South Africa is sometimes thought of as a developing country that was once ruled by apartheid. To break that stereotype, Dr. Matthew Eatough, an English professor at Baruch College, gave a presentation titled “South Africa: 22 Years of Democracy,” in which he discussed how South Africa has changed since its first democratic elections. The event, which took place on the 14th floor of the Newman Vertical Campus, consisted of a presentation and a Q&A session. During the presentation portion of the event, Eatough discussed the cultural, political and social changes that have shaped modern South Africa.
In an interview conducted via email, Eatough explained that he finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, which has one of the top African studies programs in the United States. He went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, which employs some of the leading scholars of South African literature and culture.
However, most of his knowledge comes from his own studies; Eatough said that he tries to stay up to date with books on South African history and he regularly goes on research trips to University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa.
“I came of age—literally speaking—in the 1990s and early 2000s, when there was a huge boom in what literary scholars call ‘postcolonial literature,’” Eatough said of his interest in South African literature. “For young students who, like myself, were more interested in international literature than in American literature, the really exciting literature was coming from out of these former colonies—South Africa, India, Nigeria and so on.”
The event’s description on Baruch’s website states that South Africa, “continues to be one of the most vibrant cultural and political spaces within Africa.”
Eatough began the presentation by challenging the stereotype that South Africa has no modern cities. He spoke about Johannesburg, which is the largest city in South Africa. Unlike most cities, which are built near a body of water, Johannesburg was able to grow and commercialize because it is located near profitable gold mines. Now, Johannesburg is filled with skyscrapers and attracts more tourists than any other South African city.
However, the outskirts of Johannesburg are filled with townships, which are poorer areas of the country that often have no running water or electricity. If a township is lucky enough to have a sewage system, there is a high chance that it is barely functioning. This, according to Eatough, is a good representation of the wealth discrepancy that the country faces to this day.
This discrepancy dates back to apartheid, when the country’s black citizens were driven out of their homes and relocated into segregated townships. Without a work pass, people living in townships were not allowed to leave or move through cities populated by the country’s white minority. Thus, 80 percent of the country’s population was forced to live in an area that equated to 12 or 13 percent of the land.
Eatough also spoke about Cape Town, a port city that he referred to as “Little Europe” due to its architecture and large European population.
Next, Eatough explained the details of apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement.
In 1948, the National Party gained power in South Africa. As a pro-white party, it soon began making changes to South African society. The National Party’s main reasoning, Eatough explained, was that Africans were “behind” so they had to live in segregated areas to catch up with white society.
Thus, in 1950, contact between white and non-white South Africans was made illegal. The two groups were not allowed to have sex, marry or use the same facilities.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, a large global movement against apartheid gained pace. In South Africa, the African National Congress was created as an umbrella organization for the country’s anti-apartheid movement. The ANC made anti-apartheid posters and organized large meetings that often led to the imprisonment of some of the participants.
Though Nelson Mandela is a major figure in South African history, Eatough did not spend a lot of time recounting his life. Mandela, who was the leader of the ANC, was imprisoned in 1963 and was not released until 1990. In 1994, he became the country’s first black president. Since apartheid ended, the country has been making big steps to maintain the people’s quality of life.
For example, the shack-dwellers movement aims to get the townships connected to electricity, running water and sewage. However, the movement started soon after apartheid ended and many have criticized it for not progressing fast enough.
The country also went through a cell phone boom, as extending the phone lines was deemed too costly.
Nowadays, South African cities are embracing their immigrant communities. While the efforts to lift some of its citizens out of their apartheid-era living conditions are slow, its biggest cities are thriving and continue to attract international tourists.
When asked about his opinion on what students think about South Africa, Eatough admitted that his feelings were mixed.
“Even though news outlets today don’t talk a ton about current events in South Africa, there was a moment in the 1970s and 1980s when U.S. audiences cared a lot about what was going on in South Africa,” Eatough said. “Those years can seem like a long time ago, but some of their influence lingers. … Many students will at least have heard of apartheid or Nelson Mandela.”
In the Spring 2017 semester, Eatough will be teaching a global studies course titled “The Institutions of World Literature,” where students will be reading works written by contemporary novelists from around the world. In addition, he will be teaching English 2850.