Empathize for Betterment by Bria Turner

Tuesday, January 12, the class visited a new township for the South Africa Study Abroad Program. This township was different from the others. Sure, it was the similar in how people were living scarcely but their appearance differed.  As we pulled up, I quickly noticed that the people living here were mainly of lighter complexion with textured patterns in their hair. The past two townships we had visited on our journey were classified as black (Zwehlile and Langa). I have been hearing since I arrived, from South African locals, that I would be classified as colored. Here I was, in a colored township. When I and another minority student got off the bus some of the residents hit each other and said “colored,” about us two. This was the first time either of us had gotten a positive reaction from the locals in a township. This interaction made it evident to me how impactful still the system of apartheid still affects the divisions of races in this country. 

Our service on this day was to hand out lunches and give sneakers to the children. Our host was the founder of the Call to Serve Foundation in the township which began in 2007. He and others in the community organized the children when we arrived in many lines ranging from smaller to older children. The foundation made sandwiches which we handed out first to the children. The children were so grateful and so calm as we handed out the sandwiches. After the sandwiches, our program handed out the bagged lunches we made starting with those who didn’t get a sandwich then with intent to give sandwiches to all we could. When the bags came out, chaos broke loose. It was almost as if survival mode had kicked in. We learned this was the first time in 20 years that others from outside this community had come to help them- people living without the bare necessities. “20 years,” haunted me because it made their reality alive in me of how many people take the time to hear the struggle of these people.

Before the apartheid government existed, the Native Land Act of 1913 and 1936 was put into effect. The act included a “Schedule of Native Area” that was set aside for Africans aka “black spots” which created restrictions on living space based on race (Dodson 2013). This law allegedly was the first action of forced removals in South Africa. However, the apartheid government instilled more separateness of races in 1948 when the National Party during the reign of the apartheid government begin to move communities on the “wrong side” (Sato, 2007). This displacement of people created townships based off race. Race determined ones living conditions, their work, their finances, and their placement. The detrimental effects of the apartheid are still seen today with races still living in their once classified places lacking the bare necessities.

The bare necessities in life are air, water, food, and shelter. All townships we have had the opportunity to visit have commonality in the necessities available to them. Air is needed because without it our bodies will shut down. In these townships pollution surrounds the community, lessening the fresh air. The second necessity is water. A human must contain 8 to 10 glasses daily to maintain optimal health. I believe in the townships we have visited that water is available, but 8 to 10 glasses may not be attained especially for those living in informal homes with no running water. Thirdly, it is necessary to live with food. The food one consumes is fuel for the body. Without the proper intake of food, one’s cells shut down. Then one may experience irritability, fatigue, depression, a lack of concentration and apathy. The last necessity of life is shelter; this includes shelter for living and shelter for the body (clothes). Home structures protects from elements and reduces the likelihood of sickness like hypothermia and dehydration. Clothing regulates the body and sustains temperatures and protects on of even the pollutants on the ground like glass we have seen in the the townships. Shelter of both kinds is seen in all townships, but shacks, no shoes, no proper clothing for inclement weather cannot provide the protection needed for those living in these communities. Serving in these communities and noticing what they don’t to fulfill a physically healthy life can easily make you angry and want to pity them.

I have learned in class sessions, especially with Mr. Kurt, that we shouldn’t run along with these statistics and feel pity. The people who we have met in South Africa within these townships don’t need us to save them.  As tourist, we come along and try to make things better because of the pity we feel. We see the surface of lacking bare necessities, but we fail to empathize with them. When empathize, we give others a chance to feel too and tell their stories. Twenty-three people a day in South Africa commit suicide. I don’t think living without the bare necessities is why this is happening, but the uncomfortableness of believing it’s not okay to feel which affects their emotional and mental health. As students studying, we must try to understand not just for our own empowerment, but for the empowerment of those like these twenty-three. 

We must realize that the people we encounter are trying to be successful and to provide for for themselves or their families too.  As I reflect back, I have seen many acts of striving for betterment within the communities that lack the bare necessities. Our tour guide in Langa, Suga Mama, spoke of how she sent her daughter off to live with her mother while she looked for stability in work. This year, she was able to have that stability and her daughter is now living with her in a formal structured home. In Khayelitsha Township, Philani Development Center was founded in 1995 as a service to help women empower themselves through creative arts and an earning by what arts were sold. I believe the difference between those who have found success and those who are still struggling in these townships is the empathy they receive. 

As I continue my last days in South Africa, I will ask myself not only what I take for granted, but what who or what I don’t take time to understand around me. I think these are the steps to helping others live a healthier life. Once we learn to open our minds and feelings, we invite others to do the same.


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