Angela Groves is a past member of the Tavis Smiley Foundation’s National Youth Advisory Council and recipient of its Youth in Action award. She is a rising senior at Princeton University and recently spent a semester studying in South Africa.
“And in the questioning comes the who am I, out of the listening comes through you I am. Through you I am.” As I stared at these words from South African poet Lueen Conning-Ndlovu painted on a tall canvas draping the walls of the District 6 Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, I realized how accurately these words capture the significance of my semester abroad at the University of Cape Town. Living in the beautiful yet deeply complex country of South Africa taught me the message I believe Conning-Ndlovu is conveying in her poem – that it is in recognizing the humanity of others that we ourselves become truly human. I learned firsthand that we are all inextricably connected to one another and that my world does not exist apart from the world of my sister.
This interdependence of humanity is not undermined by man-made lines on a map; rather, our common humanity is powerful enough to transcend borders, ethnicities, and other divisions which often separate us from one another. To be sure, this is not to detract from the value of multiculturalism and the celebration of difference, but to suggest that the threads which connect us on a universal scope are greater than our perceived differences.
One such connecting thread that I felt while studying in South Africa is the resiliency of the human spirit in the fight for freedom. I had the opportunity to learn about the powerful stories and sacrifices of South Africa’s freedom fighters by visiting historical places like Robben Island, including the jail cell of Nelson Mandela, and the township of Soweto. I was inspired by the crucial role of South African youth, many of whom sacrificed their lives in overturning the oppressive apartheid regime. The stories of these youth remind us that young people have consistently stood at the center of major social change.
As I immersed myself in the politics of South Africa through my courses and relationships, I felt as if I were living in a real-life political experiment. I could sense the national memory of the freedom struggle and the apartheid past in dialogue surrounding race and politics.
With one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, South Africa is navigating the process of manifesting this constitution in everyday life. Democracy was established in South Africa seventeen years ago, yet the battle to fulfill the promises of this democracy still continues - just as it does in our own country. A current challenge facing the government and people of South Africa is to address the apartheid past and its legacy of extremely high levels of inequality while also forging ahead to a future that transcends this past.
My experience abroad expanded my perspective in invaluable ways. Our world is becoming increasingly more connected every day. No longer can we hold provincial views through which we are only concerned about our towns, states, and nation. As Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Particularly as young leaders, we must begin to act as global leaders on issues such as social, environmental, health, and economic justice. It is by truly identifying with the courage, challenges, and humanity of those around the world that we can stand true to this calling.