Everywhere I go — no matter if I’m talking to a fellow student, a restaurant owner in the affluent historic district or a worker living in an informal settlement — I am asked the same question: “Why South Africa?”
At first, I always had the same gut reaction for a response. Why not South Africa? Why not Stellenbosch?
Its beautiful Dutch Cape architecture is tucked cozily around its vineyards and purple mountains. Its racially diverse, yet often segregated, population offers an opportunity to witness lingering effects of apartheid but also showcases inspirational reform and integration efforts.
Most importantly to my International Politics major, Sub-Saharan Africa contains enormous potential for economic and political development. Africa is dealing with Chinese neocolonization and is now a central battleground militant jihadists.
Perhaps my South African peers do not all view their town in the same way that I do. To me, it was worth traveling across the world to Stellenbosch rather than London, Buenos Aires or another bustling city for study abroad.
But then I remember I, too, had the same reaction when students studied abroad in my hometown of Arvada, Col. My high school was nicknamed “Vanilla Valley,” home of the Mormons and a picture-perfect boring suburban life. Why would anyone come to Arvada?
I learned I had to pop my bubble and leave my town to appreciate its uniqueness. After freshman year at Georgetown, I finally appreciated my view of the towering Colorado Rockies. After living in Quito, Ecuador this summer, I was excited to return to a place where tap water is drinkable. After living in Stellenbosch for less than two months, I will be ecstatic to return to a place where my language is the primary language spoken, since my Afrikaans currently leaves much to be desired.
I am regularly interrogated about why I didn’t choose Europe. People say that it’s “much safer there.” Yes, crime and murder rates are high in various cities in South Africa. But if safety were the only priority for studying abroad, then a lot more of us would be huddling for warmth in Finland rather than dispersing throughout the globe.
Statistics also don’t tell the full story for safety. Commonsense precautions and local friends happen to be great resources for choosing safe travel times and modes of transport.
I do have to be careful here, though, considering the remnants of apartheid that still remain. When a white Afrikaner tells me, “Oh, that bar is dodgy, don’t go there,” it can be difficult to tell if they mean that the bar is actually dangerous or if it’s just a place where black people congregate.
Perhaps these subtle comments let us see into fundamental roots of problems in South Africa. Elements of apartheid remain. Neighborhoods are often still segregated. Whites, blacks and minority groups distrusting each other certainly won’t help the country move forward toward integration.
This is not to say there is a full-blown race war in South Africa either. But South Africans should recognize the backgrounds they grew up in and the context of what their parents taught them and separate truth from prejudiced stereotypes.
From my time abroad, I’ve learned that we certainly need to do that in the United States as well.
It’s easy to tweet #AllLivesMatter and feel you care for people of all skin colors when coming from a white homogenous Arvada, Col background. It takes a far deeper level of self-reflection to realize if you truly believe all lives matter, then you must engage Black Lives Matter. If one part of our community is hurting, experiencing injustice and crying out for fair educational and economic opportunities, then we all must respond. It is everyone’s responsibility to help empower our brothers and sisters left behind by a lingering system of oppression in the United States, just as the ghost of apartheid still haunts South Africa.
The United States will rise or fall together as one nation. When all our schools produce stellar students, no matter their race or income bracket, our prisons lie empty because our streets are safe and our communities are empowered, we will succeed. Our economic, intellectual and cultural renaissance boom will be the envy of the world.
The lives of many South Africans I’ve met are living testimony to breaking down barriers, fostering integration and exchanging ideas to unlock the potential of every citizen, no matter the color of his skin.
Now I return to the original question: why South Africa? Through watching all its failures, struggles, successes and dreams, I am here to experience, learn and reflect. Returning to Georgetown, I can apply these lessons to build up my own community, to strive for equal opportunity for everyone and to empower communities across the country. Together we can unlock their full economic, intellectual and cultural potentials so we leave to the future a more prosperous nation.
Alexander Bobroske is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Oh The Places You’ll Go appears every other Friday.