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Published: October 6th 2008
Not only does South Africa sit on the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, it also sits on the confluence of the first and third worlds. Cape Town and its neighboring suburbs are identical to American suburbs, without Wal Mart or Costco. When you’re living in Cape Town, it’s very easy to forget that just a few miles outside the city are township slums where poor blacks and coloureds are still dealing with the fallout from Apartheid. Although Apartheid turned the class gap into a canyon, it was African colonization that originally dug the hole. I find it easiest to explain African colonization using Legos, one of my favorite childhood toys and one of my parents’ least favorite. Any parent will tell you that Lego bricks on the floor are the household toy equivalent of jellyfish washed up on the beach; you don’t see them until you step on them, and they hurt like hell when you do.
Think of the African continent as a Lego building, and colonization as a bully who kicked over your Lego building, scattering pieces and Lego people all over the room and you’ve got Colonization 101. Then try rebuilding your Lego building with the bully, trying to incorporate both your ideas and the bully’s ideas into the building, and you’ve got Colonization 201. Then imagine the fight that ensues when you and the bully disagree on how to construct the building, because you want to build it your original way and he wants to build it his way, and you’ve passed Colonization 301. Finally, you’ve fought off the bully and rebuilt the building, but the new building is so feeble that it could fall apart at any minute, and you’ve passed Colonization 401. Who would have thought the secrets to African imperialism lie in a bin of Legos?
I haven’t written much about the university itself. Since Albion is a small college in a more rural area, everything about UCT was big and foreign to me. At Albion you can pretty much wake up 10 minutes before class, get dressed, eat breakfast, and still make it to class early, whereas at UCT I face a 20 minute walk to class up the base of a mountain. All of the buildings are large and most are sandstone, like the stereotypical old university buildings of American campuses, and the main sidewalk between the university and the street divides the rugby field and the soccer (or in their case, ‘football’) field. Unlike our large universities, where the football stadiums usually seat anywhere from 50-110,000 people, the rugby field is just a field with a small section of bleachers because college sports are not nearly as popular down here.
Just when you’re finally out of breath from the uphill walk, you arrive on the main campus and see a giant wall of steps up to Jameson Hall, the main building on campus. The steps are straight out of Rocky, but by the time you reach them you’re tired, out of breath and frustrated, so you smash the Rocky theme song out of your head with a mallet Looney Tunes style. On most days, you do more work walking to class than you actually do in class.
The only famous UCT alumni that I recognized were Roger Ebert, the famous TV critic, who did his graduate work down here on a Rotary International scholarship, and Natalie du Toit, the amputee Olympic swimmer. The library is named the Oppenheimer Library after Harry Oppenheimer, who was Chairman of DeBeers Diamonds (no relation to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the designer of the atomic bomb) and there is also a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who was the Bill Gates of African imperialism and Zimbabwe was previously named Rhodesia after him. Rhodes’s ultimate goal that never panned out was to build a railroad from Cape Town to Cairo, Egypt that would connect the entire African continent. Two things about this: 1), Rhodes would have been a great Risk player because he understood the need for supply lines and 2) he would have needed a lot of railroad Legos to build such a railroad.
After a month back in classes, I’m grabbing my fedora, whip and leather jacket again and travelling to Durban on South Africa’s east coast for a long weekend. If this blog sparked your interest in African history, I suggest you go to your nearest Toys R Us and buy yourself a bin of Legos or go to the board game section and purchase Risk.
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