When Norman Levy returned to South Africa in 1990, after 25 years of exile in London, Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison. Norman couldn't wait to get home, even though the position of the African National Congress (ANC), and his own status as a formerly jailed, then exiled ANC activist, was still unclear. When he got off the plane, he was greeted by a man in a police uniform who said, "Are you ANC? Then come with me." Masking his trepidation, he followed the man through the crowd to a closed door. When the door opened, what he saw in front of him was not a jail cell, or a police desk, but a big room full of balloons, tables full of food, and a welcoming committee full of smiles and cheers. "Welcome home!" they said.
My husband John and I heard this story from Norman when they were reunited in New York, fifteen years after they had become friends during John's sabbatical in London in 1984. I was a sometime former anti-apartheid activist, one of many who marched in support of demonstrations and worked on divestment issues. Norman spent four years in jail and twenty-five years in exile. Having given much of his life over to a successful, nonviolent revolution, he could experience victory after decades of commitment, a life-defining struggle with a happy ending. What a contrast to the way things were in the United States! At home, democracy, racial and economic justice, seemed hopelessly unattainable in our lifetimes. Here was this new society, poised to embark on a parallel journey, on the move when our own society was so bogged down.
John and I went to South Africa for the first time in 1999 to visit Norman and his New Yorker wife Carole in Cape Town. We took snacks and ANC leaflets to the enthusiastic lines of people waiting to vote in the second national election. They were not as long as the world-famous and much photographed lines for the first election in 1994, but they were long enough. We went back again in 2001. We began to meet a few people at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) outside of Cape Town, where Norman had begun teaching in the Political Science Department. Then, in 2003, we decided to go and live there for six months.
Under Apartheid there had been four racial classifications, White, Indian, Coloured and Black, representing a strict hierarchy of privilege and access. Every single aspect of life, from housing to education to health care to employment to drivers' licenses to the regulation of leisure time, was divided by racial classification. Of these groups Black Africans were and are by far the largest, making up 80% of the population. From the anti-apartheid struggle many Americans are familiar with images of the townships, where the bulk of the poorest of the Black population continue to live in shacks of cardboard and corrugated iron. Near the vast stretches of the townships in Cape Town lie sections of small houses once allocated to the Coloureds, giving way to the slightly larger bungalows of the Indians and working class Whites. Of course middle and upper class Whites lived, and still do, in all the comfortable and attractive townhouses, mansions and apartment buildings overlooking the harbor or Table Mountain.
The University of the Western Cape is a formerly "Coloured" university that used to have mainly Coloured students and mostly white faculty. By 2003, and still today, UWC has more Coloured faculty (although still mostly white), and an almost all Black and Coloured student body. It is located in a working class town called Belleville, half an hour outside the city, beyond the airport and amid a desiccated landscape of scrub pines, low-rise factory buildings and Coloured and Indian housing estates. The campus itself is a large and rambling assemblage of stucco buildings surrounded by green grass, an attractive oasis in the desert.
Some of the people we met in 2001 at UWC worked at a research laboratory called the Education Policy Unit (EPU), a government funded organization administering various grants to transform the apartheid education system from the ground up. How to make a functioning, open and equitable school and university system out of four distinct and profoundly unequal educational ghettoes? When the opportunity arose for me to take part of my sabbatical abroad in 2003, I decided to accept an invitation to be a Visiting Fellow at the EPU. (John was finishing a book on economic theory and would find colleagues in local economic departments.) My own work in the United States at the time was studying the excruciatingly slow pace of integrating American university faculties by race and gender, and I hoped to find out more about the processes by which post-apartheid South African universities were building their new faculties and student bodies.
According to the plan I made with the director of the EPU, my role would be to help people with their various research grants, give several talks, and...