A Rainbow Nation

Monday, June 28, 2004

A Storm Lake student reflects on a rare opportunity of diplomacy in South Africa

My trip to South Africa has been the journey of a lifetime.

It was educational, culturally enriching and motivational - as I stepped into a virtual classroom for 17 days, and was able to gain a rare glimpse into the institutions and the architects within them, who are building the foundation of South African democracy.

South Africa has faced dramatic and radical changes since the ending of racial Apartheid, nearly a decade ago. A deeply troubled South Africa survived a revolution, which has shifted its internal outlook to optimism at the same time as it has assembled external support.

According to Parliament members, after centuries of colonialism, oppression, aggression, exploitation and neglect, the South Africans have undergone a rapid emergence from unjust discrimination to a budding era of opportunity for its land and people.

When I was nominated to participate in the 2004 International Mission on Diplomacy in early December, I had no inclination as to how much my life would be impacted by this opportunity, come May.

I joined 65 other students from universities across the nation, finding myself a lone Iowan about to embark on the learning experience of a lifetime.

Once in South Africa, we stretched across the land to the cities of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. We met with Parliament representatives, local members of grassroots diplomatic organizations and the native Zulus. I walked in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, guided on our exploration of Robben Island where Mandela was held prisoner, by a former fellow political prisoner. We also experienced the thrill of safari in the African bush and crossed paths with elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions and a plethora of other wild animals.

All of our visits, lectures and hands-on experiences sent me on a path of self-discovery. It was an eye-opening experience visiting this timeless land and interacting with indigenous people and hearing their stories of heroes and heritage.

One of the major reasons the life expectancy, for the entire country, is expected to drop in years to come is a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Although South Africa has launched many relief and awareness programs, which all have fought against AIDS by promoting behavior change and providing medical, social and economic assistance to those affected by the disease, there still remains an extreme threat.

The rate of new cases of infection per day is shocking. Close to 2,300 people are found HIV positive per day.

In order to humanize the statistics we received about the HIV/AIDS crisis, we visited Cotlands Sanctuary and Hospice, which is an orphanage home to children, both healthy and ill. Over half of the children living there are HIV positive. These children spend the duration of their lives at Cotlands, surviving.

The facility's primary aim is to allow ill children to die with dignity, in a familiar and loving environment. The staff endures a lot trying to maintain a tranquil and peaceful setting for the children in their care, despite the often traumatic circumstances in which they work.

I spent an afternoon with the children. Though the ill among the well children were not revealed to us, the fatigue and blank expressions in some of the children's eyes spelled their reality out for us.

In the hospice, I was with children from the ages of two months to six years old. They looked into us and shed silent tears, desperate for their short-lived times with the energetic children, playing down the hall.

Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, said, "In the battle against Apartheid we scored a tremendous victory in the face of considerable evil. The solidarity of people from around the world...strengthened us at some of our darkest moments. Now as we enter another battle - the battle against HIV/AIDS we need the same solidarity, the same passion, the same commitment and energy."

The United States helps South Africa with this devastating pandemic more than any other nation in the world, according to U.S. Embassy officials. I think it would be difficult to overstate the severity of the pandemic on the African continent. The virus is very much alive and, so far, unstoppable.

In dealing with members of government, non-governmental organizations, citizens from both townships and suburban and urban settings, I found that the common goal of the land is to bring all Africans together into a united rainbow nation.

In December of 1996, South Africa's government ratified the nation's constitution and bill of rights, considered to be one of the most liberal in the world. Parliament is a diverse grouping of people of different ethnicities, including people with disabilities, and 35 percent have to be female.

South Africa's National Assembly currently represents 13 political parties, in order to equally cover the land. Current major concerns are: providing employment, education, health care and housing for those oppressed during Apartheid.

Politicians and citizens alike feel they continue to remain invisible to the rest of the world, which is something Robin Sewlal, associate director and head of the Journalism Department at the Durban Institute of Technology, says is a problem.

Sewlal says the current perception of South Africa consists of blood and violence. To be quite honest, prior to my journey to South Africa, that is the only portrayal of the region I had seen.

"Consistent and fair reporting would help make it possible for the rest of the world to view South Africa for what it really is, a peace seeking and democratically developing nation," Sewlal said.

Even in South Africa's successes, it appears to be less than a rosy picture for its people.

Once in the cities, I found myself overwhelmed at the sight of human beings living in shanty homes, many of them without running water and electricity. I could turn around and face the opposite side of the road and see beautiful and elaborate mansions, lining neatly tailored golf courses. Literally, 3rd world sits across the street from 1st world. As many people conveyed to us, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer.

About 40%, or 20 to 28 million of South Africa's 42 million inhabitants, remain in poverty. Either they are unemployed or living off $1 per day.

We did experience some conflict ourselves while visiting the townships. At one site, I was told I would be shot or our bus would be hijacked, if I did not go directly back to where I came from.

Our bus drivers were also confronted with two men who attacked and robbed them. Throughout the ordeal, other members of the township rallied together to turn the robbers in and protected us until we could exit their neighborhood.

Overall, they are a happy people, who embrace all they have accomplished and hope for further growth in the future.

Since the abolition of Apartheid, South Africa has gradually been able to regain its international credibility and build its economy and government with support of the majority of its people. For its first two presidential elections, citizens eagerly placed their votes, tallying a voter turnout of 87%.

When the invitation declared I would find this cultural and career opportunity to be a time of inspiration, mentorship, reflection and learning, which would ignite my enthusiasm and help define my goals and dreams, I did not know how profoundly right that declaration would be.

* Kelly Schultz, Storm Lake, is a junior at the University of Iowa, studying journalism. She is the daughter of Larry and Peg Schultz of Storm Lake and a 2002 graduate of Storm Lake High School.

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