My first week in South Africa

Submitted by Airym Velazquez on the 2024 Winter SOCI/CRJU program in South Africa…

When I first decided to come to South Africa for this study abroad, I did not know what to expect from this incredible country. As we began our descent to the Johannesburg area, I began to look at the land and its differences from those I had visited before. One particular aspect that stuck out to me was the empty lands with trees and farms. In the States, I’m used to flying above cities, where residential communities hold most of the land below. Seeing the majority of land and a minority of houses and roads made a great first impression on me. It was impressive when we first arrived and acknowledged the country’s beauty in the land.

For our first excursion we went to a Cheetah sanctuary for our first excursion, where we learned about the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre. This center focuses on helping animals like cheetahs and wild dogs to rebuild their population. This excursion demonstrated to me the need for animals in South Africa and to re-establish their population. They breed their animals and release their calves to reconstruct these animal populations. Once the calves have grown and reproduced successfully, it is considered a successful relocation. They have accomplished hundreds of these successful releases for the cheetah population. On our second day, we visited the Union Buildings and Freedom Park. On our way to Freedom Park, we began to see communities; some of these communities had rich houses, and others, the majority, had homes on the poorer side. Freedom Park and the Union Building were beautiful, and their history was impressive.

The photos depict my arrival at the airport and our first excursion at the cheetah sanctuary.

This trip has been filled with learning opportunities. After spending five days here, I have learned new things about South Africa, The people, The culture, and Nelson Mandela. On January 5th, the group visited the Union Buildings and Freedom Park. Freedom Park is dedicated to peace within South Africa, commemorating all the people who fought for equality. As a result,
they have walls with names of those dedicated to chronicling and honoring the many who contributed to South Africa’s liberation. It was incredible to walk around this beautiful park and learn about the everlasting flame of peace. The symbolism in the park was truly impressive and heartwarming. Walking around it and seeing nature and walls filled with names of those who died or participated in this movement showcased South Africans’ connection with their ancestors and those who fought for the world we have today. There was a trial below the wall of names; this trial led to a sacred place that held the spirits of those on the wall. The energy felt peaceful with the surrounding water, which brought me peace.

I enjoy learning about cultures that deeply connect to their spiritual beliefs. While visiting this place, it reminded me of our reading “Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa.” This reading focused on how this movement worked and its impacts on South Africa—the unbanning of the liberation movements and opposition political parties in 1990 by Pres. F.W. de Klerk, the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, and the lifting of the state of emergency in South Africa paved the way for a negotiated peace settlement between the apartheid regime and those who fought against it and brought an end to the struggle against colonialism and apartheid that had lasted in South Africa for more than 300 years ( Desmond Tutu, 2023). The TRC was established in 1995 by Nelson Mandela to investigate human rights violations, and it introduced housing, education, and economic development initiatives to improve the lives of the black population of South Africa. The TRC sought to codify and interpret the apartheid experience. Being not only a chronicle of who did what to whom but an authoritative description and analysis of the country’s history. The TRC also sought to create a more reconciled South Africa where everyone was equal, regardless of race. The TRC act reminded me of native Americans; as Amelia said, native Americans were treated as less, and as a result, they also fought for change after their history was tried to be erased. However, it also reminded me of my home and the United States’ efforts to destroy Puerto Rican history and culture.

Back in the early 1900s, the United States wanted to erase the history of Puerto Rico by changing the island’s culture, language, and population. However, Puerto Ricans fought against this, and although some of our history was lost, the majority of it was saved by Puerto Ricans. Today, Puerto Rico struggles with colonialism. However, progress has been made for better equality; I will link to an article that reflects the struggles of Puerto Rico ( I relate South Africa with Puerto Rico because outsiders came into both lands and made them their own. Taking advantage of those who lived there and their kindness and transforming the countries into their utopia.

The second reading that touched me was the Ubuntu Principle; I find it fascinating that this principle stands for the belief in forgiveness. According to Choundree (1999), Africa, unlike the developed world, uses the indigenous mechanisms in resolving conflicts as part of their post conflicts peace building processes (Journal of Global Peace and Conflict, 2015). There were five
stages of the peace-building process, acknowledgment of guilt, showing remorse and repentance, asking for and giving forgiveness, and payment of compensation or reparation as building blocks of reconciliation and peace-building in South Africa. It always intrigues me how some people can choose peace after being mistreated; it shows that humanity has goodness within it. This paper focused on using forgiveness to move forward, especially the one taught by TUTU. It reflects how, although Ubuntu was not perfect, it showcased that the gains of a united and peaceful society can be reinforced with the integration of modern and traditional peace-building mechanisms.

In contrast, a society with sharp divisions and fractured relationships could commit itself to reconciliation towards a harmonious and all-encompassing community without the recourse to violence or revenge. This truly showcased that by forgiving, progress can be made. However, I would understand if some people would not want to provide forgiveness. I’m learning every day
while I’m here. Learning about South Africa and what this beautiful country has gone through to become what it is today is fascinating. My view of what South Africa would be has become better. Even though I had reasonable expectations of this country, it has completely and positively overridden them. I love learning about its history and people and am excited to continue doing so. (Submitted on January 14, 2024)