Reflections from South Africa

Policing Project Senior Program Manager Regina Holloway has been selected as a 2019 Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity, a fellowship based at Columbia University in New York and the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa.  As part of her fellowship, Regina recently traveled to Johannesburg with her cohort of 20 fellows from South Africa and the United States. She shares her experience from that trip in this post.

   “20 individuals, from diverse backgrounds, on a leadership journey collaborating to build a more equitable world and challenge anti-black racism.” In that days leading up to my trip to South Africa, that description of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity program only added to my anticipation of the inspiring journey that lay ahead. 

Upon my arrival in Johannesburg, I headed to a resort just outside of the city near the Cradle of Humankind, the place where the oldest know human remains were found. The resort, even in the darkness of night was a beautiful country villa. As we drove over a quaint bridge and walked up the ivy-covered steps that led to the main house, a South African comrade told me that he went camping nearby as a child.  However, at that time during the height of apartheid, Black people were not allowed on the resort’s grounds.

Though, ironically, the resort is now owned by a Black family, the remnants of apartheid were jarring.  As we stepped out of the car, I thought of how our feet touched the same land as the first known humans. In stark contrast, my comrade’s story presented the painful history of apartheid, which did not end until 1994. Compared to the ancient history that surrounded me, Apartheid was merely a speck in the timeline of humanity—and yet it caused so much suffering.

My week in South Africa was full of workshops aimed at developing and defining leadership and vision, and collectively parsing out strategies to end anti-Black racism. The conversations were dynamic, personal and moving. I was fortunate to be joined in my journey to South Africa by the other incredible fellows – activists, scientists, filmmakers, academics, artists—all superheroes.

Confronting inequity and change in South Africa

Prior to the trip, the fellows were charged with completing several readings. Of particular interest to me were the readings on Nelson Mandela, which told a story of an incredible man, but focused intently on the fact that Mandela was just that—a man. He was not perfect, not without struggle, and not without self-doubt. Those readings were heavy on my mind while visiting the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where we were able to view Mandela’s personal archives and even hold his Noble Peace Prize—an extraordinary experience.

My trip to South Africa allowed me to consider how my work with the Policing Project in Chicago, and in particular, our mission to strengthen front-end accountability in policing, relates to the challenges seen in South Africa. At the Policing Project, our work centers on changing or implementing policing policies and practices before the police or government act. In South Africa, we saw numerous efforts to create a more equitable society and government structure that supports the rights, needs and humanity of all citizens. As South Africa moves to address these issues, the government has highlighted many components of front-end and back-end accountability similar to the structures we frequently work with at the Policing Project – including a platform for citizens to participate in policy development and a management framework of accountability if policies are not equitable or if corruption manifests.

Our journey in South Africa showed how structural racism and lack of accountability can destroy a nation very quickly. However, since 1994, South Africa has made great strides in addressing post-apartheid racial equity and government accountability. The United States is facing many similar challenges that also have deep historical roots in racial inequality and are manifested in all government structures. Creating the more equitable world envisioned by our fellowship is a monumental task—or, as Mandela wrote, a “long walk to freedom.”  Yet, I am comforted by the fact that when viewed in the long arc of human history, change can be enacted rather quickly, especially when the voices of a concerned public are empowered.

This post was written by Policing Project Senior Program Manager Regina Holloway.