(Editor’s note: As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, we share this story from our Fall 2013 edition of Intercom.)
By Linn Washington Jr.
It was July 18—Mandela Day. Two days after landing in Johannesburg, participants in SMC’s 2013 South Africa Study Away Program were immersed in the culture, engaging in activities to honor legendary anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
On this national day of public service across South Africa, individuals, organizations and corporations provide service and/or goods to the poor, who remain numerous in this nation where diamonds and gold have provided others incredible wealth.
Thirteen Temple students painted and cleaned rooms in two elementary schools, while four other students engaged in photojournalism projects that were a part of their study away focus. The fabled yet impoverished township of Alexandra was the setting for their work.
“I enjoyed cleaning the two schools,” said Shanell Simmons, JOUR ’13.
Simmons participated in the inaugural South Africa experience in 2011 and returned this year as a program assistant.
Simmons found it a bit “unbelievable” that public service was limited to just one day in a nation where so much need exists.
“I don’t think that was [Mandela’s] vision,” Simmons said.
A tale of two countries
Mandela Day characterized the students’ time in South Africa, where their exposure to aspects of life in that country took them from a VIP tour of radio/TV operations inside the Johannesburg skyscraper complex of the South African Broadcast Corporation to Mabopane, a hardscrabble rural town 60 miles north. Students conducted reporting in Mabopane on an initiative to inspire empowerment throughout the community.
The township of Alexandra, known as Alex, has a special place in South Africa’s history. Mandela lived there in the early 1940s when he first moved to Johannesburg. Other now famed former residents of Alexandra include the man who succeeded Mandela as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, and internationally acclaimed musician Hugh Masekela.
During South Africa’s rigid racial segregation era, dating back over two centuries, laws forbade blacks from living in areas designated as whites-only, thus consigning blacks to communities like Alexandra. It’s located next to the richest suburb on the African continent, Sandton. Not far from the tin-roofed shacks of the shantytown section of Alex is a complex of auto dealerships that sell luxury vehicles like the Aston Martin sports car and the Rolls Royce, the ultimate status-symbol automobile.
Part of something bigger
Media studies and production major Dominique Spooner, one of the students who painted the Skeen Primary School, found the service day enriching, yet disconcerting.
“It was nice to be part of a community effort. I enjoyed the singing and the effort to give a better life to the children,” Spooner said. “But how does a rich country have shantytowns? Apartheid ended in 1994. Where is the change?”
Mandela Day, established in 1995, asks for 67 minutes of public service, which represents the number of years Mandela spent in public life, beginning with his participation in a bus boycott in Alexandra to protest fare increases, through his leadership of the African National Congress until his retirement in 2009.
This year, Mandela Day was honored with activities in countries around the world from the United States to Indonesia. The United Nations established July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day in 2009.
Andrew Meloney, a graduate student in media studies and production, feels public service around Mandela Day should occur over a longer period of time.
Meloney said while he knew Johannesburg was a developed city similar to American and European cities, he still had uncertainties about what he’d encounter in South Africa’s largest city.
“I was not prepared for how familiar Joburg would be to me,” Meloney said. “I was surprised to find Joburg a city very similar to Philly . . . yet different in interesting and amazing ways.”
Linn Washington Jr., associate professor of journalism, co-directed the 2013 South Africa Study Away Program with Karen M. Turner, associate professor of journalism.