May 2019

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Providing “immersion in the culture, history, politics, architecture and people” – that is how the International Office describes its UWI Discover Series. Started in 2012, the series has carried students and staff to countries such as Brazil, China, Cuba and India. At the end of 2018 a group embarked on the UWI Discovers Study Tour to South Africa. Ms Carol-Anne Agard was one of them.

The study tour was a life-changing experience that is etched in my mind and vivid in every photograph or video from the tour.

After a 14-hour flight we arrived at the Oliver Tambo International Airport, in Johannesburg on December 27, 2018. We hit the ground with no time to rest. Our first tour was to the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, where we were greeted by South African writer and activist, Elinor Sisulu, daughter-in-law of prominent anti-apartheid activists, Walter and Albertina Sisulu. The Gardens is a lush park with undulating grounds that rose gently to an escarpment from which cascaded a river and beautiful waterfall. I noted the multicultural mix of visitors to the Gardens, indeed to South Africa.

One of the highlights of the trip was the Soweto Township tour. We drove through Johannesburg, a city with a skyline of skyscrapers, luxurious homes, and tree-lined boulevards, juxtaposed with weathered government housing and hovels with galvanised roofs.

The tour was led by Soweto-born, professional storyteller Bongani Godide. Bongani took us on the same route that the oppressed, black students took in protest of the Bantu Education Act during the Soweto uprising on June 16, 1967.

The protests spread all over South Africa because of brutal gun attacks on unarmed students by the white police. We visited the Hector Pieterson Museum which recounts the tragedy and death of its namesake, a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed during the uprising.

Our visits to the Hector Pieterson Museum, the Apartheid Museum and the Old Fort Prison on Constitutional Hill, linked the past to the present, giving a vision of hope for the future. However, the scars remain, making the society’s efforts to move on difficult.

Afterwards we made our way to a game park and lodge situated in the transition zone of the Kalahari and the Lowveld in Pilanesberg. This area is home to the “Big Five” – the African elephant, black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, African lion and African leopard. Our guides assured us that we would see all five as well as other animals at the reserve.

In the game park, animals co-exist and are allowed free movement: from the hardy oryx to the shaggy-coated waterbuck; the sable antelope and the kudu with its spiral-shaped horns; and springbok, impala and wildebeest, important prey species.

Ringing in the New Year surrounded by nature and enjoying a sumptuous meal (which included springbok in wine) was truly memorable.

Our historical, anthropological and cultural perspectives on South Africa expanded during discussions and through reading materials provided to us before our departure. These prepared the group for seven days in Cape Town.

Cape Town

Several of Cape Town’s prominent members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement hosted us during our time in the city, the oldest in South Africa. Human rights activist and former Member of Parliament, Professor Gertrude Fester took us on a township tour of Bonteheuwel. We were hosted by the Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies, a 100-member women’s empowerment group. The group told stories of being forcefully removed from their homes during Apartheid, giving us a further understanding of the suffering of South Africans. The group shared a traditional Cape Malay meal with us and chatted about their plans for the future before presenting us with certificates of recognition and insisting we take a group photo for their community newspaper.

The visit to Robben Island, a ferry ride away from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, was profound. Nelson Mandela was held in Robben Island from 1967 to 1990. Today the prison is a museum. In Cape Town we also took the cable car (an engineering feat) to Table Mountain and across to Stellenbosch Winelands.

Our trip ended with us flying to one of South Africa’s neighbours, Zimbabwe, and making our way across to Botswana to visit the Chobe Game Reserve. Apart from the beautiful Victoria Falls, what was fascinating was how freely elephants, warthogs and baboons roamed the streets of Zimbabwe and Botswana. While in Botswana, we spent our time on a river cruise and land safari. The most notable meal in Zimbabwe was the sumptuous barbeque and show at The Boma – Dinner and Drum Show. Antelope, crocodile, buffalo and impala were grilled to perfection and served as part of traditional Zimbabwean dishes.

These are my reflections of UWI Discovers South Africa. It was a life-changing experience. I would like to thank the International Office and their Study Tour Coordinator Ms Afiya Francis, who planned the trip, listened to our needs and concerns, and provided a time management policy that worked.