Conversations with President Matthew Myer Boulton and friends of Christian Theological Seminary

Guest post: Christian Theological Seminary Immersion Experience, South Africa, August 2015

Ellen K Annala

By Ellen K. Annala
Chair, CTS Board of Trustees


Itinerary snapshot:
Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, executive director of the Desmond Tutu Center, a collaboration between Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) and Butler University, led 25 trustees, staff, faculty and students for 12 days in his homeland. In Cape Town, we met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu, executive director of the Tutu Legacy Foundation. We toured Robben Island, attended the JL Zwane Presbyterian Church in Gugulethu, visited the Slave Lodge and the District Six Museum, met with young activists still working to undo the damage from apartheid, and participated in a forum on racism, violence and human dignity post-apartheid (three-person panel included our Dr. Boesak). At Stellenbosch University we heard Prof. Sampie Terreblanche, Prof. Nico Koopman and CTS’ Matthew Myer Boulton and Frank Thomas. We took a scenic tour to the southernmost point on the continent, climbed to the light house at the Cape of Good Hope, and took pictures of penguins at Boulders Beach. In Kruger National Park we saw the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo) plus zebras, giraffes and hyenas. After leaving Kruger, we visited Blyde Canyon, the world’s third-largest  and greenest canyon, and we stopped to eat the world’s best pancakes in Graskop. In Johannesburg, we visited the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill and Soweto.  

*****

 Any American — especially a white American like me — traveling to South Africa can’t help but do some soul searching. Agreeing to write about our trip gave me the discipline I needed to put some thoughts on paper.

Allan led us through a packed two weeks with a perfect balance of learning and listening activities combined with the must-see tourist attractions that showed off the country’s natural beauty. If you’ve heard Allan speak, you’ve been inspired and challenged by his message and his experiences. I’ve listened to Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about their joint work and Allan’s leadership in the anti-apartheid movement, but to be a first-hand witness to his significance to South Africans was awe inspiring. It became evident on my first walk in downtown Cape Town and reinforced throughout the trip, that we have a national treasure leading our Tutu Center.

After more than 30 hours of travel, our first day was mostly unscheduled, giving us time to rest and adjust to the time change. In the afternoon while some in our group napped and others (President Boulton and Trustee Anita Hardin) climbed Table Mountain, Carol Johnston (CTS faculty) and I decided to walk to The Company’s Garden. Allan volunteered to walk the four blocks with us.

Just a few steps from our hotel, we were stopped by an older man who greeted Allan with an enthusiastic hug. A dozen more steps and a young man asked if he could get his picture taken with him. This happened everywhere we went — a guard at Robben Island, an entertainer at Artscape, two young women at a rest stop in the middle of Kruger National Park. Most appeared to be working class people, but not all. Most were black, but not all. All who approached him showed deep affection and appreciation.

At the Apartheid Museum, I purchased Apartheid, An Illustrated History. In it is a picture of a young Allan at the microphone at the launch of the United Democratic Front in 1983. Surrounded by students, he was rejecting the Tricameral Constitution. The man who leads our Tutu Center led, survived and changed the history we only read about.

Being in South Africa is like having a mirror held up to Americans and others who have yet to resolve the damage done by slavery and segregation. South Africa now has democracy for all citizens. So do we. But the remnants of apartheid are evident, especially when you leave the city limits.

Under apartheid, whites moved people of color out of the cities to the townships — opposite the U.S. experience when schools were integrated in the 1970s and white families moved out of cities to the townships. Driving out of Cape Town, you see distinct neighborhoods where the houses get smaller and closer together the farther you drive. The darker your skin, the smaller the houses and the greater the density in your assigned district.

We saw miles of shanty towns, one with more than a million people living in shacks built with whatever scrap materials they could find. The government provides port-o-lets to give a minimal level of sanitation. Children who are fortunate enough to go to a private school have a chance to rise above their circumstances, but the odds are stacked against those who go to the overcrowded substandard public schools.

Some of us visited Christel House South Africa and saw what can happen when children from the poorest townships are given a chance with a quality education. Sound familiar? Maybe we don’t have shanty towns on this scale, but we know that the zip code a child is born into can hugely determine the child’s chances for success in life.

As we toured the Slave Lodge in Cape Town and Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I was struck by how well South Africa has addressed its past. Because apartheid ended only a couple decades ago, they have the evidence and testimony of those who were imprisoned, brutalized and treated as inferior human beings. I was dumbstruck when watching the video of the Prime Minister explaining apartheid as a “policy of good neighborliness.”

Upon entering the Apartheid Museum, we were each handed a card, randomly distributed, declaring our race. My card said I was non-white, so I was required to enter a different door than many of those I was traveling with. This was intended to make a point. It did. I found myself wondering what my travel companions were seeing that I wasn’t. And I resented that I couldn’t get to their side.

At the Slave Lodge (the actual home where hundreds of slaves were kept in cramped quarters), they documented their slave past in historical detail. But taking it a step further, they honored the contributions of slaves by recognizing that they built the city and changed the culture, language and food of the country. I don’t know of comparable museums or institutions in the U.S.

I bought another book, this one at the Tutu Legacy Foundation office, The Book of Forgiving, by the Archbishop and his daughter, Mpho Tutu. In the forward, they write, “In South Africa, we chose to seek forgiveness rather than revenge. That choice averted a bloodbath. For every injustice, there is a choice.”

As we sat with the Archbishop and the Reverend, they talked about forgiveness and about the work still to be done. I experienced a man who was willing to use his power position in the church to fight for a more just society; a holy man who embodies grace, kept his humor and continues to lead.

When visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned, we were led to his cell by a former prisoner. After sharing his own experience, the former prisoner said that he now lives on the island and is both a neighbor and a friend with former guards. When he finished, he invited questions but only received silence. I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling and thinking: “How could you have forgiven men who brutalized you and kept you in subhuman conditions?” Mostly, I was in awe and wondered if I had that same capacity to forgive.

The District Six Museum in Cape Town was created to memorialize the integrated neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for a new white neighborhood. The museum’s education director took us on a bus tour of several of the townships where former residents were moved to their designated “Colored,”  “Asian” or “African” township.

Afterwards, we returned to lunch and dialogue with young activists. Most expressed their disappointment and disillusionment with their current state of affairs — poverty and the lack of opportunity for so many. Some had given up on the government and placed their hope in empowerment at a grassroots level. One young woman, an attorney, acknowledged that injustice still exists, but said they have a tool they didn’t have before — a constitution that is a model for the world. She also talked about her mother, who still marvels at her daughter’s achievement, something she never dreamed possible when this young woman was born 30 years earlier.

I found myself asking South Africans what justice would be for them. Some want their land back. But my driver in Soweto disagreed. He was in his mid-50s and lived more than half his life under apartheid. He told me it was too late for reparations, but what should happen is taxes — very high taxes — for the very wealthy with the money going toward education. For him, the path to justice and equality is through quality education.

Then I met an older white couple and was reminded that prejudice runs deep and doesn’t change just because laws change. They explained to me that apartheid was no different from the former segregated policies of the United States, and no different from the current segregation in many European cities. Quietly but emphatically they declared, “That is the way it will always be.”

Justice and equality of opportunity have not been achieved in South Africa just as they have not been achieved in the U.S. South Africa has addressed truth and achieved democracy, yet justice appears to have eluded them so far. Those who gained power and wealth from apartheid lost nothing. So many others who lost their land, their homes, and their well-being are just barely surviving. We have much in common with South Africa.

I thank Christian Theological Seminary for sponsoring this trip and Allan Boesak for his leadership. It felt like we did it all. The country is beautiful. The food was delicious. The people were welcoming and forthcoming. And we will be forever changed.

I came back with a renewed commitment for the cause of justice and equality. I’m retired, and it’s easy to look back and think, “I did that. I marched in the ’60s and ’70s. I spent my career as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It’s now okay for me to relax, learn bridge, take trips, and have long lunches with friends.” I don’t think so. I can’t leave South Africa in South Africa.

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