[Alumni Reflection] Erin Conwell: “Trevor Noah, Ferguson, and Cape Town”

04-08-2015 posted by Acypl
Delegation visiting the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum. Erin is pictured last to the right.
The delegation visiting the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum in South Africa. Erin is pictured last to the right.

Recently, it was announced that Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, would take over for Jon Stewart as the host of The Daily Show. Trevor first appeared on the Daily Show in January 2015, where within his first minute, he compared recent police brutality in Ferguson, MO and New York City to the type of police brutality experienced by black South Africans during the apartheid regime. Trevor is originally from Soweto (South West Township) neighborhood of South Africa, a neighborhood that was at the heart of the anti-apartheid movement and home to both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was a jarring joke, but one, that as my trip in November to South Africa proved, was very true.

My delegation arrived in South Africa on November 6th, and I was ready to learn about how the country had overcome all of the issues of apartheid and become an economic powerhouse on the African continent. What I found was a nation still struggling with its identity, trying to figure out how to overcome its violent past, and move to a more inclusive, equal future. I was bombarded from all sides with stark contrasts. For example, the sprawling vineyard, Vergelegen Estate, with their hundreds of hectares of untouched land lay only a few kilometers from Lwandle Township, an urban slum where thousands of people lived in barrack-style housing without any running water or electricity. Wherever I went, I found black South Africans doing manual labor while a majority of those in management positions were white. I constantly felt as though everyone, black and white, was looking at me, trying to figure out where I was from, and whose side I was on.

When we arrived, South Africa’s Parliament was in the midst of a violent episode. The day before our arrival, Special Forces (think American SWAT team) raided the Parliamentary chamber of South Africa in Cape Town, assaulting and arresting members who were in the process of speaking out against what they perceived to be abuses of power by President Jacob Zuma.

The next morning, while eating breakfast in the hotel, I was watching CNN International.  The image of the Special Forces invading the South African Parliament was put side-by-side with images of young, black youth rioting in the street.  My first thought was that the protests were in response to the events in Parliament. But the riots were not in South Africa—they were on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

The time I spent in South Africa reminded me that while Americans may think of ourselves as an example to the world, the world is watching what is happening here and making judgements about our society in the same way we make judgements about others. Challenges of racial divisions and class systems still heavily influence the politics and policies of nations across the globe. While people assume racial divisions may not affect the world as greatly as they had in the not-so-distant past, the reality of that statement is even more evident to me after journeying overseas. It’s true, though we may be equal by law, equality is still a hard-pressed issue to accomplish, and while our countries may be culturally different and an ocean a part, we have a long way to go to accomplish true justice.

Erin Conwell is the Program Manager at ACYPL

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