Hilary Beard, is the editor of the Black AIDS Weekly and a member of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In December she travelled to South Africa with about 140 fellow members and friends of her Church to celebrate 10 years of Enon’s mission work in Cape Town. This experience enabled Beard and her fellow congregants to witness first-hand the social determinants of health that drive the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa and the impact of Enon’s work with its sister church, Enon Tabernacle Western Cape – the accomplishments, the inspiration behind the work and the challenges this work faces.
For many of us, this was our first trip to Africa. It would be an eye-opening experience that challenged what we believe about ourselves as Black people, African Americans, Christians and human beings—including what our responsibility is and what gifts we bring to the world.
On my own previous trip to South Africa, to report from AIDS 2016, the International AIDS Conference, most of that work took place inside Durban’s convention center. This was the first time I’d see the “real” South Africa. As a health writer, I already knew that South Africa is home to both the world’s largest HIV/AIDS epidemic and the world’s most heroic response. As a group, we discussed the symbiotic nature of our relationship to the South Africans we would encounter. We were coming to South Africa to engage in missions work that addressed the social determinants of health, including feeding people—depending upon the estimate, somewhere between about a quarter and a little over one-half of the population experiences food insecurity; on one afternoon we fed roughly 4000 children—and supporting Enon Western Cape’s efforts to rescue people from drug and alcohol addiction, gangersterism and sex trafficking, through Teen Challenge, which in South Africa is headed up by our sister church’s senior pastor, Dr. Jacobus Nomdoe.
As Americans, we looked at ourselves as coming to help our brothers and sisters on The Continent—Africa, not Europe. Little did most of us know that South Africans had long been helping us. In the United States, the nation’s greatest HIV/AIDS epidemic exists among African Americans. In addition to making the connection that, all around the world, HIV/AIDS is a disease of marginalized demographic groups, we discussed how African Americans have unknowingly benefited from the heroism exhibited over decades by South Africans living with HIV, grassroots activists, researchers, citizens participating in clinical trials, and so on. Most of our church members had little idea that the South African HIV/AIDS response has been contributing greatly to the treatment and prevention efforts in Black communities in the U.S. like our own in Philadelphia. The epidemic provided a context for much of the work we did. Because we understood how devastating the epidemic had been, we knew that we wanted to “love on” our brothers and sisters even more deeply.
South Africa is also home to the world’s largest wealth gap—and these factors are inextricably linked to the spread of HIV in South Africa and the enormous health disparities that still exist in the country. During apartheid, about 3 percent of the population controlled 99 percent of the wealth. Today, approximately 5 percent of the population controls about 95 percent of the wealth. In both cases, the people controlling the vast majority of that wealth are White. While, legally, apartheid has ended, many aspects of apartheid are still very much in place—and the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is inextricably related to Black life under apartheid and post-apartheid.
Today only about 10 percent of Black South Africans, or about 4 million people, are middle class, and many are perched there precariously, moving between middle class and poverty as their employment status changes. The housing and day-to-day economic realities experienced by Black South Africans made us reflect on our socioeconomic position as Black Americans.
The shantytowns full of Black South Africans belied the marketing messages we’d received about a “new South Africa”. In fact, we felt as though we’d been duped. Most Black South Africans remain domestics, service workers or yard workers, earning the equivalent of about $9000 U.S. dollars per year, while Coloureds earn about $18,000 and Whites $55,000. Roughly 40 percent of Black South Africans are unemployed. Even as we processed our outrage about these economic inequities in South Africa, we were also aware during out stay that Republicans in our own Congress back home were putting together a tax overhaul that would transfer enormous wealth from low- and middle-income people to our own society’s plutocrats—at the same time that it would saddle future generations with $2 trillion in debt. In both countries, the old White guys are living it up and skipping out on the bill, leaving the tab to be paid disproportionately by future generations of color.
Despite the thousands of shanties that we rolled by in our bus, we learned that South Africa has been engaged in the most aggressive housing development project on the planet, with some 10 to 15 million new units built since apartheid ended roughly 25 years ago. However, the population is growing even faster. As we inquired about the lives of the Black people who lived in these shacks, we learned that we’d been interacting with them all along. It took us several days to really digest the fact that the wonderful restaurant servers, hotel front-line workers, housekeepers, people working retail and other Black people whom we’d been developing relationships with, would make their way back to shacks that evening with outhouses and perhaps no running water. We, on the other hand, were staying in a newly constructed hotel on the waterfront, and between our mission work, benefitting from the favorable 13:1 exchange rate at high-end stores, and able to afford trips to the top of Table Mountain, Robbin Island, the Cape of Good Hope, and on safari—things we couldn’t necessarily have afforded back home.
Many Black workers in South Africa leave home at 5 a.m. and don’t return until close to midnight. Many parents leave their children early on Monday morning to work as live-in domestics for Whites during the week, not returning to their own children until Friday night. During the week, we learned, they live in spaces in Whites’ homes that Americans would not find suitable for dogs.
All of this provided important context for our church’s work with Teen Challenge, rescuing young people from drug and alcohol addiction. We learned that the apartheid government had planted nayope and other drugs in Black and Coloured communities to destabilize them during the uprising against apartheid. This reminded us of the origins of the crack cocaine epidemic in Black communities back home. We also learned that Black South Africans experienced vastly inferior educational opportunities. Though roughly 5 million students graduate high school each year, there are only 300,000 openings to attend college—and the education most Blacks receive makes them less competitive.
Our experiences in South Africa made us all grapple with colorism. The darker-skinned members of our group often reported being treated markedly poorer than the lighter-skinned members, from Whites who did not yield space on the sidewalk (which those of us of various skin tones experienced), to people assuming our darker-skinned members were service workers, to others disbelieving that they owned a credit card—until they identified themselves as Black Americans. Indeed, many of us who think of ourselves as Black aren’t considered Black in South Africa at all, we’re Coloured. For instance, I am considered Cape Coloured, terminology used to describe people of mixed race in that province; typically, some combination of the indigenous Bantu or Xhosa Black Africans, European colonizers, and or Indians, Indonesians and other South Asians who had been imported as slaves. That placed me solidly within the primary demographic group in the Western Cape, the southwestern part of the nation whose capital is Cape Town. In other words, I had one of the few experiences in my life of being in the majority, though Coloureds also experience oppression at the hands of White South Africans.
Colorism is reflected in South Africa’s housing patterns. Most Black South Africans live in tin shanties, Coloureds tend to live in small cement homes, and Whites typically live in housing similar to that of middle-class and affluent Whites in the U.S. We began wondering why our missions work on this trip served mostly Coloured rather than Black South Africans. We weren’t “mad” at the Coloured people we were helping, but many members of our team also wanted to serve Blacks. And while our church also does work in Black communities in Pretoria and beyond, that’s not what was happening on this trip. As we processed our frustrations, we tried to remain culturally humble, an extremely important attribute when doing work in South Africa and throughout the continent. There were many times when we bumped up against our own lack of knowledge. And there was so much we weren’t sure we understood well enough. For example, at the Slavery Museum, as we encountered maps of slave routes that didn’t include the Middle Passage, many us realized that we needed to brush up on our world, as well as South African, history—much of the South African slave trip went to Mozambique, Madagascar, India and the Indonesian archepelago.
Many of the themes we were encountering—extreme income inequality, racism, breaking up families, depriving young people of access to quality education, planting drugs, colorism, lack of a sense of future, and others—sounded quite familiar. We were beginning to understand that racism is a global system and connect the dots about how important it is that African Americans travel and think bigger than ourselves. We were also forced to confront our relative wealth and privilege within the face of extreme poverty. African Americans are not accustomed to identifying our privilege, but there it was smacking us in the face. It raised issues about our faith—how, unlike at home, there were people who wanted us to pray for them and what an affirming and beautiful experience that was for us; how we’d met so many young people who had overcome addiction and how powerful the idea of having their sins washed away and being resurrected had been for them in their newfound faith; various additional different ways that we could be our brother and sister’s “keeper” and just how much we, though racially oppressed back home, have to offer in this context. We also learned how many American ministers and missionaries “pimp” African Christians, creating morally questionable constructs where desperately poor Africans tithe to American churches, thereby subsidizing the lives of Americans, when it is they who need the financial help.
Back home, Pastor Alyn E. Waller teaches us, as we earn more money, to be fiscally responsible, but not to hoard our excess. As we reach a certain socioeconomic class, it is our responsibility not to just spend our money on more “stuff,” but to use our household economy thoughtfully—whether to, say, support a certain business owner, or to hire a young or unemployed person to rake leaves or shovel snow, or to hire a housekeeper or assistant in our business.
We began to discuss how we could leverage the favorable exchange rate that had advantaged us as we shopped to propel forward the waitress, housekeeper, shopkeeper, and others we were befriending —especially if we left the same tip we would leave if we were in the U.S. rather than dividing that tip by 13 in order to tip in South Africa’s currency, Rand. So for example, if each of us left the $2-$5 USD tip per day we’d leave in the United States, collectively we’d leave our housekeeper with the equivalent of one year’s pay—money she could use to help educate her children or otherwise move her family into a more equal existence. For many of us, this was a new conversation—the thought that collectively we possessed economic power.
This trip was a life-changing experience for all of us. Though we had skimped and scraped to pull together the money to participate, may of us knew that the work we were doing here as a church community was powerful—both to South Africans and in terms of our understanding of ourselves in the world and of our power. Long before we arrived at the airport for our trip home, many of us knew that we’d be back. We hope other African American congregations will feel called to join us in doing work on The Continent.
Hilary Beard is the coauthor of Health First: The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, and Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life. You can follow her on Twitter at @hilarybeard and on Facebook at HilaryBeardAuthor.