Senior political science and economics major Jorgia Hanlin, of Leroy, studied abroad in South Africa this summer, and had her eyes opened to the racial issues that still exist.
A lot happened in South Africa early this summer. President Barack Obama visited the country while Nelson Mandela’s health declined.
According to Hanlin, there is still a rift that remains between social groups, and it stems from both race issues and resentment over South Africa’s history.
“One thing that was a little bit frightening was our group got stereotyped by a man in Capetown. He did not appreciate that we were white and walking through Capetown. He was obviously not happy that we were there and we heard some nasty words from him,” Hanlin said. “We did not say a word to him, but he was asking where we were from. …And then he decided that we were probably American and he was screaming to us about Obama being in town.”
Hanlin said Obama’s visit to South Africa sparked some controversy given Mandela’s state of health. While some people welcomed the visit, others felt it was a conspiracy.
“Some of the students at the university we were there with hinted that maybe Mandela had already died,” Hanlin said. “They thought that basically the government was covering it up because they didn’t want Obama to be here at the same time Mandela had passed on.”
Obama toured many other countries in Africa. His administration granted $7 billion to boost electricity to sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa was not mentioned in this campaign, but Hanlin said it could have been very useful.
The lack of available electricity in South Africa was something she saw immediately as her plane entered Capetown during the night. She saw a few lights around the outskirts of the city, and then the very bright Capetown came into view.
“When we visited the townships on our own, you would see houses that had outside wires running in. Basically, they had rigged up the wires themselves and were just sharing multiple lines to multiple houses,” Hanlin said. “We went to a lot of houses where I don’t even think they had overhead lighting or anything. They had windows, and in one of the rooms they had set up a hot plate and a TV. I think that was the only electronics in the room.”
Aside from witnessing current social and political events in South Africa, one of her classes brought attention to the fact that leadership has had a powerful influence on the spread of AIDS.
“One of the presidents refused to make a drug available that would help with AIDS. So hundreds of thousands of people died just during the few years he was president because he refused to make that drug available,” Hanlin said. “Then the next [president] … it came out that he had sex with someone who was known to have HIV and he said, ‘It’s okay, I showered afterwards.’”
Hanlin did not expect to learn these leaders had a lack of understanding about the disease itself or how their position influenced life and death of South Africans.
There were many other situations she encountered that she would have never expected, such as petty crime and blatant displays of poverty.
“One girl who was a full-time student there … she was held at gunpoint and mugged,” Hanlin said.
Hanlin said she did not learn about South Africa before her trip and was unaware of the diverse cultures.
“There’s definitely a very rich history with the apartheid and other things,” Hanlin said. “It was very interesting to see all the different cultures come together.”