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South Africa opening eyes of U.S. blacks

Touched by stories of sacrifice to gain freedom, more African-Americans are viewing the land of Nelson Mandela as a must-see destination

By Dahleen Glanton
Tribune correspondent
Published March 14, 2006

JOHANNESBURG -- It was a tough decision for Doug Hall, a high school senior, to spend his spring break trekking through South Africa with his mother and 30 other middle-aged African-Americans rather than hanging out in Atlanta with his friends.

But the stories of South Africans who sacrificed their lives for freedom touched his heart, and soon Hall knew he had made the right choice.

He was mesmerized during a visit to Soweto. At Regina Mundi church, a guide pointed out bullet holes in the ceiling from 1976, when police fired upon students who had gathered there to protest apartheid. The guide cried softly, saying that Hall reminded him of his brother, who had died in police custody.

"It was interesting to meet blacks from a different culture and different experiences," said Hall, 17, who was on his first trip outside the U.S. "Growing up here [in Atlanta], the only black people you talk to are the same. They are just like me and they all fit in one box."

West Africa losing appeal

While African-Americans have long traveled to West Africa in the quest to learn more about their heritage, many of those countries are now involved in internal conflicts that make them less attractive to tourists.

As a result, a small but growing number of blacks from the U.S. and the Caribbean have turned to South Africa as a must-see destination.

During February and March, at least three groups from Atlanta--alumni of Morris Brown College, the Atlanta Tribune Magazine and R&B radio station V103--planned tours to South Africa. Oprah Winfrey is building a school for girls in Johannesburg. And recently MTV filmed a group of college students from San Diego who gave up their spring break on the beach to visit South Africa.

This marks a new trend for African-Americans, many of whom rallied for U.S. sanctions against South Africa's all-white government during the apartheid era. But in more than a decade since apartheid was abandoned and blacks including Nelson Mandela have been elected to national office, many African-Americans have reversed their position and are more open to traveling to Johannesburg and Cape Town.

`It's economical'

"We don't have people knocking our door down saying we want to go to South Africa, but some people are going because it's the best value at the moment. The trend is not necessarily a response to any emotional feelings about South Africa, but it is a first-world country with all the amenities therein and it's economical," said Selma Edwards, owner of EZ Tours, which has been booking trips to Africa for 10 years.

However, some blacks travel here seeking a cultural experience and an opportunity to connect with black South Africans who endured what many of them experienced during the civil rights movement in the U.S. The trip offers an example of the parallels in the lives of African-Americans and Africans.

In the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Jean Price was stunned to see rows of nooses hanging from the ceiling, symbolizing the thousands of people who died fighting for their rights. She grew up in Georgia when lynching of blacks in the South was common.

"It was scary to walk in there and see all those ropes hanging. It brought it to reality. It was like, Oh my God, they did the same thing to them that they used to do to us. I guess there was not much difference because they were both a kind of slavery no matter how you look at it," said Price, 63.

Mack Duncan, 61, and his wife, Gwendolyn, 58, said they could relate to many of the experiences of the people in South Africa. He grew up in rural Georgia and participated in civil rights protests as a young man.

"I came on the trip because I wanted to see first-hand the experiences in South Africa," said Duncan, a retired pharmaceutical salesman who was traveling with the Morris Brown group.

"I'm thinking that we're not much farther ahead, though we might think that we are," Duncan said.

Some middle-class blacks admit they prefer South Africa rather than countries such as Ghana and Senegal because they don't want to give up modern conveniences while traveling. And that angers some West Africans who would rather see them spend their money in more traditional African countries.

Kemi Lane, who was born in Nigeria and runs a media watch site in Atlanta, said she and other Africans have urged groups not to travel to South Africa because, she said, whites still have all the power though blacks hold public offices.

"It's a fake Africa all the way," said Lane, 41. "Everything there is just for show. If you want to see the real Africa, you have to go to Ghana, or Nigeria or Kenya. Going to South Africa is just like going to Beverly Hills or Park Avenue in New York."

South African tour guide Arlene Hermanus, 46, who was classified as "colored" during apartheid, said she studies people on her tour and then decides how much of the real story of South Africa they want to hear.

For the most part, she said, black tourists want to visit the settlements in Soweto, have meals in the township and visit residents. Many black tour guides greet African-Americans by saying, "Welcome home my sisters and brothers."

Doug Hall's mother, Alda Underwood-Hall, 55, an Atlanta dentist, said the trip to Africa offered her son an educational experience. And in the process, she said, she learned a lot herself.

"Nelson Mandela is to South Africa what Martin Luther King is to America," she said. "That so many nameless people would come together in their struggle is nothing less than miraculous."

Onyx Jackson-Preston and her sister Samari Jackson-Preston, 11-year-old twins, have traveled to Ghana as well as South Africa. Both places, Onyx said, affected the way she viewed her life.

"I feel like I have a lot of advantages and I should not take anything for granted," said the 7th grader, who was traveling with her mother and grandmother and a group from her school, Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.

"Sometimes I just want more and more and more. Now I know that people don't have the ability to get what I have."

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