By: Ben Talton
In September 2010, I accompanied thirteen members of the Temple University community—alumni and their friends and family—on a trip to South Africa, under the auspices of the Temple University Alumni Association. We joined 25 alumni travelers from three other U.S. universities. Together, our group of 37 experienced an exciting 10-day journey. Lauren Gruen, who at the time was director of alumni education, invited me to join the group as a faculty expert and informal ambassador for Temple University. She instructed me to be on hand to answer questions about the country and its history. My role also included delivering two formal lectures on South African history, politics and popular culture.
Our trip began in one of my favorite cities: Cape Town. We took a ferry to Robben Island, famous for the apartheid regime’s imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists. Former prisoners are the tour guides, so we benefitted from first-person narratives of the anti-apartheid struggle and life in the prison during the 1970s and ‘80s. Then we toured the peninsula, including a tram to the peak of picturesque Table Mountain and the town of Stellenbosch to tour one of its wineries. I am partial to South African wines, but the four hours of free time while the group was in Stellenbosch would be the most I would have during the trip, so I took this opportunity to give myself a tour through the heart of Cape Town. I walked through historic Bo-Kaap, the last of the predominantly Coloured neighborhoods that used to dot the city. It is notable for its brightly colored, square houses and lively street life. Then I visited the Slave Lodge Museum, which is in one of the city’s oldest buildings and sits on the site of a former dwelling for enslaved laborers from Madagascar and the East Indies. From there, I walked through the old Company Gardens, established in 1650 by Dutch settlers to re-provision vessels sailing to the East Indies. It is now a beautiful botanic garden and park, and has South Africa’s oldest cultivated pear tree (1652). The park is bordered by 17th and 18th century buildings, including Saint George Cathedral, the aforementioned Slave Lodge, and the Great Synagogue, and among others.
On our last evening in Cape Town, I gave my first lecture, in which I outlined South Africa’s political history and its parallels with the history of the United States. I highlighted the countries’ shared histories of European settlement, expansion and conflicts with the communities already there. I placed these twin histories within the broader context of European political and technological development and subsequent expansion from the 15th to the 20th century.
For our 994-mile, two-day journey north from Cape Town to Pretoria, we traveled via Rovos Rail, a luxury, fully restored vintage train built in the early 20th century. Once settled in nearby Johannesburg—Joburg or Jozi—as the city is affectionately called, we visited the Apartheid Museum, followed by a tour of Soweto where we caught a glimpse of Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s former residences. Back in Joburg we also saw Mandela’s current residence, which was impressive for its relative modesty.
Finally, we spent three nights at Thornybush Game Lodge, a private game reserve that borders Kruger National Park, where saw each of the Big Five—lions, leopards, giraffes, hippopotamus, and Cape buffalo. During the second afternoon at Thornybush, I delivered my second lecture. I shared my thoughts on contemporary politics in South Africa and did my best to historically contextualize much of what we had seen and experienced over the previous week. The lively discussion that followed centered on the current state of the ruling African National Congress, recent attacks on freedom of speech, and the challenges of maintaining an open and vibrant multi-party democracy. The following morning, after more elephants, lions and giraffes, we departed for Oliver Thambo International Airport.
The 2010 Temple alumni South African experience was a memorable one. I was fortunate to get to know each of the Temple travelers, including the wonderfully gregarious couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, a mother and her two grown daughters whose late husband attended TU, and several friends who took advantage of this opportunity to visit Africa for the first time. They each shared with me their unique, often deep, connections to Temple and Philadelphia.
Ben Talton is an Associate Professor of African history. He joined the department in 2008 and is the author of Politics of Social Change in Ghana and Black Subjects in Africa and its Diasporas, both by Palgrave Macmillan Press.