South Africa: What Do I Really Know?

Over the past month, I’ve been doing a bit of homework to prepare for my semester in Cape Town. Of course, the pervasive laziness of breaks from school has held me back from my original ambition, that is, to read the best of South African literature and history. Still, I’ve made my way through some great stuff, including a history called Diamonds, Gold, and War and Alan Paton’s classic Cry, Thy Beloved Country. Tonight, I’ll be watching Tsotsi, a South African film that took home the foreign-film Oscar several years ago. Plus, I have a few more novels for my 28-hour trip down to the cape. (That’s right: four flights– Baton Rouge to Atlanta to New York to Dakar to Cape Town.)

Without any of this reading, I knew the basics (Boer war, apartheid, Nelson Mandela, etc.), gleaned from high-school world history and two African history classes at GU. But this scant Wikipedia article lurking in my mind wasn’t enough to help me answer the question: What is the South African identity, or what does it mean to be South African?

I have undoubtedly learned a lot, especially about Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger (the two figures central South African history from about 1870 to 1910.) And Cry, Thy Beloved Country has now become one of my top five favorite novels of all time. I don’t normally take to Oprah’s book-club picks, but this one was extraordinary.

Still, I’m not convinced that I can answer my question, or even if there is an answer. Does a South African identity exist? An Afrikaner identity, yes. Or a history and culture surrounding black South Africans. And the Indian community. And each of the myriad tribal groups, such as the Zulu. Growing up in Louisiana, I’m more than familiar with throwing around the term “melting pot.” In my state, the diverse cultures of Cajuns, Irish, Spanish, African Americans, and others have mixed to form a vibrant identity. The same can be said of the United States as a whole, at least to some extent. But South Africa? So far, I can’t be sure.

While abroad, one of my courses will allow me the chance to do service work in the local community. That experience and meeting local students should help me to answer this question better. After all, it’s one not easily answered with books alone.

So that’s where I stand: educated and curious but ready for real experiences to learn more. I can’t wait! I’ll be back regularly with updates on my sight-seeing adventures, service experiences, and the insights that I gain along the way.

Five days to go!

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  • This is a great question! It’s nice entering your study abroad experience with a question or questions you have in your head you want to answer, and not necessarily presumptions or stereotypes. You’re going to learn so much while there–even when you don’t realize you’re learning. Welcome to the blog, and safe journey!

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