John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Let’s Hear It for South Africa

Ask an academic a simple question—chances are you won’t get a simple answer. The blog is not a medium for a true academic. I like to think I am a true academic. I prefer to offer thorough and thoughtful answers. But in the blog medium you have to get right to it, and right out of it.

I write this at a time in point when I have been visiting South Africa for the first time, and have been in country for only six days. Some of my correspondents have asked me “how’s it going?” And a number of my hosts have asked me “And what do you think of South Africa?”

It is impossible to do justice do this large, complex, ancient, challenging and inspiring culture in one short blog. But let me offer a few very preliminary observations:
1. Yes, South Africa is truly a beautiful county; it lives up to its billing.
2. And, yes, sports here are very important, as much as if not more than in my own country. They are particularly important as a means of national identity and unification.
3. And, yes, this is a country that is plagued by crime. But so is my own country. And statistically I am safer here than back home because proportionately fewer South Africans have guns.
4. This country has eleven official languages. In this regard, we have an advantage in the US.
5. Both our countries have greatly widened access to higher education by admitting large numbers and types of students to tertiary education for whom such providing institutions were not designed in the first place.
6. It is very important when you visit a country for the first time that you set aside to the extent possible all the assumptions (advance prejudices) you entered the country with and decide after you have actually encountered the new and unfamiliar culture.
7. There is an energy and “hussle” of the people that a visitor from the American south might not have expected from a people that have similarly experienced centuries of discrimination, racial prejudice and the domination of a majority population by an elite minority imposed by former colonial powers.
8. The country seems focused on promoting tourism. Everyone in the service industry is incredibly polite and aspires to deliver a higher standard of service than I would expect in American cities.
9. It is still possible to engage in air travel and find helpful personnel in strange airports who actually go out of their way to help new visitors to the country. US airport executives ought to visit the gateway airport in Johannesburg.
10. But South Africa has raised its proportion of underrepresented students in a much more compressed time period than we have. In like manner it has ended de jure segregation much more rapidly than we did.
11. I hear far more references in South Africa to the need to continue, expand, attain the aspiration of social justice for all than I do currently in the US. My visit here reinforces my sense that in the US the civil rights movement is truly stalled. Here it is not.
12. In both countries universities are principal agents of social, economic and political transformation. As a societal institution here the university strikes me as being more intentionally supportive of social change and support of democracy.
13. If ever there was a country that needed American style community colleges to promote economic development and alternative post secondary opportunities, it is South Africa.
14. The diversity of the people is complex, inspiring, and stunningly beautiful.

I am not here on retainer from the South African Department of Tourism.

-John Gardner

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