January 10: Alexandria Visit and the Origins of Humanity

Today we took a morning tour of the Alexandria township. Then we went to The Cradle of Humankind Visiting Centre Maropeng (this was not on the academic schedule, for it was a trip we decided to take with the free time we had).

Alexandria was quite an eye opening experience. Staying in Soweto opened my eyes into how the effects of Apartheid had not changed much in terms of land distribution but even Soweto had been expanding for quite some time. Alexandria on the other hand did not have that luxury.

Our tour guide was born in 1947, right before the Nationalist Party came into power and also right as apartheid laws became stricter. He lived through apartheid, and admitted to us that he was not really against apartheid until Mandela and the ANC came into power in 1994 (our tour guide was a white man). Our guide believed that the rush for gold in the early 20th century is what led to the division that South Africa sees today. He claimed that had that thirst for resources had not happened by the Europeans, the Africans would own most of the countries resources and wealth.

Our tour guide also proposed another idea. He claimed that by 1980, the South African government knew that there was about to be a shift in power balance throughout the country. He also claimed that Mandela could have been released from prison and have become president by 1987 had it not have been for the state of emergency which was declared in 1984. Although most of Alexandria that we saw were occupied by shacks with trash all over the streets, there was also a nice part of the town that we saw. He claimed that these parts of town were allocated to people by the government from 1980-1984 as long as people could afford it. That allocation of land was disturbed according to our guide when the government declared a national state of emergency in 1984.

Like the Roving Bantu Tour two days ago, the Alexandria tour today also opened my eyes into seeing just how much work South Africa still has to do to bring economic equality to the nation. The government has an opportunity to clean up the trash on the streets and to help people rebuild Alexandria but for different reasons they do not. It is sad but at the same time today’s experience was humbling because it made me appreciate what I had and also put into perspective that although Mandela’s incarceration and struggle helped change the political boundaries of the Apartheid state, it did little in bring economic justice to the county as a whole.

Although it wasn’t a part of our class, we decided to go to the Cradle of Humankind exhibit following the Alexandria tour. We decided to do the cave tour, and got to see where the discovery of the “half ape” and “half human” known as “Little Foot” happened. We also got to see where many other discoveries were made in learning about human origins, including the genus Ardipithecus.

This was a very fascinating tour, especially since I took a biological anthropology class at Mason last semester. In class we discussed how Africa was seen as the birthplace of humanity and that although Kenya is where the earliest hominid ever was discovered, South Africa also has many great discoveries that contribute to our knowledge of human origin.

There is one point from this research that relates to the social movements in South Africa such as Anti-apartheid. There is much debate as to whether the Homo erectus or Homo ergaster species are actually separate species. Anthropology has a typically racist background, especially when it comes to Africa. Some people will argue that the Homo ergaster is actually not a separate species from Homo erectus and the only reason why it’s seen as such is because previous anthropologists during the age of colonial imperialism and apartheid couldn’t accept the fact that Homo erectus developed from Africa. This debate still continues today, because taxonomy and binomial nomenclature is not as clear cut as it might seem overall.

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