Panelists at South Africa symposium discuss the path to a more equal future

Symposium confronted race inequalities from South Africa to Syracuse

The event invited discussion on issues of race, land and freedom across various spaces.
Published: March 2, 2019
“No Innocence This Side of the Womb

At 5 p.m. on Thursday night, the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium looked significantly different than usual.

The grand stadium seating was gone. In its place were rows of foldable chairs, simply laid out. The large stage had been cut down and moved to the center of the room. On the far left was a chair for members of the audience who wished to join the conversation.

This was the evening’s symposium, “No Innocence This Side of the Womb.” This redesign was part of a larger effort to break down structural barriers. 

The event, which was hosted by the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement, was divided into three sessions – South Africa to Syracuse, The Arts, and Communication. The symposium confronted issues in Syracuse and South Africa related to “equality, privilege, and justice.” Five guests panelists were invited to the event to share their differing perspectives on racial divides.

Charisse L’Pree, an assistant professor at Newhouse, facilitated the first session, “South Africa to Syracuse – A Common Struggle”, which involved discussion about the racial divides across the two spaces. “These same things affect all of us,” said Ken Harper, the director of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement.

Outside the auditorium, a gallery of over 90 photos from Syracuse and South Africa were displayed as a representation of this sentiment – our “common struggle.”

John Western lived in South Africa over 40 years ago. Now, he is a professor of geography at the Maxwell School. But he was once just a scholar from the United Kingdom.

“When you went there in the ’60s, in your head was the thought that this was a special place,” Western said. “It was a beautiful place, but you also knew this was different. You knew this was legalized racial discrimination.”

Western’s stay in South Africa occurred under Apartheid, the country’s system of institutionalized segregation. “I wrote the last thing I ever wrote about South Africa the same year Mandala was released,” Western said.

That was in February of 1990. But almost 25 years after South Africa established its democracy, race still divides.

Zuko Gqadavama, a development coordinator from Lusikisiki, South Africa, discussed how race and freedom go hand in hand. Gqadavama was born after Apartheid was repealed in 1994, yet he still feels the weight of racial inequality.

“I consider myself a born-free,” said Gqadavama, “but as someone who was born after Apartheid, I haven’t seen the independence.” Gqadavama discussed the lasting effects racial segregation has had on his country.

“Politically, the country is free. When you look economically, you will find out the country is not free yet,” said Gqadavama. “The economy of the country is in the hands of the white majority, and the black majority – 80 percent of the country – we have nothing.”

According to Gqadavama, the racial inequality that thrived under Apartheid persists because of this imbalance in power. “The black majority owns nothing. We need land,” Gqadavama said, “but we ask for expropriation and we get nothing.”

Because of South Africa’s history, land ownership is skewed considerably towards the ruling white class. According to South Africa’s 2017 land audit report, black South Africans only directly own 1.2 percent of the country’s rural land and 7 percent of formally registered property in towns and cities. Though the country recently set aside $261 million to help black farmers buy land, many call for expropriation without compensation to balance the scales.

Michelle Schenandoah, a member of the Oneida Indian Nation Wolf Clan of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is all too familiar with segregation and taken land.

“This is native land,” she said, referring to the Syracuse University campus. Schenandoah went on to outline the legislative processes that permitted native land to be taken.

The Discovery Doctrine is a real piece of legislation that says that I am not Christian, and I don’t have a soul, and because of that, I don’t have any right to the land of my people,” she explained.

Despite becoming more contested over the years, the Doctrine of Discovery was cited as recently as 2005 in the case City of Sherrill, NY v. Oneida Nation. Like Apartheid, the legacy of the doctrine runs deep and manifests itself in land access and land ownership. “As I sit on this stage, do you know that I cannot get a mortgage?” Schenandoah asked. “If I want to build a home, I have to do it brick by brick.”

Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, also knows the power of space and land. He witnessed Interstate 81 accelerate racial and socioeconomic divides in Syracuse.

In the 1950s we embarked on the Federal Highway Act,” he said. “What happened was that some communities were perceived to be valuable, and some were deemed to be blighted and therefore invaluable.”

Ellen Blalock, an artist and former journalist for the Post-Standard, said that city planners, “identified a community where it would be easy to go in and tear it up.”

The long-term effect has been disastrous. “50 years later, we have the highest concentrations of poverty, we are the 9th-most segregated county in the United States, and Central New York has the most segregated school borders in the state,” said Abdul-Qadir.

As the city deliberates how they’ll proceed when the old highway is ready to be rebuilt, Abdul-Qadir presented the audience with a scenario so they might grasp the urgency of this moment.

“There’s a train at 12:00 that’s going to get me where I need to go. There’s only one train and it leaves in 15 minutes. I know my final destination. If we do not get on that train we cannot ensure the equality that this community deserves.”

“What do you do in this moment?” he asked.

It was this question, about the makeup of our collective futures and the demand to not “be a bystander,” that moved many audience members to snap their fingers in agreement.

The facilitator’s last question invited the panelists to share what hopes they had for their communities.

Almost all sought real progress. Schenandoah spoke about the need for social change and teaching more empathy. We need to “treat people how to be human again,” she said.

The event concluded with a question from SU student, Cherish Cobb, who studied abroad in South Africa. She asked the panelists what she should do if she encountered racial ignorance. “How do I go about responding in a respectful way and showing them the right way to go about things?”

One audience member offered a simple solution. “That’s not your job. That’s work they need to do and you do not have to carry that burden.”

After a dynamic discussion about the legacy of racism and racial divides, her words hung in the air as the audience began to file out of the auditorium.