HNGR Interns on the Field

Posted April 2, 2018 by HNGR
Tags: Psychology Race Social Psychology South Africa Violence

As a semi-amateur community psychologist researcher, I am fascinated by the patterns of language we use to describe others. I imagine that if I conducted an exercise mapping word associations that come mind when folks think of South Africa, “Apartheid” would be flagged as top on the list. Or perhaps you might locate some of the working mechanisms of that system – terms like “separate development,”  “townships” or “segregation.” Or, if you want to literally break down that system, you might uncover the term “Truth & Reconciliation Commission.” These words composed the vocabulary that came to my mind when HNGR gave me the nod to go spend six months in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. These terms – the language used to encompass the political acts and social processes of the Apartheid era – are not stagnant pieces of a dead history. Rather, they inform and influence South Africa’s every day racialized realities.

There was a nasty, effective science to the Apartheid system – the geospatial segregation of races through mandates like the “Group Areas Act” disconnected neighbors, and it was this distance that sustained ridiculous lies about “the Other.” Fast-forward 65 years… You find that the laws have changed (through radical political upheaval and liberation movements) but the basic social fabric is still primarily shaped by a power struggles along racial and socioeconomic divides.

There is a default framework of fear that has long-formed the backbone of sanctified separation across racial lines in Pietermaritzburg. My white friend Robyn has described to me her tactics for spending weekends together in a black township during Apartheid– her black friends ran the risk of imprisonment by shoving her in the boot of their car and dodging the system known as “pass laws.” These Apartheid laws have been radically dismantled through the Liberation Struggle, and there have been monumental (but patchy) steps towards racial reconciliation. However, the reality is that there are still unspoken forces that determine whites and blacks aren’t supposed to be family here.

We notice these forces daily, really, because a black community here has determined it’s worth it to go against them and welcome me into their family. My neighbor Mama Portia and I were driving out of town the other day when she turned to look out the window. I felt her stiffen a bit, and then heard her laugh – “Uh oh, Kate. Did you see that woman looking at us? She thinks we are kidnapping you!” I belong to Portia and her family, and it is frustrating to watch them face suspicion when they have been so open in their welcome. But the narratives people spin about race relations here are charged with distrust and separation. Each day, we find ourselves fumbling to form new narratives through our relationships.

Mpumuza, a black township on the edge of Pietermaritzburg, has bent over backwards to welcome me. There is a hunt going on for the other white woman that has (supposedly) lived (somewhere) in this community of 55,260 in recent years. It’s an epic, ongoing form of “Where’s Waldo.”  But I recently explained to my Gogo that I feel surrounded by friends and family here, so it’s going to be it is ok if we never find White Waldo. And ya'll – you’d get how nuts this is if you understood the racial make-up of Pietermaritzburg… There’s a heappa white South Africans living just a ten-minute drive from my house. And many of them are so lovely, but unless one goes to their carefully-selected, fantastically-fortified turf, you will not associate with them.

I am constantly amazed by how individuals in Mpumuza challenge the narratives of fear and separation that are spun by outsiders of the community. The other morning, moments after I missed my routine taxi bus, my host sister Nombulelo stepped out and negotiated a free ride for me in a buggy full of primary school kids. When I hopped out at the top of the hill, I was immediately welcomed into a taxi that services another area of Mpumuza. I don’t think I knew anyone in the taxi, but they were all smiles – laughing with me as I tumbled out of the over-crowded school buggy and excitedly chatting about where I get off for work. Somehow, everyone in that taxi knew I get off at Chapel Road, and they were communicating together to make sure I got there ok. It’s these daily rhythms of hospitality that help chip away at the narratives which name us as contrasting identities – bodies which should not exist as family because they have long been embroiled in the racial violence and class struggle that characterizes Pietermaritzburg.

A few weeks into my time here a pastor came to hold church in my host family’s living room. During the service he gave a word of prophetic word to us. “Kate, racism is more under the rug now, but it is everywhere in South Africa. It can be very difficult for a white person to come and live with black people, and it can be very difficult for a black person to go and live with white people. But it is beautiful when we live together. So I will give you a new name – ‘Sibahle,’ which means ‘we are beautiful.’ Not ‘you are beautiful,’ but ‘we are beautiful’ - for now you are here and it is beautiful that we are living together.” Racial divisions and hierarchies may seem normal to us here in South Africa, or back in the States, but guys - they are in no way “normal.” The image of God is marred by such segregation and dehumanization. Now, in no way could I have earned such a welcome or belonging through my home in Mpumuza. My home here has allowed me to be human in ways that I hadn’t known, and I gotta let that foster a new hope, a new vision … Mpumuza challenges me to look for the restoration of the image of God through right social relationships. Home here opens us to embody that hope – helping us to see that it will be beautiful when we live together.


--Katie Robinson (HNGR 2016)