Dr. Juliet V. García has been a member of the Ford Foundation Board of Trustees for more than a decade. This month, the Trustees travel to South Africa as part of their work, and Dr. García will be blogging the experience to share with friends and colleagues at home.
The journey begins
About 20 years ago, I was chairing the American Council of Education, the largest association of presidents of colleges and universities in the U.S., when I first heard about the project to integrate universities in South Africa after the abolishment of apartheid. It appealed to me immediately, and that day, I decided that I would apply to see if I could join the work.
The commitment we made was to work a few weeks during the summer for three years helping the colleges integrate all aspects of operations. To prepare to go, I read everything I could find about Nelson Mandela and about apartheid. But nothing prepared me for what I came to see, feel and experience. The first time I came to Africa was in 1993, about two years after Nelson Mandela was elected president. I was assigned to a Zulu university called Mangosuthu Tecknikon in the Kwazulu Natal area outside of Durban.
During apartheid people were categorized as black, white or mixed race. Even though apartheid was no longer the law of the land by the time I went, habits are hard to break. When I met people in Durban, they placed me in the mixed race category. I would try to explain that I was of Mexican descent, but it didn't mean much to them. The largest concentration of Indians outside of New Delhi is in Durban, so often I was mistaken for Indian without the "dot" on my forehead. The confusion was actually quite helpful to me, because all groups allowed me to move easily between them to help them learn to work together.
The first year I came to Durban, student leaders took several of the administrators at the college hostage to call attention to the severe racial discrimination they continued to experience. I was among them. None of us were hurt, but for about five hours we were kept in a room not knowing what the outcome of the 'political action' was to be. When it was over, the rector, as they call their university presidents, had signed a statement that he would investigate charges of racial discrimination.
The student action was finally very effective. By the second summer when I returned to Durban, a Zulu president had been named to replace the white Africans rector. Conversation has replaced hostage taking, and the tecknikon was on its way to becoming a model of the New South Africa.
Planning the return
I have been a member of the Ford Foundation for 11 years. As a board member, I have had the privilege to travel to many countries to learn firsthand of the extraordinary impact Ford Foundation has had in the world. I have been to Viet Nam, Indian, Brazil, the mountains of Mexico in the Chiapas areas, and Peru. I have also been to many U.S. cities to learn of Ford's work domestically with the most marginalized populations, in Mississippi and along the Mexican border.
But I had never been able to return to Africa until now. So I was thrilled to learn last year that the board was going to South Africa to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid. I would get to return to see for myself what a country with a new democracy felt like and looked like two decades later.
February 7, 2014
It was unseasonably cold in Brownsville on the Friday morning that we were scheduled to begin our journey. My husband, Oscar, agreed to join me on the trip. He also had been to Africa several times before and was interested in returning. For those who have been to Africa, making the decision to return is automatic. There is simply no place quite like it in the world, and if you get a chance to return, you must.
Because of the cold and dense fog that accompanied it, our early afternoon flight out of Brownsville was canceled. Our original itinerary had us flying from Brownsville, to Houston, Amsterdam and then to Johannesburg. After three reroutings, we ended up flying to Houston and catching the last flight out of Houston to New York City on Friday. After a very short night, we left NY on Saturday and flew directly to Johannesburg. The original schedule would have had given us a day to rest and adjust to the long 15 hour flight before beginning our work. Now, we would arrive with barely enough time to unpack and begin our weeklong visit. The luxury of extra time to adjust had vanished.