(Host) America has been a model of democracy for countries around the world. But the United States’ war of independence is part of long-past history. This week, students in Bennington College’s new Democracy Project are learning and exchanging insights with visitors from South Africa’s black townships. There, the passion for dignity and freedom still burns hot, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.
(Keese) Nomsa Ndlzoni was only ten when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and her people voted in their first free elections.
(Ndlzoni) “It was a great day, one of the greatest days ever, seeing my family and all the other people rejoicing and shouting for joy and freedom at last. Not understanding what freedom at last means.”
(Keese) She understood more when for the first time she was able to enroll in a white school outside her home township. But she also learned that democracy is a moving target that demands constant engagement.
In discussions at Bennington this week – like this one with student April West – she’s learned that people here, in the famous cradle of democracy, are also still working on it.
(West) “Oh yeah, I mean, like, we’ve never had a female president and to most people that’s really controversial, that there could be a female president.”
(Ndlzoni) “We have our own leaders, like Winnie Mandela. She’s one of the greatest women in South Africa.”
(Keese) Nomsa is a 19-year-old college student who plans to serve in Parliament some day. But right now she’s learning about the needs and struggles of the people in her home township of Alexandra.
Linda Twala says that’s important. He brought Nomsa and several other young South Africans on this visit to Bennington, says that’s important.
(Twala) “Because in order for you to get to Parliament, you can be how educated. But if you haven’t got the welfare of people at heart, you’re still going to fail.”
(Keese) Twala is one of several South African leaders who’ll be sharing their stories at Bennington this weekend. He heads a center that involves young people in helping the elderly and needy in Alexandra. That’s one of South Africa’s oldest and poorest townships. There 700,000 people – more than the entire state of Vermont – are crammed together in a single square mile.
(Twala) “But we are so used to that and always full of smiles. What is more important for us is that we feel free. We are no longer living like animals like we were before, where you couldn’t dare to go to Johannesburg or Praetoria when you’re black.”
(Keese) Twala lived through the brutal transition from racist apartheid to emergent democratic state. His house was fire-bombed and he saw his people – even children – tortured and murdered.
But he believes in former president Mandela’s exhortation to forgive, but not forget. Twala says there are many inequities and social problems that need to be tackled before South Africa is truly free.
He and his young associates discussed those problems in a seminar with students in Bennington’s new democracy curriculum. Adrian Sanders is one of those students.
(Sanders) “I think that meeting you really made me realize how dangerous the current situation in America is, of a sense of freedom and democracy without responsibility.”
(Keese) The democracy project allows students to explore democracy in all its cultural variations, through different disciplines: politics, science, art, music. A group of Bennington students will sing together with their new African friends at a performance on Friday evening.
For Vermont Public Radio I’m Susan Keese.