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Educator Describes ‘Beauty,’ ‘Beast’ of South Africa

Speaking at the Ohio County Public Library, educator Chad Felt described both “the beauty” of South Africa – its stunning landscapes and warm people – and “the beast” – the horrors of apartheid and its painful legacy.

Felt, an English teacher at Linsly School, appeared at Lunch With Books at the Wheeling library Tuesday, Aug. 12, to share his impressions from six weeks of travel and study in South Africa under the auspices of a 2012 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Hailing from Ashtabula, Ohio, Felt taught in Japan and other locations before joining the Linsly faculty in 2011. Saying he urges students to “go far away – challenge yourself and learn, and come back and tell us,” Felt opened the presentation by quoting from one of his favorite books, Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in which character Janie observes, “It’s uh known fact Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there.”

Felt showed photographs of Table Mountain, an iconic spot in Capetown, and, a three-hour drive away, the Cape of Good Hope with its “incredible, incredible vistas.” The convergence of the warm Indian Ocean and the cold Atlantic Ocean produces strong currents that have caused numerous shipwrecks, he pointed out.

He also visited Durban, South Africa’s third largest city, where Gandhi started his civil disobedience amid a huge Indian population. Seeing stunning wildlife, Felt observed groups of elephants taking turns at a watering hole and the rare sight of penguins that have inhabited the eastern cape since the 1980s.

The National Endowment for the Humanities program included three weeks of lessons with professors, then three weeks of field work, he said. Their travels included a visit to Robbin Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.

In “the beast” of apartheid, Felt saw parallels to the Jim Crow laws in the American South. While clashes between whites and blacks had occurred for 400 years, the 1950 Group Areas Act set apartheid into motion, he said.

The Group Areas Act set forth “where members of one specific race alone could live and work,” with areas specified “for exclusive ownership and occupation of the designated group” and made it a “criminal offence for members of one racial group to reside on or own land in an area set aside by proclamation for another race.”

Townships – ghettos – existed as “separate but not very equal” places where blacks were forced to live, he said. “These townships still very much exist now,” he commented. “Some improvements are going on, but not to my satisfaction. Progress is being made slowly.”

The NEH fellows visited many townships where, even now, only 16 water spigots exist for 120,000 people. “It’s tragic,” Felt remarked.

During apartheid, black and white police officers raided townships at night to search for “undesirables” and people whose passbooks were not in order, he said. Blacks were subject to frequent harassment. Felt read an excerpt from Mark Mathabane’s memoir, “Kaffir Boy,” describing “Operation Cleanup Month” raids in which police invaded the neighborhood shortly after midnight and broke into homes.

Raids were omnipresent, and people in townships lived in a constant state of fear, he related. As an English teacher, Felt has observed both in literature and in history, “bullies always come at night, under cover of darkness, under cover of night, because they are cowards.”

Repression expanded in 1953 with the Bantu Education Act, with political leaders declaring there was no place for Bantus in the European community. “Natives (blacks) must be taught that education is not for them,” officials stated.

The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 mandated that 50 percent of instruction be conducted in Afrikaans (a combination of Dutch dialects) and the other half in English. At the time, 644 rands were spent on education for whites, but only 42 rands were spent for educating blacks, Felt said. These injustices led to the 1976 Soweto uprisings by high school students.

After apartheid was abolished, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu served as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which championed restorative justice, a concept “characteristic of traditional African justice,” that brings forth restoration of broken relationships and rehabilitation of both victim and perpetrator, Felt explained. In the practice of restorative justice, perpetrators could admit wrongdoing and be given amnesty, and victims could hear the truth and try to reconcile it, he said.

Today, in the post-apartheid era, “South Africa is definitely not without its problems,” Felt said, with the AIDS pandemic, continuing racial and economic inequality and violence. “It’s not a perfectly peaceful nation, but neither is the United States,” he commented.

Through the NEH fellowship, Felt discovered the beauty of South Africa’s topography and its people. The Linsly teacher said he found that students in South Africa “are striving to develop, just as our own students are at Linsly.”