By Maggie Connolly ‘21
Everyone’s a critic. Well, that is what people say at least. And in some sense, it is true. Studying abroad on a program directed towards understanding and learning about politics is obviously going to attract a group of politically active and aware college students. That also sometimes means attracting a group of college students who are hyper-critical of a politically charged environment.
On my study abroad program, we have been going to NGO’s. Oftentimes the people we speak to at these NGO’s tend to be white, upper-middle class South Africans. At one of the organizations, an American woman only a few years older than most of us debriefs us on the NGO she works for.
We all pile in the van after one particular NGO visit, laughing and hollering criticisms back and forth about the white woman we spoke with on this particular day. In this moment, I realize that maybe it is worth stepping outside the lens of it being ‘left’ to criticize and offer critiques, especially of people who have lived and worked in a country we are spending just 15 weeks in.
We criticize the white people who are teaching us in South Africa. About half of us are white. We criticize the woman who says she did not learn to speak isiZulu after living and working in Durban, SA for three years. We criticize the way restaurants are often set up. The owner being a white man and waitstaff being predominantly black South Africans.
I now live and work in Cape Town. The city is more like a European city and much whiter. We notice this on our first day here. Our academic director takes us to Camps Bay for coffee and we see suburban-looking, white, blonde middle-aged women running on the beach and heading back to their Audi’s and BMW’s to drive home to a nice, hot shower.
It is important to be aware of, and maybe equally as important, to criticize. This is a nation that, for the most part, these white people have inserted themselves into many years ago. This white population comes from mainly English and Afrikaans backgrounds.
They might seem like outsiders to us, who, ironically, are the real outsiders. However, many of these people have lived here their entire lives. They have families, jobs, and lives that we do not know about. We might not agree with how they got here, and we may not even agree with their political stances, but it is important to note that this nation is more theirs than it is ours. We are guests in a complex nation with a history that takes years to understand.
It is important that we as young, impressionable college students do not take things at face value. It is my belief that we should always be informed, opinionated, and interested in the world around us. But in that same vein, it is important to be aware and respectful of things that seem alien or unjust to us, especially as an outsider looking in.