David Youngs ’20, Fargo, N.D.
Majors/Minor: Communication Studies and Multimedia Journalism; Religion

David Youngs in campus center

The following is a description of my study away experience participating in Concordia’s World Christianity May Seminar taught by Dr. Jan Pranger. Our monthlong journey took us to Amsterdam, London, and most prominently South Africa, where we spent more than three weeks studying the important role of Christianity in society, how African culture factors into this, and the state of the country after being apartheid free since 1994.

Allow me to paint a picture of South Africa. 

South Africa is home to some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. Table Mountain, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, towers over the majestic terrain of Cape Town. The mountain is one of the oldest in the world, even older than the Himalayas. 

South Africa sunset

Beautiful beaches border the peninsula country, which shares the Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic to the west. You can’t drive along the Western Cape without noticing the scenic vineyards of Stellenbosch or the exquisite beach homes hugging the Atlantic, including David Beckham’s. And one cannot think of South Africa without the countless miles of wildlife reserve and parks that feature everything from Cape Buffalo to Cobras (along with lots of giraffes and zebras). 

South Africa is the second most prosperous economy in Africa, only trailing oil-rich Nigeria. It is a nation that is built off of the mining industry; at one point 50% of the world’s gold reserve came from here. Tourism and banking also dominate the economic sector, bringing in visitors from around the world. 

penguins in south africa

Perhaps most importantly, South Africa is home to one of the greatest leaders to ever walk the earth, Nelson Mandela. He and many others spent the second half of the 20th century fighting for equal rights in a country that held apartheid, segregation by race, as law until 1994. After years spent as an activist and political prisoner, Mandela and other leaders negotiated for an apartheid-free South Africa. In 1994, he was elected as the first president of the new democratic nation of South Africa. 

But despite the recent success of racial freedom, South Africa remains a nation tainted with inequality and problems. 

Despite its racial equity, South Africa is statistically the most economically unequal country in the world. In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. 

In a country where whites are the minority (less than 20%), a majority of economic power still lies with white individuals. This is a bi-product of the apartheid era that plagued the country from 1948-1994.

As a class, we experienced this when we spent a day in Stellenbosch, the wine capital of the country and an affluent suburb of Cape Town. Four of the 10 richest people in the country live in this city. It was beautiful, as close to paradise as you could find. 

But just outside of Stellenbosch is the township of Enkanini, where we spent the next day. 

Enkanini is an informal settlement that thousands of black South Africans call home. There are no houses or even huts. Everyone there lives in a small metal shack, many smaller than a college dorm room.

The water in Enkanini is filled with garbage and sewage; the same water that children play in. As a whole, South Africa is experiencing a massive water shortage. In fact, it is projected to be the first country to have water refugees, meaning that people will leave the country because there is no water left.

There is a strong stench of sewage in the air, as sanitation is a major problem. The municipal government refuses to fix toilets so, while there are many toilet stalls, few work. In some areas, the toilet to person ratio is 1:70. 

Enkanini is the saddest place that I have ever seen. It makes you ask the question: How can people live like this just 5 miles away from the richest part of the country?

Townships like Enkanini are found throughout the country. One of the largest is Soweto, which sits outside the economic hub of Johannesburg. While Soweto is not as economically poor as Enkanini, it is poorer in health. Dust from the local mines containing heavy metals such as platinum and uranium are tossed up into the air. The air blows directly into Soweto and into the lungs of its residents. To put things in perspective, there are parts of Soweto that are more radioactive than Chernobyl because of the high uranium levels. Entire neighborhoods of children are born with cerebral palsy because of the air. Adults die each week from lung cancer. The worst part is that the government specifically designated this as a blacks-only area during the apartheid era because they didn’t want whites breathing in the air. People here call Soweto a crime against humanity. 

And on top of all the poverty, environmental issues, and inequality, the political scene is a complete mess, with the previous president being voted out due to heavy financial corruption.

I knew these problems existed in South Africa before coming here; however, actually seeing them in person opened my eyes and drastically changed my perspective. 

It has made me think critically: How can a country with many economic resources have so many people living on nothing? What makes a country politically equal but still economically unequal? How much environmental sacrifice should we allow for a country’s greatest economic resource? Why is it that I am able to have so much that is given to me while there are individuals who work much harder than me who have nothing?

Each of these questions has what seems like a million different answers. And perhaps not one of them is solely correct. I realize there is not just one way to solve any of the problems and it can’t be done overnight.

And as frustrating as that can be, I think that’s what critical thinking is all about. Engaging in conversation with those who are different than you, not being afraid to speak about conflict, and listening to the voices of everyone – not just the ones that you agree with.

I think this is something that Concordia has helped me improve upon. As a North Dakota boy who hadn’t seen much outside the Midwest, this past month has provided me with the chance to get outside of my comfort zone – something that I had not experienced in a long time. 

group of students in South Africa

There are plenty of lessons that I have learned during my month in South Africa, but there are specifically a few that I would like to share. 

1. Be grateful.

Spending time with the poorest of the poor certainly puts things into perspective for those who are blessed with more. But what truly impressed me was the sense of gratitude that individuals in South African townships had. Many of these individuals who had nothing were the most positive-minded people that I have met. The sense of community among South Africans is something that I’ve never seen before (it puts our Midwest hospitality to shame). Appreciate the relationships you have with your loved ones and express gratitude for the simple things in life. 

2. Forgive others and find unity.

We live in such a divided world right now. It seems like there is such an “us vs. them” mentality. Let’s face it – none of us are perfect, and no matter how hard we try we’re never going to agree on everything with everyone. But that is OK! What we do have in common is that we’re all human beings striving for the best life possible, and maybe we can rally around that a little bit. Instead of letting our conflicts define our relationships with others, let’s do a better job of finding what we have in common. This is something that I saw over and over again while abroad. Be open to new ideas and strive to reconcile with those who you have butted heads with in the past. Nelson Mandela sure did and perhaps it’s something we can learn from. 

3. Have Hope.

One of the women that I spoke with at a church in Rustenburg said something along the lines of the following: “You may be born poor, but make sure that you die rich.” Rich in humanity, love for those around you, and love for yourself. We often get caught up in material wealth and monetary value in the United States. But, in the end, none of that is even close to as important as what comes within us. We all have our struggles in life and it can be very easy to complain, pout, or put it upon others. It’s OK to acknowledge struggle; in fact, it’s healthy. But it’s important to have a sense of optimism that things will get better. Use that optimism to inspire change in yourself and those around you. 

For a sheltered Midwestern kid, spending a month in South Africa was one of the best experiences that I could ever ask for. I met amazing people, enjoyed eating some delicious food (would highly recommend an ostrich burger), and, most importantly, expanded my comfort zone. 

There is plenty of harsh reality in South Africa, but studying abroad through Concordia has planted a seed of hope in me – one that will hopefully bring me back here again someday. 

Nothing can compare to learning about real-world problems and society in a different culture across the world. I am thankful that Concordia values this style of learning and I hope it will continue to do so for years to come. I would encourage anyone with even the slightest bit of interest in studying abroad to do so. It will change your perspective on life. It sure did for me.