- South Africa at Queens College
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From the Memoirs of Life in South Africa: course site.
South African satirist and blogger Ndumisa Ngcobo enjoys stating the ridiculous: “I kinda like white people. In fact, some of my best friends are white.” Like all good satire, these two sentences encapsulate the pain, paradoxes, politics, and pleasures of living history in a nation where less than twenty years separated its founding from apartheid, one of the most outrightly racist and unjust political systems to arise in the wake of Europe’s colonial efforts. Shortly after the end of apartheid in 1994, the South African government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to give “members of the public a chance to express their regret at failing to prevent human rights violations and to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation.” The TRC recognized that no segment of South African society was untouched by the human rights abuses that proliferated under apartheid—and that the frank testimony of victims and victimizers was necessary for the country’s future.
In this course, we will read official testimonies, memoirs, and blogs by South African writers, activists, leaders, journalists, and artists—focusing on subjective first-person accounts of their nation’s living history. Some of these writers, like Nelson Mandela and Steven Biko, were leaders in the fight against apartheid; others, like J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, used art to critique it, while others, like Annie Krog and Mark Mathabane, use their stories to let the world know what apartheid felt like, and how it affected their psyches, families, and communities. Still others, like Steven Otter and Ndumiso Ngcobo insist that the ironies, contradictions, and possibilities of post-colonial life in South African should not be understood only in terms of the most infamous aspect of their nation’s history, even as they acknowledge apartheid’s legacy as a dominant force in their day-to-day lives and in the culture that shapes them. Each week’s reading will be accompanied by a relevant film documentary, and students will keep weekly blogs of their own, documenting their encounters with South African life, culture, and history. Finally, students will complete research projects of their own devising (after consultation with me).
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