COURTESY OF GABE SAMANDI
“It’s not a good idea to always focus on negative history, because that’s how you formulate negative ideas about a country,” said Professor Amir Idris, associate chair of Fordham’s department of African and African American studies.
History is an intensely political subject in South Africa. Much like the United States, the narratives that shaped history have defined the current identity of the country. However, unlike the United States, where we proclaim our misdeeds are “heritage, not hate,” there is widespread recognition in South Africa that history can be — and is still today — used as a weapon to erode identity.
It was just 26 years ago, in 1994, that apartheid ended. For most university students in South Africa today, the legalized form of segregation and disenfranchisement of more than 90% of the population is not just the black-and-white-photograph history of their grandparents: It is the history of the years leading up to their birth.
Since 2012, Fordham University has sent a group of students to South Africa for its smallest semester-long study abroad program, the Ubuntu Program in South Africa. Groups as few as nine and as many as 23 have traveled to study at the University of Pretoria (UP), a top-five research institution in all of Africa.
Most South African students attending UP were born to parents who lived their entire lives in a segregated country. Nearly every student was born in, and continues to live in, a neighborhood consisting entirely of the same race. In class, students sit in rows where color makes informal but noticeable patterns. In the campus cafeteria, only a handful of tables have both black and white students sitting together. Even fewer of those tables have black and white students speaking to each other.
“I just don’t feel comfortable in an all-black setting,” one white student told me, at an all-white house dinner I’d been invited to. “I don’t think I’d be welcome.”
Pretoria is one of three capital cities in South Africa and houses the seat of the South African presidency. It’s named after Andries Pretorius, an early leader of the “Boers,” literally “farmers” in Afrikaans, who were descendants of the European settlers that used Cape Town as a supply post for colonizing the Indian Ocean.
Pretoria is also known to be a particularly conservative city. In Pretoria, English — the only European language spoken by most black South Africans — often comes second to Afrikaans. The statue of Andries Pretorius, located in front of Pretoria’s City Hall, is protected by a barbed-wire fence. In recent years, there have been calls for its removal and destruction. The same has been said for other statues of white figures in and around the city.
Pretoria is located in the larger municipality of the City of Tshwane, named after the Tswana King at the time of Pretorius’ arrival in southern Africa. The City of Tshwane includes Pretoria’s Townships — the crowded, underserviced areas of untenable land that were created as ghettos for black residents during the apartheid years. In some Townships today, residents have multi-story houses with luxury automobiles parked in front. In others, residents live in makeshift shelters constructed from plywood and sheet metal.
“Once you’ve been through this program, you can never be the same again,” said Professor Antoinette Lombard, head of the department of social work and criminology at UP. “Fordham students often witness a poverty that they’ve never been exposed to at home. But they learn that people are resilient.”
Lombard, who is Afrikaans herself, is Fordham’s primary contact at UP. She has been with the university for 31 years now, working there even during apartheid.
She’s also been a leading voice in correcting the university’s discriminatory past. “Apartheid was inhuman, there’s no excuse,” Lombard said. Under her direction, Fordham students take classes at UP with both black and white professors. She’s personally worked with faculty from all over UP to develop a course for Fordham students that focuses on the legal, cultural, environmental and economic problems facing South Africa following its transition to democracy in 1994.
It’s her hope that while at UP, Fordham students can bring a fresh perspective to the academic issues facing UP’s faculty — as well as the social issues facing the student body.
“Discrimination is an imposition on human dignity around the world,” Lombard said. “Unless you address it directly and confront it, you allow it to persist and slip under the rug.”
According to Kate Leonard, Fordham College Rose Hill ’22, there are plenty of opportunities for Fordham students to confront challenging conversations on race. “I would say it’s still very segregated in the way that people think about and treat their fellow classmates,” she said.
“During some of the class discussions, you can still feel some tension,” Leonard said. “Especially when people talk about politically charged subjects like apartheid.”
The courses that Fordham students enroll in ask them to directly engage with such questions. For the second lecture of “Decoloniality, Africa and Anthropology,” a course taken by nine of the 12 Fordham students studying at UP this year, students were asked to bring a page of prepared research about how “history is not neutral.”
In “Poverty and Community Development,” the course overseen by Lombard, students read the current South African constitution and compared the country’s legal institutions with those of the U.S. The primary goal was to give Fordham students valuable lessons to take back home, particularly when it comes to issues of race, inclusion and socio-economics.
However, it’s not solely the students who are hoping to learn from this program. UP’s faculty also hopes to utilize foreign perspectives from Fordham students to confront its own history. According to Idris, it was in the University of Pretoria that the intellectual, philosophical and legal framework for apartheid was constructed.
Fordham’s Department for African and African American Studies was initially hesitant to work with UP. “The University of Pretoria was the center of the apartheid regime’s consolidation of political and academic power,” Idris said. “In my opinion, the university has taken many steps in the right direction, but I had initial concerns.”
Lombard was clear that Fordham students were invited to UP precisely to confront that issue. “We’re open about the past, we are teaching the past,” she said. “We’re bringing people in to acknowledge and advise us on the future, and we ask: Help us.”
“That’s the goal of sending Fordham students,” said Professor Booi Themeli, a native South African and lecturer for Fordham’s economics department. “Being a part of a society that’s transforming itself. Being a part of that transformation.”
“Fordham has actually played an important role in the struggle against apartheid,” Themeli said.
“Fordham used to give scholarships to anti-apartheid activists who had been exiled,” he said. In addition to the degrees conferred to apartheid’s political opponents in New York, Fordham also awarded an honorary doctorate to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning anti-apartheid activist, in 2005, for his personal history as an agent for equality.
According to Themeli, “At the time Tutu said — and none of us could really tell if he was joking or not — ‘I’m only accepting this honorary doctorate if Fordham does something to work with my country.’ Father McShane took him very seriously.”
Themeli said it didn’t take long for Fordham’s administration to reach out to him for suggestions. He paid a visit to South Africa’s consulate in Manhattan, where he introduced himself to Ambassador Fikile Magubane. In 2007, the two led a delegation of Fordham administrators to schools around South Africa, hoping to spot a potential opportunity.
Themeli insisted on working with UP’s economics department, hoping that foreign students would bring their perspectives on race and socioeconomic development. In August 2008, a group of 14 economics students from Fordham — nine graduates and five undergraduates — attended a 3-week summer intensive at UP called Emerging Markets, which still operates today.
Two years later, Fordham hosted the first graduate students from UP, who completed similar economics coursework. The late University Provost Stephen Freedman expanded the program to undergraduate students and began exploring options for student exchange.
Throughout 2011, Fordham sent several professors and administrators abroad to research service-learning exchange programs and plan a Fordham program in partnership with UP. Fordham’s administrators were adamant that undergraduates had the opportunity to learn in South Africa. As Themeli tells it, it was agreed that the program would start as soon as possible.
“Four amazing young women actually led the charge in 2012,” Themeli said. The students, undergraduate alumnae of 2011’s Emerging Markets program, were the first to volunteer for the inaugural Ubuntu student group. Fordham identified Lombard, who had toured Fordham on a separate occasion while visiting New York for a United Nations conference, to oversee the students while they were in South Africa.
According to Themeli, it was shortly after the program began in 2012 that Freedman visited Tutu’s home to tell him “we’ve listened to your call.” The program’s official name would pay homage to Fordham’s relationship with Tutu: It is formally known as the “Ubuntu Program in Association with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.”
Each year, the program has changed substantially: in 2014, Fordham partnered with the Jesuit Institute of South Africa for a weekly socio-emotional guidance session, as students often struggled with their place in a country so stratified by race and wealth. In recent years, the program has been specifically restructured to combat notions of superiority or saviorhood that Americans sometimes unconsciously carry into African countries.
“Students often go to Africa to transmit a knowledge — what I call a kind of distorted knowledge, anyways. In my view, that has a subliminal sense of superiority,” said Idris, who is originally from Sudan.
Recent additions to the Ubuntu Program’s courses have students consider the impact of holding Western concepts of “democracy” and “development” as standards for Africans to aspire to. Students are asked to contextualize their learning within the long history of European literature depicting Africans as “savage,” and “uncivilized,” and as people who need to be saved by the West.
Idris stated he’s since come to see the program as a valuable opportunity for both schools. “In my view,” he said, “the program should be a powerful educational moment in both (universities’) history.”
“Students are considered to be the champions of a new South Africa,” Idris said, “in its intellectual pursuits, history and culture.”
Lombard was equally encouraged by the possibilities Fordham students could bring to South Africa. “I’m always so amazed by what Fordham students are able to do in a few months,” she said. “This is the first student learning program at Fordham where the students led the charge and said, ‘We want to do something good.’”
For his part, Themeli was simply proud that he was able to connect his students to his home country. “The main point,” he said, “is to make young people part of a transformation that makes the world a better place.”