Chilean Chronicles, Part XXII: Memories of South Africa in Chile

Alejandra Matus and her family's generosity sparks memories of my South African friends.

Alejandra Matus and her family’s generosity sparks memories of my South African friends.

Almost exactly 18 years ago I flew to Durban, South Africa as a participant in a Fulbright program.

I had wanted to visit Alan Paton’s beloved country for nearly a decade.

During my sophomore year at Stanford, while I was studying in Florence, Italy, the anti-apartheid movement swept the campus. Drawn by searing images of black South Africans being openly beaten by the apartheid police during the state of emergency declared by recalcitrant President P.W. Botha, the students on campus established shantytowns and held sit-ins where they chanted and clapped rhythmically. I was riveted by the brutality being visited on the black South Africans , and touched by the righteousness of their cause.

This sense only grew stronger after I returned to campus and joined Stanford Out of South Africa. I joined then-President Donald Kennedy on an early morning run, argued with him about divestment and wrote about it in a column for the campus newspaper.

In 1990, I begged off of selling Green Monster and Bleacher Creature t-shirts and ventured down to the Esplanade with my best friend to hear African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, then fresh out of prison and on a global goodwill and fundraising tour, thank “the people of Massachusetts”. (He made it sound like Mass-a-shoe-sets.)

In April 1994, like people the world over, I wept at the sight of elderly women being carried into voting booths they had waited three days and a lifetime to enter.

Fed by a diet of books, films, political ideology and news coverage, South Africa became a country whose very soil was imbued with unalloyed moral clarity, a land where a united black majority labored to overthrow an oppressive white minority.

By the end of the year, I had arrived at a more nuanced understanding of the country’s history, its present moment and the seemingly endless permutations of political parties, in-factions, and levels.

It’s not that I ever thought that apartheid was justified.

Far from it.

It’s rather that I emerged with less judgment of members of individual groups and a clearer understanding of the complexity of the country’s history and seemingly endless stripes of political parties, factions, and regional differences.

Interactions with real South Africans helped muddy my previously crystal clear vision of the country.

My exchange partner Vukani Cele’s friends, who took me in and treated me like a brother, were at the top of the list.

During the year Tsepo Mahlaba, Ntuthuko Bhengu and an enormous circle of friends took me to ritual slaughter of cows before weddings and after a year of mourning for a loved one, drove me to Johannesburg to watch South Africa win the Four Nations Cup, and invited me to their weddings. (Three of Vukani’s buddies got married during the course of the year.)

We had barbeques, or braais, on the weekend, played a pair of soccer matches against the school team that I inherited from Vukani, and drank copious amounts of brandy and coke.

They never let me pay.

They also helped me realize some of the many differences within South Africa’s black community.

But if Vukani’s extended circle of brothers were my teachers, so, too, were the students I worked with and coached at the Uthongathi School.

Shortly after I arrived, for instance, I was explaining to the class what we were going to cover in the time that we had left before class at 11:30.

One of the students informed me that classed ended at 11:15 for the annual track and field tournament.

I started to repeat my statement, then realized this was a perfect opportunity to have the students realize that their knowledge and voice mattered.

I mustered my best Socratic thinking and began.

“How long have I been here?” I asked.

“Two weeks, Sir.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Four years, Sir.”

So far, so good.

“So who probably knows more about the school?”

“We do, Sir.” Promptly.

I had them right where I wanted them. Logic was about to triumph. Impact was about to be mine.

“So who is probably right about when the Athletics competition?”

“You are, Sir.”

Without hesitation.

Unsure what to do at the complete evaporation of my goal, I kept on teaching until a student from another class came shortly after 11:15 to tell me that we were late for the Athletics competition.

It’s close to two decades later, and I’m again in a country through the Fulbright program that I had dreamed of living in for years.

Like South Africa, Chile endured years of an oppressive and murderous regime that committed acts of unspeakable barbarity before emerging into a comparatively bloodless democratic era.

Like South Africa, the country’s sustained inequality directly contradicts the constitution’s lofty promises.

Both countries’ unhealed wounds color present interactions.

And, as I did before, I brought a similarly straightforward and morally based view of the country that was fed by many of the same type of sources as in South Africa.

Of course, things are different in important ways.
Whereas then I was in the outer edges of young adulthood, now I am a husband and father firmly in middle age.

I went to South Africa alone, and am here with Dunreith.

Yet I find myself rapidly having my preconceptions about the country challenged through conversations with Chileans.

I also hear echoes of that earlier time.

In the unstinting generosity of Alejandra Matus, friend of a mutual friend, who hosted Dunreith and me with her family for hours and hours of food and conversation and drink, I think of the loving hospitality Tsepo, Ntuthuko and the guys showered me with throughout my year in South Africa.

And on Thursday, when I started to tell the class about an assignment that was due the following Thursday, a young woman raised her hand and informed me that there was no class, memories of my distant dialogue with my class at Uthongathi roused themselves.

I could look at this to mean that this Fulbright experience here won’t be as fresh or as meaningful as the previous one.

But that’s not how I see it.

Rather, I consider myself extra fortunate to have a chance to again savor joyful memories of expansive time with friends, and, based on understanding how much those relationships and experiences have meant since, embrace the present moment and set of opportunities even more fully.


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