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KATHLEEN ARBAN: 21 in South Africa during Abolishment of Apartheid

It continually amazes me how an event, a conversation, or an experience can change the course of your life.  In 1992, when I was 21 years old, I had the opportunity to study and teach conflict resolution in South Africa.  As a student, I had participated in a variety of political actions, demonstrations, and letter writing campaigns encouraging American companies to divest in South Africa as a means of protesting apartheid.  After graduating, I was part of a group of students who had the opportunity to study and teach with an international dispute resolution facilitator, Dr. Dudley Weeks. It was an event which changed the trajectory of my life.  


I grew up in a single parent household and while we were not considered “poor” by poverty line standards, my mother struggled to support us.  As a teenager, I volunteered at soup kitchens and shelters for individuals who were homeless. So, I was somewhat familiar with poverty. However, I wasn’t prepared for the kind of poverty I witnessed in South Africa. Poverty in South Africa was the product of apartheid. It wasn’t subtle.  


In 1992, South Africa was going through the process of dismantling apartheid. Violence continued to erupt regularly as the minority white government struggled to maintain control of the majority of the black population. I was there in the summer of 1992, during the time of the Boipatong massacre. The Boipatong massacre has been seen as a turning point in the negotiations that led to the eventual end of apartheid two years later.  


A day earlier, I attended an African National Congress (ANC) rally to commemorate the uprising in Soweto in 1976. On June 16, 1976, youth that were demonstrating against an unjust law were met with police bullets.  Estimates range on the number of people who died that day but a photographer captured the tragedy of the violence -- a man running with a thirteen year old boy in his arms – a boy who had been shot by the police.  


June 16th has since become a national holiday – Youth Day. But in 1992, it was not. Just two years prior the Separate Amenities Act of 1953 was repealed, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the state of emergency, which had been in place four years was ended (Simpson, 2011). In 1992, the only white people that many black South Africans had encountered in their township were members of the South African Defense Force.  


I remember the faces of the black residents as we walked through the township on June 16, 1992. We were a group of mostly white college graduates from the United States accompanied by our South African leaders who were identified as either black or “coloured” (a designation imposed by the government on individuals who were considered of “mixed” race). I remember people shouting at us as we walked through the township to the location of the rally. I didn’t understand most of what was being shouted because it was either in Afrikaans or in Xhosa.  However, our hosts translated for us. While the overwhelming majority of comments were positive some were not.  A slogan that was popular at the time was “one settler one bullet.” The saying typified the anger that had accumulated from years of oppression.  I remember having a visceral response. I was scared. I wanted to defend, to explain that I was from the United States. I wasn’t an Afrikaner. I wasn’t racist. And then I realized. . . I was to blame. We are all to blame for inhumanity. We are responsible for continuing injustice.  We are all complicit for our silence. Despite all of the differences that divide us we are all connected. Perhaps my presence in the township could provide some comfort. Perhaps my white body could encourage those in the township that there were others who didn’t look like them who also wanted to see change. Perhaps I could be an advocate, an ally. Perhaps I could be a change agent.  


In the weeks that followed we co-led workshops with South African youth.  Those weeks were filled with countless experiences that I cannot do justice to in a mere blog post. Suffice it to say it was one of the most rewarding, growth producing experiences of my life to date. Ironically, during the same time that I was in South Africa, Los Angeles, California had witnessed an uprising following the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. I engaged in multiple conversations with South Africans - white, “coloured,” Indian, and black -- regarding race relations in the United States. Although we didn’t have a system of apartheid in the United States, we did have systemic racism.


Now, 28 years later I am still on this journey. I haven’t arrived at a destination. I don’t think I ever will.  I will always have bias to uncover and overcome. I may still say things that are racist or things that are born of privilege. I may still harm people of color in my words or actions. It is not my intent but I realize impact is different than intent.  


I don’t presume to speak for people of color.  I can’t. I don’t know what it is like to grow up as a black person in South Africa or in the United States. I can only speak about my experiences. I know that my skin color has afforded me privilege in this country and in others. Rarely, have I found myself to be in the racial minority. I see people in power who look like me.  I have had teachers who look like me. I am not asked to “represent” my race to others.  I can identify with many of the privileges Peggy McIntosh cites in her article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack


What I can do is learn through reading and listening. I can be led by curiosity and employ critical thinking. I can follow my mother’s advice in standing up for what I believe. I can use my voice.




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