UVic launches Colonial Legacies field school, in time for South African national election

Beginning April 30, a group of UVic students and two faculty members will spend three weeks in South Africa for UVic’s first-ever Colonial Legacies Field School.

Live from South Africa (mp3 - 8.4mb) 
Elizabeth Vibert, with a UVic student and a young South African voter, spoke live from South Africa during the national election, interviewed by radio host Gregor Craigie for CBC Radio Victoria's "On the Island" morning show May 7, 2014. This audio clip is provided courtesy of CBC 90.5 FM.

One master’s student and 12 third- and fourth-year undergraduates—led by UVic historian Dr. Elizabeth Vibert and doctoral candidate Megan Harvey, and accompanied by the chair of UVic’s history department Dr. Lynne Marks—will be in Cape Town and Limpopo Province to explore the impacts of colonial histories on everyday life and on the rural and urban landscapes.

20th anniversary of end of apartheid

The UVic students will also be “on the ground” observing firsthand as youth of the same ages head to voting stations. South Africans will vote May 7 in the first national election since Nelson Mandela’s death, exactly 20 years since the end of apartheid.

What does voting mean to young people in a country where they can now take post-apartheid freedoms for granted? Do they take these for granted at all?

The youth in South Africa are dubbed the “Born Free” generation for good reason; many have no memory of living under apartheid. In contrast, the rural South African women with whom Vibert has been doing research for three years (collecting life histories and studying a unique farming collective in Limpopo Province) have deep memories of a very different time.

“Older women remember their first opportunity to vote as a dramatic, hard-won moment,” says Vibert. “They lined up in the middle of the night so they wouldn’t miss out. It’s frustrating to them that some of their grandkids might not vote. At the same time, they understand the disaffection: so many young people don’t have jobs or opportunities.”

A unique women’s farm in South Africa

N'wamitwa is a communal territory comprised of about 17 villages in northern Limpopo Province.

For more than 20 years, three generations of women—about 30 people, ranging in age from mid 40s to 86 years old—have sustained a co-operative farm in this region. They have worked hard to build community and self-sufficiency, as well as feed their families. The life histories of these women and their families, the farm and other grassroots projects in the villages are the focus of the rural portion of this UVic field school.

Vibert, who studies colonial histories and has a special interest in South Africa, has closely examined how the women’s farm can serve as an exceptional example of social resiliency and viable alternatives to export-oriented agriculture. In their lifetime, the 30 women farmers have also faced specific challenges including state violence, geographic isolation and HIV/AIDS.

“One of the things I find most inspiring about these women is their resilience," Vibert adds. "I don’t want to romanticize it—no one can make do without resources. But they teach us many life lessons, like the power of communal action.”

Not only will the UVic students be there in person for election day, they will also help out at the farm and other community projects; enjoy a homestay in the farm village; work with and interview young farmers at a food security project; visit schools; do a weekend safari in acclaimed Kruger National Park; and spend four days in Cape Town touring cultural sites and museums, including the island prison where Mandela spent so much of his adult life.

View a video of Vibert on her current research and historical social inequities: Faces of UVic Research (YouTube).

The field school is supported by UVic’s Learning Without Borders Program (Provost’s Office), Department of History, Learning and Teaching Centre, and UVic’s International Office.