Monday, September 24, 2012

Justice and Education for All

Our tour of Parliament perfected our walk-and-talk skills (yep, that's another shameless West Wing reference) so I was grateful the next stop used two of my well-developed talents: sitting and eating.
We dined at Mint, a lovely hotel restaurant with big windows onto the shop-heavy walkway of St. George's.  The view was beautiful but distracting, since the people-watching was superb.  My brain was getting fuzzy by this point in the day so it took a few moments and a "Coke Light" (Diet Coke's South African alter-ego) before I fully engaged in our discussion with represeentatives from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. 
It was at this point in the trip that I understood that "reconciliation" is South Africa's equivalent of Cuba's "to resolve."  It's a built-in part of the psyche as people march on, dealing with the complications of their past and hoping for a better future.
The Institute was established in 2000 after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrapped up its daunting work of processing claims of abuse and unjustified loss under the apartheid regime.  Through scientific studies, the Institute gauges citizens' sentiments about how far reconciliation has come, and through targeted activities it works to enhance those goals.  I was especially interested in the discussions about the Afrobaremeter: basically, Africa's version of Gallup.  My interest was mostly because the polls provide insight into a fascinating variety of South African issues, and partly because the woman who implements the polls for the Institute is an American who has lived and worked in South Africa for 14 years.  I never got the story on that but you'd better believe I wanted to...I think expats are the most interesting people on Earth.

We had far more questions than we did time, and it was at this point that I accepted our meetings would always end this way: quickly clasped hands, apologies for rushing to the next meeting, paper cut-inducing exchanges of business cards with attendees, and sincere promises that more questions and answers would be forthcoming via e-mail when we got home.

There’s nothing that reminds you of the optimistic, idealistic college version of yourself like optimistic, idealistic college students of today, and we were reminded of this in our final meeting of the afternoon with five students who were stars of the University of Cape Town's South African Washington International Program.  The Program identifies intelligent future leaders and provides them with training and a six-week internship in Washington, D.C. and let me tell you, these kids were fun.  The designated topic was U.S. elections and voters – a broad category that allowed our joined group to discuss just about anything any of us wanted.  Voter ID requirements, international relations, main factors in turnout for the upcoming U.S. election and mechanisms of change for South African elections…it was all debated and discussed and we didn’t even notice that our time was up until 45 minutes after the meeting was to have ended. 
The bad news was that we missed our chance to visit Table Mountain before the cable car closed; the good news was that we came away with a certainty that the leaders of the future had their country in good hands…and that freshly-studied college students make a debate very challenging to win.
Photos still to come when my group finds a way to share the thousands of photos we collectively took - I'd left my camera in the van after our tour of Parliament. 
In a tribute to that odd time-travel writing style I warned you about, I must now confess that I already wrote about my relaxing, solitary evening that followed the rush of this long day of fascinating meetings and conversations.  This was when I took my turn as "lone wolf" (the title transferred between friends throughout the trip...no one who knows me will be surprised that I earned it first) and spent the evening on the Waterfront, drinking tea and talking politics with South Africans in the shops.

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