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Race and Reconciliation: Lessons From South Africa

By Megan Gerst Rocker
Desmond TutuThis summer, 12 University students, staff, and alumni, attended a two-week global leadership summit at the University of the Free State (UFS) in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The summit featured a multiracial group of UFS students, and students from the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands, as well as numerous scholars, politicians, ambassadors, activists, and other leaders--including the former Archbishop Desmond Tutu (pictured at right in a student-taken photo).

The students met to discuss how racial equity, privilege, and diversity are addressed in their countries. The summit's aim was "to exchange ideas and experiences in addressing issues of social justice, as manifested in aspects of race, racism, racial integration, and racial reconciliation in higher education."

Xay Yang, a 2012 graduate from the College of Continuing Education's Inter-College Program, was one of the U's delegates. It was, she says, an amazing and thought-provoking experience, and a fitting capstone to her academic career (Yang earned her interdisciplinary degree in social justice, youth studies, and graphic design).

"Being a minority of color [Yang is Hmong], as well as a lesbian, social justice is a huge part of my identity--not just my degree," she says. "That's how I became involved with the UFS students. In 2010, I was working for Anne Phibbs in the GLBTA Programs Office, and she asked me if I was interested in serving as a mentor to a student from South Africa who was here as part of a group in a study abroad program learning about diversity and racial integration at the U and other U.S. schools."

Those visiting students, Yang explains, were part of the UFS group Leaders for Change--an organization founded in 2010 to expose students to positive models of racial integration in the former apartheid university.

"[University of the Free State] started out as a white Afrikaner-only institution, but became integrated awhile back... [In 2008,] a video came out showing some white Afrikaans students threatening and forcing black Afrikaans staff to eat food that had been [urinated] on," she says

That leaked video, which was said to be a "mock initiation," outraged black and white citizens, and was replayed around the world. It resulted in student protests and riots, and helped put pressure on government and universities to respond to overt and covert racism in schools. UFS developed Leaders for Change in response to the incident.

Continues Yang, "The student leaders came up here, trying to get at some of those issues of diversity; looking to learn about how we handle integration and diversity and race, especially in our schools."

Yang was so moved by serving as a U.S. mentor, she applied for the summit in South Africa in March. "I'd never even been out of the country before...I think pretty much all I knew about Africa [that the media showed] was about lions and safaris," she smiles. "And even though I'd worked with the student group when they came here, and even though we had reading and stuff to do before the summit to give us background in apartheid...it was really shocking to see how 'diverse' diverse was there.

"Here, we think of cultural diversity as black, white, Asian, Native American...as races, more or less. But there, it's not just the races--which are predominantly black and white, it's the cultural/ethnic divisions within them. There are white Afrikaans and white English speakers; black Africans and within that numerous tribal affiliations, and... it's really different."

Not only that, she says, but summit participants also encountered differing views on apartheid and its effects on the nation after the fact. "It wasn't just one simple way of dealing with the 'after' of it. We'd talk with younger people, and their attitudes were one of 'Oh, that's history. It's the past. Let's just move on; go from here.' And then you'd talk to older people who had experienced it, and they'd say 'No, we can't move on--we need to think about it. Talk about it.' There were really different ways of viewing how to deal with it."

It sparked discussion, Yang says, about many of the issues in our own country about race and healing. "At first I [identified with the younger group]--thinking, you know, 'yeah, this WAS a while ago. Do we still need to be having conversations about it, instead of moving on? And then, I thought about the U.S. and our own history. About slavery, and then segregation. About taking the land from the Native Americans and the reservations. And that's more than a hundred years ago, and we still are talking, working through it. I realized, compared to that...the end of apartheid is really new to these people, especially the older people."

And although the ways the younger population of South Africa is dealing with the aftermath of apartheid may differ from that of their elders, Yang says, their drive to deal with racism and integration was committed. "They [the UFS/Leaders for Change students] were really self-motivated. It wasn't like that first cohort of students was put together and TOLD to work on it, to come to the U.S. They wanted to be leaders, wanted to open a dialogue about race, about social justice. Talking to them now, you get the sense that they aren't just trying to be 'do-gooders' or something--they are living this every day. That's their lives."

The two-week summit was intense, filled with lectures and presentations. Participants were broken into groups and cohorts to discuss issues of race in colleges and universities around the globe; to talk about integration, about what it meant to be a leader in a variety of communities, and about the reconciliation process.

The issue of reconciliation, in particular, resonated with Yang. "The issue of reconciliation and forgiveness was one of the most powerful ones. In one workshop, our instructor had video footage of people sharing stories, parents talking about losing their children, people recounting about how they had lost homes and land and family and friends ..."

She recounted another experience where they met a man, a vintner, who had moved away to England, and while living abroad witnessed how the outside world viewed his home country. "He was so moved," Yang says, "that he came back to South Africa and used his own property as credit to buy up the neighboring farmland, which had been seized from the native people years ago. Now, the indigenous people live there and work at the winery, and he shares the proceeds from his wine with them. That was his way of making amends and reconciling what his ancestors had done; his way of healing.

"Those messages and ideas were a great thing to bring back--the process one takes to grieve, to grow, to forgive, and forget--or move on. They were lessons we really discussed about how and where we can apply those in our own country."

Returning to the States, Yang says, "was an eye-opener. You see the world differently. I realized how fortunate I am. I came back and really asked myself, 'what am I doing with my life? Where do I want to be in five, ten years?' It was an experience that changed not just my thinking on issues of race and diversity and what those things mean...but also made me think about my own personal goals."

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