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After being back in the U.S. for a little over a month, and working ourselves ragged compiling notes, audio, video and photos, what will be the product of our experience? Yes, we’ll have a multi-media website that shares political, economical and social issues facing a relatively new democracy. But, what I hope for is a presentation that personalizes a country over 10,000 miles away. The struggles that South Africa faces aren’t specific or isolated to that country, region or continent. They can, and have, happened everywhere – including the United States.

And for the 12 of us who had the opportunity to go, as journalists, where do we go from here? How has, or will, this experience affect our careers, ambitions, ideas, values, relationships, etc.? There’s no way to know or predict, but I have to believe that in some way, the impact will be evident in the way we live and work. From what we were able to witness and be a part of, I don’t know how it could be any other way.

(photos courtesy of tiffany tcheng)

josh

(Our website will be up soon, so check back often.)

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Since my return to the United States, I have repeatedly been asked, “How was South Africa?” or simply, “How was Africa?”  Here is my first point of contention.  South Africa and Africa are entirely distinct.  My pre-established thoughts of AFRICA with native tribes and little boys in loin cloths did not apply to SOUTH Africa.  Although some do call Johannesburg a jungle, it is not for its wild animals and vegetation.  It is for the busy traffic and the competitive style of life–mostly refugees struggling to survive in overpopulated areas, basic necessities hard to come by.  So here is how South Africa was for me.  It was sad.  I received a very jilted sight of South Africa–something unlike any tourist will probably ever see.  For this I am grateful; I have no regrets.  Will I return?  I’m not sure.  I don’t feel particularly insightful at the moment.

Ask any S. African what is best about their country and more often than not, you will get the same answer – it’s the people. 

Ask any S. African what’s wrong with their country and more often than not, you will get the same answer – it’s the people.

Because of all they have endured and overcome, S. Africa’s citizens deeply love their country.  Yet, due to empty governmental promises since the Apartheid, competition over resources, lack of education, an enormous divide between the rich and the poor, inadequate housing, as well as wars and genocide in neighboring countries, S. Africa has shown a propensity for violence, crime, xenophobia and corruption.

S. Africa, in the last 14 years, has emerged from the pit of Apartheid to become a new democracy and dubbed the “Rainbow Nation“.  Few countries have gone through as much social change and revolution since 1994.  Based on that, it is difficult to know where the country “should” be. 

A S. African woman shared an interesting analogy with me on the place ride from Jo’burg to London.  She said if American Indians still made up the majority population in the U.S., what would happen if one day the majority of government control was handed back to them?  How would such a thing be handled among tribal groups, let alone Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, etc?  Undoubtedly, cultures would clash, values would differ, education and language would change and so on – perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse, perhaps both.  Where would America be 14 years from that day?  It seems like a remote notion, but it is essentially what happened in S. Africa.

As conditions worsen in Zimbabwe, civil war ravages the DRC and unemployment, inflation and AIDS rise in the region, S. Africa will certainly bear the influx of migration from fellow Africans desperately seeking safety and a better quality of life.   

With increased attention being paid to the country that will play host to the 2010 World Cup, S. Africa faces not only the challenges of migration, xenophobia, a transtitioning government and Zimbabwe, but must also prove to its citizens and the world that it is capable of handling those challenges successfully. 

I’m well aware that the two+ weeks I spent in the country makes me anything but an expert on its intra-workings, culture and nuances.  However, what I take with me from our excursion is that many people of S. Africa share a great hope and love for their country and need a government with the strength, leadership, desire and conviction to demonstrate it feels the same.

josh

S. Africa will soon be below us as we head to London on the first leg of our trip back home.  I am thoroughly impressed and proud of the ASU students who have been a part of this project.  Everyone dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to make sure we are successful in offering our audience a peak into the dynamics of migration and xenophobia (and a number of other categories) in S. Africa. 

It’s troublesome to know that we don’t have the answers or means to remedy the struggles of those in need, both foreign and native.  To separate the personal from the journalistic has been complicated and I have had to remind myself that I am not here on a humanitarian mission, but rather to tell stories that try not to push an agenda.  From what everyone has experienced and the personal connections we’ve made, this is going to be a difficult task.  Yet, from what I’ve witnessed of our squad, I trust in each person’s ability to accomplish this goal.

The term “life-changing experience” has been tossed around in relation to this adventure, and while that is a drastically overused expression, I hope there’s some truth to it; for us or those we’ve met along the way.  At the very least, our final product will be an imprint of our experience so that we will never forget what we had the opportunity to be a part of.

josh

A few months ago, they never thought they’d be diminished to a population forced to live like animals.  But the Congolese community, surviving peacefully, productively and prosperously among their native South African neighbors, felt the tension building in their bones – there was a storm brewing.  And according to many native South Africans, they were due for devastation.  Why should they, as an educated foreign people who have fled from a country where the fear of death from a malicious government hinders a life of prosperity, be taking the jobs of the less-qualified natives?  After all, the South African government has made promises to its people; not the “makwerekwere,” or those who’ve invaded the country, plundering its wealth and marrying its women.

And if the government, with its loose border policies and false prophecies, wasn’t going to do something about the emigration and unemployment problems plaguing angry South Africans, it was up to natives to take their land back.  So, last month, that’s just what they did — by force.  Now, the classrooms, car dealerships, doctors’ offices and law firms the Congolese once occupied in Joburg are but a recent memory.  They’ve been reduced to a life halted by a state of stagnancy and are now more concerned about a cold front than their next exam or meeting with a client. 

The majority of the displaced Congolese population of Johannesburg now lives at Riffle Range Road refugee camp.  RRR is the largest camp out of seven in Joburg, and the Congolese are its biggest nationality of inhabitants.  When I first visited the camp last week, inquisitive stares and weary eyes followed me everywhere I went. And I have to admit, I was quite intimidated — I had my guard up to prove it.  But after a while, I noticed a simple hello meant a lot to these people.  They’d been through a lot of trauma and had every right to be fearful of new faces. 

I’d soon be welcomed into the Congolese community.  With their robust Congo-French accents, they prodded me about my intentions as a journalist.  I’d fire back with my questions, and eventually we opened up to each other.  Our nervous walls went tumbling down.  And after a few visits, I had become more than just another apathetic reporter to them – I was a confidant, a friend.

I’d also become quite close with Buks Burger, the burly Afrikaner camp manager.  We’d speak candidly about the camp and he’d answer my strange questions freely – some more odd than others.  Last night was a shining example of the most queer of queries, even for Buks.  I asked him if I could stay overnight at his camp, in a tent, side-by-side with the ‘fugees.  He was definitely caught of guard, but hesitantly granted my wish.  And at 8 p.m. on Friday night, my Wits University colleague, Judy Lelliot, and I were among the first journalists to bear the camp’s frigid, midnight air. 

As we meandered through the camp to the northeast corner, we were quickly greeted by our new friends.  The doctor was the first to greet us.  He was Pastor Raphaël’s right hand man, and was actually a board-certified physician.  When the doctor led us to the pastor’s tent-bound, 14×8-foot chambers, Raphaël’s wide smile and warm, wavering eyes let us know we were welcomed.  The pastor is a reckoning figure within the Congolese community, so we felt safe.  However, he had his concerns.  We stumbled through our best impression of each other’s language hybrid – coined Franglish – and I soon found out that four Congolese men were assaulted just a couple of hours earlier outside of the camp’s gates.  They were on their way to get some supplies from a nearby gas station when they were met by an angry South African mob intent on committing a hate crime, xenophobia-style.  The men were clubbed, but escaped without serious injury.  Police never responded to their calls of distress. 

But the mood quickly lightened up, as the community realized there was nothing further that could be done.  We congregated around one of the many fire pits that illuminated the dark, dirt alleys of the camp.  We passed my camera around and enjoyed taking turns photographing each other.  We talked about the media and the coverage — or lack-thereof — they were giving the camps.   After about an hour of conversation, Judy and I drifted around the camp, escorted by Jean the Baptist, a family man standing at about 6-foot-4, 225 pounds.  We were in good hands with the friendly giant.  We’d squat in on a couple more fireside chats before Pastor Raphaël let us know he’d set up a place for us to sleep in his tent. 

Ducking into the tight confines, I noticed we were not alone.  We’d be bunking with six others.  I tried not to act surprised or seem ungrateful, as the pastor had gone out of his way to clean up his tent and sacrifice his thin mat for us to lay on.

Judy and I curled up, cocooned in fetal positions underneath the warmth of three blankets and tightly zipped hoodies.  But we’d soon find out that wasn’t enough.  As I shivered myself to sleep to the harmonious sounds and matured smells that only a biodome full of grown men could produce, I couldn’t stop thinking about the children at the camp.  How on Earth could they possibly survive extended periods of exposure to these conditions?  I couldn’t come to a reassuring conclusion.  The notion haunted me in my dreams.

I awoke to a beautiful sound.  I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but it was much more pleasant than the ones I fell asleep to.  It pulled me out of bed.   My shoes crunched across the frost-laden dirt paths as I followed my ears. They led me to a congregation of Congolese singing Biblical hymns in their native language.  They formed a large circle around their 5-foot-3 pastor.  They traveled between song and prayer as they asked God to  forgive their enemies, while giving them the strength to do the same.  Just as Moses once led the Israelis through persecution in Egypt, they too will find an answer to their oppressive state – they’re sure of it.

 

 

 

 

 

Not on Wednesday night.  A couple of us (Tiffany, Keridwen, Emily and me) had the opportunity to witness a church service at Diepsloot Community Church in Extension 2 of the infamous township.  In a word, it was “incredible”.  It was the purest juxtaposition of hope and despair.  In the very township where, two days earlier, residents burned a man alive, 30 men and women, lead by Pastor Eddie, communed with God.

Religious, spiritual, sentimental or not, one couldn’t help but be captivated by a group of people who, despite having virtually nothing, still have faith and something to believe in.  The music alone proved that hope can exist in a place where it could/should have died.  It proved that the hate that fills many of the townships in S. Africa has a more powerful opponent.  For those at Diepsloot Community Church, faith may be the only thing they have left – but on Wednesday night, it felt like it was the only thing they needed.

(sights and sounds from the service to follow)

josh

Today I took video for Carolyn who is working on a story about unidentified bodies.  We visited a mortuary. I saw frigid dead bodies.  My mind concentrated on video, so I don’t think it hit me so much.

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