Towards an Understanding that Everything is Delicately Interconnected

Published 11/02/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by William Oh | 11/02/2022

I had the absolute privilege and pleasure of studying abroad in South Africa, primarily in the city of Cape Town. In the latter half of the summer [2016], I also had the opportunity to travel to Johannesburg and go on a pedagogic safari through my study abroad program in Kruger National Park. In short, it was an incredibly transformational summer that gave me a small glimpse into an incredibly beautiful country and the consciousness and ethos of an aspirational, resilient people.

What was so transformational about this summer, however, was not necessarily my experiences going on visually stunning hikes, eating good food, or seeing animals in a safari vehicle (although these were all really cool). Rather, it was the chance to connect and simply listen to all the writers, scholars, and people from all walks of life that transformed not just how I see the world, but how I engage with it. For the majority of my time in South Africa, I studied primarily two main themes: a general overview of pre-colonial/colonial African society, politics, and law, and colonialism and the dialectics of modernity.

These courses immediately complicated the narratives surrounding the colonization of Africa by the European nation-states. Rather than teaching the simplified narratives of colonized peoples who were helpless in the face of overpowering strength by the European states, my professors argued that colonialism should be seen as a dialectic, or a conversation. Conventional knowledge frames colonialism as a one-way relationship between the global North (Europe and the U.S.) and global South (Asia, Africa, South America), where the North has fundamentally changed Africa in every single dimension of life. Africa in this framing is always set in opposites to Europe and the U.S. where the North is modern while Africa is primitive, where the North is civilized while Africa is savage, where the North is all-powerful while Africa is helpless and weak. What this knowledge erases or excludes however, is the reality that Africa and the entirety of the global South have fundamentally changed and shaped the global North just as much as it has been changed and shaped by the North, and that colonialism is not a story of helplessness, but a story of resistance, complicity, and contradictions. This summer gave me the understanding that Africa and the rest of the global South are not just modern, but in many aspects, at the cutting edge of modernity. Understanding colonialism as dialectic also meant an acknowledgment that the modernity of the global North was only made possible by its exploitation and extraction of the knowledge, resources, and people of the global South.

South Africa was so beautiful and haunting because I got to see these truths in actuality, embodied in the landscapes and in people’s experiences. These truths emerged in multifaceted ways. One instance was when I was visiting the District Six Museum in Cape Town and realized that the neighborhood we were staying in was one of the neighborhoods from which black people were forcibly evicted from to make space for white people during apartheid—a neighborhood that is still 95% white in a country where over 80% of the population is black. But it was also learning the stories of resilience and survival embedded in these tragic events, such as the story of the woman who would not budge from her home even as demolition tractors were on her doorstep after government offered her money, and cut off her electricity and water. Her home was the physical keeper of her family’s memories, generations back (the woman eventually moved for the safety of her children, but caused the government immense negative press and pressure). These truths also emerged in my visit to the Lwandle Migrant Labor Museum where I learned how women created and maintained families in spaces where they were not supposed to exist, and how migrant workers organized to establish schools and demand government services in an unequivocal statement that they existed and that they were not going away. Today, it is the site of a living community that still confronts problems of immense poverty, but one that is striving to create income through its museum and other means. This story is not meant to romanticize poverty or struggle, but to complicate existing simplified histories.

The aspirations of the South African peoples were also seen in a talk I heard by a prominent South African constitutional scholar who pointed out how the South African constitution outlines housing, healthcare, and a clean environment as rights. These rights are in addition to the guaranteed protections for gender equity and marriage equality—all in a nation that is “less” modern than a country like the United States. But it is important to note though that the scholar emphasized how the constitution was still in many ways aspirational rather than a reality, and that the current struggle of the South African peoples is one that is attempting to push their nation in the direction of a more just, and equitable state. 

Stories of resilience, resistance, and survival were not simply limited to the urban, however, but existed just as much in the rural. I got to witness stories of survival in the life of my homestay mother when our program stayed in Hamakuya, a rural village on the outskirts of Kruger National Park. For historical context, Kruger National Park traces its origins to the forced removal of black people from an area the size of Israel—similar to the history of national parks and Native Americans in the U.S.—whose founders were informed by the eugenics movement. The creation of this park created impoverished border zones, of which Hamakuya is a living example, but a more complicated picture emerges in the current day. While the majority-black government still has not delivered on its promises of justice for Hamakuya and similar provinces in the present, Kruger National Park is in the hands of the majority-black government and is maintained by black rangers who are at the cutting-edge of conservation. Kruger is in the process of merging into a trans-frontier park with Mozambique and Zimbabwe, a project that is destabilizing traditional borders and bringing up salient questions in regards to the role of the modern nation-state. Getting the chance to tell my homestay mother about my family and my stories, and listening to hers in return was such an immensely meaningful experience that I will not forget. She was a person who reminded me that as much as she works and changes the land, the land changes her just as much.

It is ironic though after my time spent abroad, I learned more about the United States and home during my time there then I did about South Africa. I am so grateful that the Milken Scholars initiative made this summer in part possible. My experiences this past summer are a powerful reminder that everything is delicately interconnected and that we are all changed by the world as much as we change it.


Originally Written in 2016