By Amy Meyer ’13, Tamara Myerhoff ’15, and Caitlin Ousley ’14
Students learn about the extent of apartheid’s destructiveness during a visit to what remains of Cape Town’s District Six. This field used to be a vibrant coloured neighborhood until the government forcibly removed the residents.
Tread softly. Step in right. Yazier Henry spoke these words as we gathered in his ofﬁce Monday morning. Though we were prepared to meet a reserved man, Yazier was determined to be light-hearted to break the seriousness of the day. His nervous attempts at humor elicited laughs.
Yazier told us we were going to step on ground that many white South Africans have not: the Cape Flats. This area of apartheid-era townships is surrounded by the Cape Town “triangle” (the predominately white, wealthy coastline); inside live poverty and a struggling hope.
A small candle was lit and placed in the center of our circle with two rocks — reminders of conflict over the land. To help each of us ﬁnd an inner strength for the experience of the day, we were invited to name a person (past or present) to walk with us in spirit. The atmosphere thickened with love, respect, and sorrow as we named our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, and role models. With our newly named companions in tow we were ready to depart on this Journey of Remembrance.
Viewing the monument to victims of the Trojan Horse Massacre in Athlone township, where three anti-apartheid protesters were killed in a police ambush.
At District Six, an empty lot where blacks and coloured people lived before their forced relocation, Yazier had each of us pick up a stone and hold onto it throughout the day. These stones represent the land that was taken from the people during their decades of displacement. Our journey then ventured into the Cape Flats to visit the monuments for the Trojan Horse Massacre, the Gugulethu Seven, and slain Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl — each of which symbolizes the racial injustices of apartheid.
Students walk arm-in-arm through Gugulethu township. At right is one of our guides, a participant in the struggle who helped the students learn about the legacy of apartheid.
At the site of the Trojan Horse Massacre in Athlone, our guides discussed their personal experiences during apartheid. One of our leaders, Yendor, talked about the violent deaths of his childhood friends, Robbie and Cody, and their importance to his personal resistance against white oppressors. At one point Yendor said, “I want to be a rock in the shoe of those who oppress me so that they may not walk too comfortably.”
White people are rarely present in Gugulethu. For this reason, we walked from the Gugulethu Seven memorial to the Amy Biehl monument arm-in-arm to represent the importance of walking a path that others have not.
A view of the Victoria Mxenge community in Cape Town’s townships. Photo by Caitlin Owsley ’14.
We ended the day’s journey in the community of Victoria Mxenge, where we were welcomed with open arms.
The next morning we discovered what true “South African” time meant when we had our breakfast of homemade banana and corn mufﬁns and traditional Roiboos tea two hours later than planned. It was well worth the wait! With our bellies full, we stretched our limbs in a large circle to prepare for Yazier’s experiential learning exercise to help us process our journey through the heart of the townships.
‘The Heart of Hope’ human sculpture was a student creation that stemmed from a group activity facilitated by facilitated by University of Michigan professor Yazier Henry.
We broke off into groups to depict our experience in the form of human statues. One such statue, called “The Heart of Hope,” portrayed the students holding up rocks in a circle as they strained to bring a resistant individual into their ideal of carrying the heavy burden of hope as one entity. A common current throughout each group’s statue was that memory must be preserved and, as global citizens, we must learn to mold these memories into drives that shake our spirits.
Being stagnant will only paralyze our opportunity to be something more, to stand for something stronger than ourselves. As we left Victoria Mxenge, the boys and girls ran alongside our bus waving goodbye, reminding us what two good hands and a strong heart can do to preserve the essence of home.