Barry McNamara  |   Published June 13, 2019

Learning Lessons from Apartheid

Monmouth group travels to South Africa to learn about race issues in post-apartheid South Africa, better appreciate state of U.S. race relations.
  • The Monmouth at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A Monmouth College group traveled halfway around the world to see firsthand another nation’s issues involving race.

Eleven students visited South Africa for two weeks in May, led by psychology professors Tara McCoy and Joan Wertz. Director of Global Engagement Tia Van Hester and Alumni Board member Evy Lipecka ’06 were also part of the group.

“The purpose was to learn about apartheid, and to draw connections between apartheid and race relations in the U.S., looking specifically at the civil rights movement and our prison systems, which disproportionately impact people of color,” said Wertz of the 200-level psychology course through which the trip was taken.

Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s, characterized by an authoritarian political culture based on white supremacy.

“I learned that people in power will do anything to prevent unity within the oppressed people,” said Margaret Tiethoff ’20 of Peoria Heights, Ill. “What really shocked me was that there are significantly more colored and black people in South Africa, yet white was still declared the supreme race.”

Raeann Shank ’21 of Hampshire, Ill., found the connections between apartheid and U.S. issues easy to discern.

“We are going through issues related to equality with gender stereotypes, while they are coming out of apartheid still,” said Shank. “But it’s basically one in the same. There will be no change unless with time. Our segregation time has passed, but it has taken several generations to fully get out of it and even now it’s still an issue. Apartheid is still dwindling down, but like the United States, it will take a few more generations to fully die out.”

One of the group’s experiences that helped drive home apartheid’s significance was visiting the former prison at Robben Island, where anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for part of his sentence. After his release and the end of apartheid, Mandela became president of South Africa.

“The Robben Island tour was led by a former prisoner who was also a political detainee under the apartheid system,” said Wertz. “I was deeply impressed by the resilience of the people who were oppressed and fought back against the racist system.”

Tiethoff said visiting Robben Island was “life-changing” for her.

“We got to listen to a man who had also been imprisoned there,” she said. “I felt privileged to hear him and grateful that I am a part of a generation who can still learn firsthand from people with stories like his.”

Shank said another highlight of the trip was mingling with the South African people.

“A main highlight for me was the village walk,” she said. “I think that people have such a negative connotation with walking into a village as ‘tourists,’ but you really don’t understand how it is until you actually do it. The children in the village were ecstatic to see us. It was a genuine human connection where we got to learn about their culture, education and way of life, and they got to learn a little about us as well.”

In addition to exploring the cities of Johannesburg and Capetown, the group also used its time in Africa to see the continent’s unique wildlife.

“We had an awesome safari at Kruger National Park,” said Wertz. “We saw at least 20 species of animals, including elephants, giraffes, zebras, African buffalo, hyenas, warthogs and a leopard. The elephants, which included five or six young ones, were definitely a highlight.”

Shank said that signing up for the South Africa trip was an instant decision, while Tiethoff appreciated the shorter time commitment.

“South Africa has always been a dream destination for me,” said Shank. “When Tara McCoy came to one of my classes to advertise the trip, I immediately signed up. It was just an instinct to sign up.”

“The most common regret I hear from alumni is not studying abroad,” said Tiethoff. “Since I have a job I love and very limited financial resources, the short trip ended up being perfect for me.”

Lipecka appreciates her alma mater’s commitment to off-campus study, and she was impressed with Monmouth’s students, as well.

“Kudos to faculty who invest in the global education of students by selflessly giving up parts of their break to lead these types of programs,” she said. “I had great conversations with the students and we mutually learned from each other, which is not something I expected going into this experience. It was inspiring to observe their excitement, curiosity and sense of wonder – things we sometimes lose as working adults if we’re not careful.” 

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