Thinking of South Africa

When we moved to Chicago I knew almost nothing about the country of South Africa. I had a little bit of knowledge of Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, because our family had befriended a student from that country who attended Rocky Mountain College and we knew a family from our church conference who had served in a mission in that country. It seemed distant and exotic and very, very different from our lives in the United States. But South Africa was a place whose name I barely knew. I got an education quickly from the students at our theological seminary. In those days, Chicago Theological Seminary had a special relationship with church leaders in South Africa. Despite the terrible and unjust system of the apartheid system in that country, the seminary was successful in keeping a steady stream of students who were able to leave that country for three or four years to pursue the study of academic theology in the United States. Among the first people we met when we moved into our apartment building were the children of a family from South Africa. Their father, Bonganjalo Goba, had already distinguished himself as a minister in the Benoni Circuit in South Africa. After completing his Master of Theology degree at Chicago Theological Seminary he went on to earn a second Masters degree at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from Chicago Theological Seminary. He went on to serve as a minister, professor, academic dean and church leader in both the United States and South Africa. Bonganjalo was very committed to the anti-apartheid struggle in his country and later in the post-apartheid transition to democracy.

We also became friends with Allister Rundle, who went on to lead reconciliation efforts in the Methodist Church in Cape Town. Through these and other friends we made in our time in Chicago we began the process of becoming more educated about the country of South Africa and its struggles for justice and equity for all citizens. We made life long friendships and have a sense of connection to that far-away place that we have never been able to visit. Even though some of our South African friends have now passed away, we still have a sense of connection.

As I sort through books and choose a few to pack to go with us there are many that I have read and I have no intention of reading again. There are others that I used when I was actively working but now no longer need. I’ve already sorted through the books that were win my study at the church. In the process I gave away two thirds of those books - more than six boxes. I’m trying to apply a similar standard to the books in our home, giving away most and retaining only a few treasured volumes. It is a process that I cannot do without going through the books one at at a time. In that process, I came across a paperback copy of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The book by a Brazilian educator was fairly new in the days we were in Chicago and spelled out a contrast between education as a practice of freedom and education as a practice of oppression. The copy we have was a gift from a South African Student who was sorting through his library as he prepared to return to his home country from the United States after earning his doctorate. He had to sort through his books knowing that he could only afford to ship a few precious volumes. He also had to sort through them because it would do him no good to attempt to bring home with him books that were banned in South Africa. Freire’s book was among those that would get him into trouble if it were among his belongings when he got off the airplane in his home country. The book became one of my valued possessions.

For the record, it is now packed into one of the boxes that is going with us when we move.

It is winter in South Africa. In Johannesburg, people are always a bit uncertain how to dress. There is no precipitation on the high plains at this time of the year. It can be terribly warm in the sunshine and equally cold in the shade. The extremes of the weather are a good metaphor for the politics of a nation that has wrestled with seemingly irreconcilable extremes for decades.

When the coronavirus first appeared in South Africa, the government enacted some of the toughest lockdown restrictions in the world. Borders and schools were shut. The economy ground to a sudden halt. The sale of alcohol was banned. People were to stay at home and self isolate. In the suburbs they did. In the shacks of the over-crowded townships it wasn’t possible to isolate. But the restrictions seemed to be working. People complied to the best of their ability, though the process of home brewing beer increased a great deal with the ban on alcohol sales. And every night folks would blow their vuvuzelas - those plastic horns made famous during the olympics, but long a part of South Africa. (For the record, my vuvuzela won’t be moving with us.) The infection rate fell - at first.

But South Africa is ripe with corruption. Those with money and power were exempted from the rules or chose not to observe them. Those without money and power had no choice except to continue to live in terribly overcrowded conditions. Infections started to rise. Restrictions were eased in an attempt to revive the economy. The cost of face masks and other PPE experienced hyper inflation with markups of as much as 900%. Food parcels meant for the poor were stolen by those in power. Contracts helped line the pockets of well-connected politicians. Over a half million South Africans have now been infected and although the rate is now declining again, there is no end in sight for those who are suffering and those who are grieving.

As a distraction from the social and medical experiment of our state playing host to the largest public gathering in the world since the pandemic began, I’ve been reading of South Africa, staying home, and hoping that the infection doesn’t run rampant in the streets of Sturgis and Deadwood, which right now are as overcrowded as the townships in South Africa.

South Africa seems to always muddle through its crises. I hope we can do the same.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!