Strategy of Hope: How Normal is 'Our' Normal?

Prior to an insightful meeting
After an insightful meeting

Some weeks into their internship here in South Africa, a group of third-year students from Dutch universities shared their initial impressions. Each, for their own reason, chose South Africa as the country for their internship. Their universities partner with the social development NGO Ready4Life and most students spend their 4 months based in Gqeberha/Port Elizabeth.

Student Orientation for Living in South Africa

Shortly after their arrival, they are briefed with information and tips about local dos and don’ts. They find out about the basics of daily life, such as what ‘load shedding’ means and that you buy your top-up electricity at the supermarket.

Most importantly, the Ready4Life team presents a safety briefing to acquaint these young, adventurous students with what is a wholly unfamiliar environment . . . such as which areas in and around town are potentially dangerous.

We emphasise that it is necessary to be alert. We explain that they are vulnerable targets if they wander around alone, that there is safety in numbers. We make them aware that robbers spot them right away as foreign tourists carrying coveted handbags, cell phones and cameras and that it is best to avoid being conspicuous with their gadgets.

This crucial orientation helps make their time and study projects worthwhile and exciting without nasty incidents.

Shared Experiences

Six students came round to my home for a mentoring session for the first time and we started chatting over afternoon tea, piesangbrood (banana bread) and melktert (milktart) – both South African classics!  A student appreciating the cinnamon on the milktart asked if I had baked these myself . . . Ha! Praise where praise is due, I referred them to the bakery section of the nearby Pick’n Pay Supermarket – their bakers do a really good job, at affordable prices!

Then we settled down to listen to each one’s experiences.

‘What touched you most since you arrived?’ I asked. ‘This can of course be a positive as much as a difficult experience.’

By now the students had managed to adapt to their communal living. They were unanimous about the welcome sense of familiarity that sharing accommodation creates.

 ‘It is positive that we have each other to rely on and to talk to. If I would be all by myself with no-one to share experiences with, I might feel more homesick, without my friends around me.’

Everyone tuned in to the one young woman who had flown out here without companions and had stepped off the plane all by herself at Oliver Tambo. She is a volunteer worker, who chose South Africa as her destination, with a strong motivation.

‘But looking around the alien airport, it suddenly got to me and I thought what have I done?’ she recalls. ‘I feel much better since I am with other students at the lodge.’

The others agreed that they would also not have coped well if they did not have friends to talk to. Compared to that, driving on the left is easy to adjust to, they quipped! Kudos to them!

Internship Experiences

Since their arrival, the student team had made several work visits to childcare facilities and to schools, where the children are from disadvantaged families or poorer parts of town. As observers, students are not allowed to intervene in anything until they are placed at the NGO or school where they will do their practical internship.

From everything the students talked about, they were most emotional about observing the way children are treated.

‘To witness children being treated in a way so different from what we are used to . . . it is so confrontational,’ they said.

They told of an incident in a classroom where the teacher had a physical fight with a child, in front of the whole class and the students.

‘We could feel the machteloosheid (powerlessness) of that child. The child has no power to defend itself against its teacher. But we equally felt that the teacher was disempowered to deal with the child in a different way.’

Becoming aware of physical violence as a fact of life for all generations in South African society is hard on these empathic students (mostly studying social work or education). They reflected on how violent surroundings affect children.

‘Seeing this raises the question for us about what kind of future these children have . . .’

The social work students also paid attention to the social workers at the various places they visited. It prompted them to observe:

‘The social workers come across as having lost confidence in what they do. They appear despondent about the lack of results from their efforts.’

‘Can you see,’ I commented, ‘why the staff at your placements will welcome you? Bringing different approaches from your educational background? Bringing fresh energy to teachers, caregivers and social workers who battle to cope? You as interns can relate to the children in your own way. This is what internships are all about: they are strategies of hope. You build bridges between cultures. Each side learns – and each side can grow. This is how we cross the divide.’

The students also reflected on how obvious and huge the gap is between rich and poor.

‘It is so visible . . . And there is something else that does not sit well with us,’ they continued. ‘We are not supposed to trust anyone, for safety reasons, because of the crime . . . But what if our human nature is to trust people?’

One student remarked passionately:

‘I feel it is extreme and unnatural not to trust anyone! Where is my individual freedom in this?’

Besides suppressing their normal openness to trust others, they all feel it is a tricky balancing act to be constantly alert to crime.

Food for Thought

After the students had left, I looked at the notes about their impressions they had jotted down:

Their thoughts are a vivid reminder that much of what we in South Africa accept as normal is NOT.

It also serves as a stark reminder of how much still needs to be done in South Africa towards regaining human dignity and freedom of choice.