Cape Town is situated at the southwest tip of Africa. It is a port city joining the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Off the coast of Cape Town rests Robben Island, picturesque and serene yet with a torturous past. The whole of South Africa is beautiful while painfully complex in its history and culture.
I arrived in Cape Town with an expectation of immersing myself in education of the culture as I began a doctorate focused on Leadership and Global Perspectives. I came with a vague sense of the water I was about to jump into but the sensation upon entry could not have prepared me for the intensity or the feelings of being submersed. I did not expect the loss of breath, the discomfort or the splendor waiting beneath the surface.
This metaphor of swimming, or drowning rather, seemed absolutely appropriate as I sat in the Cape Town airport at the end of my trip. As I sat staring, reading, writing, and weeping the following was beginning to permeate my heart and mind. “I am still sorting, reflecting on what I have seen, unsure I fully know. I don’t think my brain has caught up to what my body has experienced. I sit in a daze, full of emotion. I am trying to savor the moments of the past two weeks. Faces flash through my mind. Phrases such as ‘Be an embodied presence’, ‘God pitched His tent among us’, ‘We are at a crux’, ‘Future’s are created, they are not given’, ‘Reflect on your own death’, ‘I was raped since the age of 8’, ‘The uncomfortable way you feel is an invitation to enter the sufferings of Jesus’, ‘I have forgiven’, ‘Pray for us’, and ‘Savor this’ begin to animate the faces as the stories of South Africa replay in my mind.”
Drowning… and Reemergence
Before arriving in South Africa, I read David Welsh’s book on Apartheid. Apartheid, meaning separation “was the attempt to thwart, neutralize or abort the African urbanization” as Welsh explains. And separate they did. People were separated by race, removed from their homes and eventually lost the right to be a citizen in their own country, deemed ‘temporary sojourners’. I met these ‘sojourners’ who had never lived anywhere besides South Africa and had not moved from their homes until forced. They were slowly being drowned, eliminated from their own country of origin although they would not go down without a fight.
Noor’s Story: Noor curates a museum in District 6 to commemorate those who lost so much and to continue to bring a voice to the need for restoration for the marginalized majority of South Africans. In this photo Noor shows us where his home used to be before it was bulldozed before his eyes to build new homes for white Afrikaners. Noor has been promised a home since the end of Apartheid in 2004 but has yet to receive this restoration of property.
Robben Island Tour: In visiting Robben Island, the Alcatraz of South Africa, we were guided by Sipho (pronounced See-Poe and meaning ‘Gift’). Sipho was a prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela who later returned to Robben Island as a guide. His presence struck me. Why would he want to come back to a place of torture? I asked him my question. Sipho responded telling me he did not want to come back but he had no work after Apartheid and the Robben Island museum kept calling him so finally he agreed to work for them. His first eight months were filled with PTSD, which eventually subsided and he began to enjoy his work. I thanked him for the gift of sharing his life and story with us.
Wilhelm Verwoerd: The image of Wilhelm conveys layers of history and culture shift. The art piece pictured from the 1960’s was a political statement on Apartheid from a black South African’s perspective. Wilhelm’s grandfather, considered the architect of Apartheid and Prime Minister at the time, is pictured closest to him as the executioner. Wilhelm knew his grandfather as a hero until learning the truth from other South Africans while training for ministry in Europe. Discontinuing his training for ministry, Wilhelm considered what it meant to have unknowingly lived his life under a false pretense. For the last several years Wilhelm has dedicated himself to living in and supporting diverse communities seeking reconciliation. Wilhelm’s presence was one of meekness and humility. He deferred to his colleagues when asked about questions he felt unfair for him to answer. He encouraged the white people in the room that we need to be educated on racism and its effects because we have much work to do in bringing reconciliation.
Life in South Africa today continues to move on since Apartheid. Many of the observations I made inspired me to love others even when they do not love me, to live as the embodied presence of Christ, to forgive, to keep looking through the dump to find flowers, to listen to the quiet voices.
Sarah Pink’s insight on reflexive ethnography became rooted in me. I was not merely a researcher set apart to study and go on my way. My life and the lives of the people I encountered began to influence one another through our pictures and shared experiences. I want to tell all of their stories because they have impacted me, not simply because they are impressive or factual.
In my journey to South Africa, I began to see how indeed, Africa has and continues to shape the Christian mind. The pursuit by our tour guides and new friends revealed a hunger for unity and a willingness to take risks and be adaptable to lead like Jesus. They are swimming upstream in their country, but they are making a historic impact on the world.
The morning I left for Cape Town this verse was on the home screen of my phone. “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding,” Proverbs 4:7. In search of wisdom, I’m in the midst of a doctoral program. I dove in and it is costing me all I have—all my presuppositions, all my entitlement, all my blind spots, all my expectations. I believe the Wisdom on the other side is worth it. I carry the images, the quotes and the stories from South Africa with me as a reminder of what it means to develop fish like qualities when jumping or being thrown into the sea.
 Welsh, David. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. (Jeppestown: Jonathon Ball Press, 2009), 57.
 Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research (Second edition). London: SAGE, 2006.