Every semester, a study abroad student will tell you that he or she wants to be immersed in the local culture. They don’t want to sit around in classes with American students learning American material from American professors. They don’t want to take a quick destination tour. They don’t want to be tourists. They want to experience life the same way that the locals do.
I chose to spend a semester abroad at the University of Cape Town in South Africa for that exact reason: I wanted a real study-abroad experience. Within the first week I had gone to a football game (that’s the real thing, not the one where oversized men run into each other). I had eaten at the Majarajah, a local dive of an Indian restaurant. I had tried the national drink, the springbok, and saw a play at the Baxter. I did a lot of things in a very short period of time. Yet, while I had a great time, they also left me feeling as if I hadn’t really learned all that much about the locals and the way they went about their daily lives.
I went into my first week of classes thinking that now things would change. I would have a routine and see the real South Africa. Yet, the first week came and went and I was still waiting for that big moment of enlightenment. Little did I know I would find it in a completely unexpected place.
I had been sitting in the back row at the meeting for the University of Cape Town Choir for Africa, wishing that I hadn’t had that last chocolate bar, when a girl sitting next to me raised her hand.
“As long as we are discussing revitalizing the choir,” the white South African asked, “might we consider adding English and Afrikaner songs to our repertoire?”
The reaction that this question provoked was, to say the least, illuminating.
The UCT Choir for Africa started 21 years ago as a platform for native African and folk music. It was about more than just music; it was a part of the larger fight against the apartheid government. For the first members, the choir was about making a place for an African culture that had found itself silenced in its own country. One of the proudest moments in the choir’s history was when it was invited to sing at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela.
Since those days, the choir has suffered a steep decline. With the end of apartheid, its membership had grown complacent and drifted away. Now, as I sat in an auditorium, the choir’s student organizer was forced to admit, sheepishly, that the choir had no members and hadn’t met at all for over a year. The meeting was an effort at restarting the choir.
The question set off an entire sequence of events. At first, some of the original members, who had been part of the choir in the 1980s and 1990s, attempted to explain why English and Afrikaner songs hadn’t been and shouldn’t be included.Afrikaners are the Boers, the whites of Dutch descent, and were in power in the years preceding the end of the apartheid. Some of the older members threatened to leave. They hadn’t fought so much to be heard only to have their platform usurped by Westerners.
The younger generation disagreed. Why shouldn’t the Choir for Africa sing English and Afrikanersongs? The campus is much more diverse than it used to be. The UCT Choir sings Khoisian songs as well as Italian operas now. Wasn’t it possible for “Westerners” to be African? I was witnessing a split between those who had participated in the struggle for equality and those who had grown up after the ascendance of the black majority government.
In many ways, this simple disagreement reflects the South Africa of today. It reflects the tensions between the struggles of the past and those of the present. The Rainbow Nation, after a decade, has yet to fulfill the promise of equality. Cities are still surrounded by sprawling townships. People of different skin colors still live largely separate existences. The distribution of resources and the burdens of disease remain unequal. The past and the present mix uneasily and many are still struggling for a sense of just what it means to be South African.
For me, this argument was the first time that I felt I had been given a look at South Africa’s inner life. It wasn’t charming or quaint. I couldn’t take a picture of it and upload it to Facebook for my friends to see. But it was the clearest insight into the reality of South African life that I have so far experienced. You can’t expect to go into a foreign country and find it in any specific place or destination. You can’t expect to get to know a culture on your terms. You just have to accept that eventually, on its own terms, it will find you.