Under South African Skies

Get Scared | July 12, 2009


There’s a magnet on our Cape Town fridge bearing an Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Do something every day that scares you.” It’s an encouraging reminder while in a foreign country. Because our study abroad group has had a tight schedule planned for us by our great program director Melikaya Ntshingwa, not to mention two van drivers–Pearnel and Sharkey–who get us everywhere we need to be, it would be very easy for us to experience Cape Town as winners of a radio station’s South African Tour Guide giveaway prize rather than as people actually living there.

We got one of our first tastes of self-sufficiency yesterday. After a tour planned by Melikaya, we were told that we needed to take taxis back to our house on Kimberley Road. We were down by a waterfront shopping area, so most of us opted to grab lunch and mose around before catching a cab. The great Ryan Corr and I decided to check out the statues of South Africa’s four Nobel laureates (Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela), visit a music store (I bought a CD from a South African band called Freshly Ground that Pearnel recommended) and have lunch. Witness Ryan’s glee as an indication of how good our personal pizzas were, as well as the deal we got them for (110 rand for two pints of beer = day made):



Ryan Corr is not so famished that he can't flash a grin before digging into his bargain pizza.pizza.

Ryan Corr is not so famished that he can't flash a grin before digging into his bargain pizza.

After we enjoyed said pizzas, however, we were left with the task of getting home. Most of our group had already gone back, so we approached a man working by the waterfront and asked for directions to a cab. He told us where to wait and moments later, a small van already filled with passengers arrived. We had been warned about public taxis–a likely place to be mugged–but we were not content to miss out on something that is such an entrenched part of everyday life for many South Africans.

There was a nice woman in the cab who informed us of how to pay our fare and minutes later, we were surprised to find the ride ending just a few blocks from where we had boarded. We filed out of the car and entered a bus station-like building, confused and looking conspicuously like tourists.

Luckily, the lady from the cab spotted us and asked if we knew what we were doing.


She directed us towards the upper-level of the building, where we could board a van designated for our desired location. We thanked her and did as she said. As we reached the upper-level, a man approached us and directed us towards the van headed to Observatory neighbourhood. As R Corr and I climbed in and settled into our seats, we realized Jay-Z was pumping out of the van’s sound system and knew we were going home.

In the grand scheme of things, this was no big accomplishment; we took a cab in a big city like millions of people around the world every day. But for us it felt important. We had gotten ourselves where we needed to be by way of an unfamiliar transportation system in an unfamiliar city. We will surely do things that will scare us much more in the next five months—start working at our service sites, go to a new university, bungee jump, shark dive, etc. But this didn’t seem bad for starters.

In recent days, we’ve also gained opportunities to learn about and appreciate South Africa’s unique political history. Friday we visited Parliament and were taken on a tour of the different rooms where South Africa’s legislative bodies and political groups have met before and after the apartheid era. That night, we had a block party at our house so we could introduce ourselves to our neighbors and show our house to new friends. One of these new friends is a young man called Dananai. We had heard him speak on behalf of international students at our UWC orientation a few days prior and had invited him to our party. Dananai, who is from Zimbabwe and studying law at UWC, shared his perspective on the repressive regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, as well as his views of the political situations in South Africa and the U.S. I was floored by Dananai’s insight; he referenced important events in American politics, including George W. Bush’s speeches in the days after 9/11, as well as Barack Obama’s Election Night victory speech. I felt very fortunate to listen as Dananai spoke about the challenges different countries around the world face individually and in their relations with other nations.

One of the most important political lessons we’ve begun to learn in all of this is the price some must pay for pursuing their ideals. Saturday morning, we took a boat to Robben Island, the site of the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years incarcerated (he spent a total of 27 years in various prisons). We took a bus around the island and were shown the lime quarry where Mandela and other political prisoners worked. The highlight of the tour, however, was listening to Eddie Daniels’s account of his time at Robben Island. Daniels, also a political prisoner, was at Robben Island from 1964-1979. During this time, he told us, he became friends with Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress (Daniels was part of a different political organization). Though prison guards tried to break the spirits of the political prisoners through torture, beatings, solitary confinement and other measures, the prisoners never lost sight of their cause. If they had, South Africa very well might still be under apartheid today.

As Mr. Daniels told us stories about his time in prison—one about Nelson Mandela comforting Mr. Daniels when he was sick rather than asking a less-esteemed member of the ANC to assist him really stuck with me—I couldn’t help but wonder if I could ever be as courageous as the countless people who fought against apartheid were. As Mr. Daniels pointed out, even some of the people who benefited from apartheid’s unjust structure were willing to turn their backs on their privilege simply because it was the right thing to do. My situation in life has put me in such a position that should I ever be faced with as great a moral decision as apartheid presented, I would probably be in the privileged group who could very easily turn away from the problem and continue enjoying the benefits class, race or creed.

I like to think that I wouldn’t do that. I know that I would be really frightened at the prospect of turning away from immediate but immoral privilege towards a just yet uncertain future. Nelson Mandela acknowledged such uncertainty when he said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Some days the scariest thing you have to do is take a cab in a foreign country for the first time. But other days, we are presented with tough moral choices that terrify us. They may seem insignificant in relation to what South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists went through, but they often require courage and are more important than we realize. I figure if people like Eddie Daniels and Nelson Mandela could sustain years of unjust imprisonment, stand firm with their people in the face of a cruel government, and peacefully guide their country towards freedom, the rest of us can at least strive to do the right thing when those relatively small moral questions come up in our lives.


Nelson Mandela's prison cell.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell.





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1 Comment »

  1. Hi Brian. Your mom just sent me your blog address. Your trip sounds amazing so far and it sounds like you are thoroughly enjoying yourself and getting used to your surroundings. Good for you….very impressive. And you write very well. Have a great time! Looking forward to hearing about your adventures.

    Comment by Sue Trottier — July 13, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

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About author

I'm a 20-year-old Marquette student currently studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I like to play the guitar and piano, watch the Mighty Ducks trilogy, read, travel and write. My favorite Judd sister is Winona, and I share a birthday with Dan Quayle.







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