences about social impact. After these conferences attendees burst out riding a wave of passion for activism and desire for change. Often by the next week this wave has crashed into the fortifications of our realities. Many of us live in affluent neighborhoods, are educated and attending collegiate programs, or are striving for success in our careers by working the majority of our days. Out of sight, out of mind is the reality. Without direct interaction, reminders or visibility to these critical issues it can be easy to become absorbed in our own realities.
Which is why I struggle with how I should portray South Africa to my family and friends. Like being asked “how’s it going” the socially acceptable response is to say “I’m good”. The socially acceptable response to this trip is to assure everyone of Cape Town’s beauty, that South Africa is advanced for an African country and that everything is awesome. Responding in this way puts the very issues the trip was based around out of mind.
Therefore I believe I have a responsibility to South Africa to depict the trip in a balanced manner. Cape Town really is beautiful, but Johannesburg can be equally ugly. Giving a genuine response has resulted in some awkward responses and some eyebrows raised about why I chose to do this. It has also led to curiosity about what the Social Impact program is at BU, and about what I’d like to do with this degree.
These conversations may never help the people of South Africa which is unfortunate. These conversations have sparked discussions about our own communities and some of the similarities however. Unfortunately my commitment to the people of South Africa may be over but I hope to carry their lessons with me. Not in a scrap-book for myself, but to be shared with others and remind us of the efforts necessary to build the communities we desire. The only way to do this is to ensure that they aren’t out of sight and mind but are part of the story of Africa I share.
[A]s a result of this trip, I am committed to engaging in conversations about systemic solutions—about how my energy idea can help your education curriculum; how your investing platform can support my conservation efforts; and how we can support these endeavors with public policy. I’m excited to think about my work from the perspective of how it can help tackle problems outside my function, industry, or sector, and look forward to finding ways to help others do the same.
Our days in South Africa were thoughtfully organized into topics: a day for education, another for public health, conservation, social justice and so on. These themes afforded our group the opportunity to establish a perspective for the day and build our understanding from one visit to the next. For example, our conversation with the World Health Organization one morning provided a strong foundation for understanding how the HIV self-testing work of Wits RHI, our afternoon visit, supports the broader health policy and outcome objectives of the WHO.
Similarly, our trip to the Apartheid Museum and visit with Diversity Consultant Nene Molefi illustrated not only the rise and fall of Apartheid, but also the ongoing diversity and inclusion work taking place in schools and workplaces throughout the country to address the legacy of institutionalized segregation.
Each evening at dinner, we often reflected on each day’s theme and discussed the aspects of our visits that we most wanted to remember. The days of our trip certainly flew by and I got the sense that we all wanted to organize our thoughts from one day before preparing for the next day’s whirlwind. Now that we are back in Boston, I have been trying to breakdown the thematic ‘boxes’ of my experience in order to better understand the inextricable links between the trip themes and experiences.
We certainly had moments on the trip to discuss how the energy, health, and education challenges we saw in rural areas, for example, related to one another, how a lack of access to health care severely hampers childhood learning or workforce development. We started to feel the weight of these systematic challenges and, at times, felt outmatched. However, as a result of this trip, I am committed to engaging in conversations about systemic solutions—about how my energy idea can help your education curriculum; how your investing platform can support my conservation efforts; and how we can support these endeavors with public policy. I’m excited to think about my work from the perspective of how it can help tackle problems outside my function, industry, or sector, and look forward to finding ways to help others do the same.
In today’s political climate when even I find it a little hard to be hopeful about the future and proud to be from the US where most people equate the US to Trump, I find it amazing and inspiring that South Africans can be hopeful and proud.
It has been about two weeks since I left South Africa and to be honest I still don’t know exactly how I feel about the experience. I loved it, don’t get me wrong. South Africa has been on my list of places to visit for a long time. As I told the gentleman from the South African Tourism Board who interviewed me at the Johannesburg Airport on my way back home, I can’t wait to come back. But I think my hesitation to say it was the best trip of my life is the fact that I still can’t buy the mantra that “anyone can live anywhere” and that South Africa is a “Rainbow Nation”. No offense to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela who coined the term to describe post-apartheid South Africa, but the idea that everyone is equal all of a sudden is hard to believe when segregation in the US ended well before apartheid and we still have problems. Here is where I give South Africa credit though: South Africa has a museum dedicated to its Apartheid era, they acknowledge their past in hopes that they do not repeat it.
There are two words that I would use to describe most South Africans I talked to: proud and hopeful. Everyone in South Africa I talked to seemed to have hope in South Africa’s future, even with the recent corruption in the government. Everyone in the businesses we talked to, to my Uber drivers seemed to feel that South Africa is back on the right path, that there will not be any more corruption and that South Africa will stay on the right path after the upcoming election. As hopeful as everyone was, they were equally proud of the country they called home. While I think all would admit they have a ways to go South Africa is a leader in many ways: South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country in the world, and the first—and, to date, only—in Africa, to legalise same-sex marriage. People also were proud to show us their country, not just the touristy/good parts but to see the real South Africa and the townships. This is where the inequality is still very obvious. In Soweto and other townships I went to and drove past they are still over 95% minority. To be told that people in these townships still want to live here is not being honest with oneself. The houses are mostly comprised of old “matchbox” tin houses where Sewerage, water, and electrical infrastructure within townships is often in need of repair, resulting in a lack of sanitation due to problems with accessibility, and availability. Who really chooses to live in a situation like that. However, it does look like the government is building some new housing in the townships with solar panels on the roofs, so maybe the townships are improving.
In today’s political climate when even I find it a little hard to be hopeful about the future and proud to be from the US where most people equate the US to Trump, I find it amazing and inspiring that South Africans can be hopeful and proud. When I think about the US immigration crisis and the problems we have had at our southern border and the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, it is hard to go to another country and try to explain and be proud of what we are doing as a country when we are supposed to be “leaders”. Meanwhile, scandals that surfaced since 2016 involving former South African President Jacob Zuma have drawn attention to corruption in South Africa. Cyril Ramaphosa, the newly elected South African President, has vowed to root out existing corruption and further the development of anti-corruption initiatives. Yet, South Africans remain hopeful and proud, maybe because it is because they just overcame something so horrible as apartheid and maybe it is the only option they have but somehow I found myself more cynical about the future of both the US and South Africa than anyone I talked to. South Africa is gorgeous, even if it is “Africa light” and I hope to go back some day. When I do I hope that the townships are history and those areas are more gentrified, more minorities are in positions of power and they hire more minorities because minorities will not be able to better their situation until they get jobs where they can afford to live in the nicer areas.
The one Africans phase I learned while in South Africa was “baie dankie” or “thank you very much”. So, baie dankie for your hospitality South Africa, I can’t wait to see you again.