I walked up to a 40-foot high fence, while noticing a small yellow sign in the peripheral. The sign said “Caution: High Voltage Fence.” It was made apparent that I was entering into what I could only understand as one of the many manifestations of an incarceration system. When I entered through the front door I was searched for any weapons, told to leave my valuables behind and instructed to be careful, there was no mistaking it, I was in jail.
Allow me to give a bit more context. Last week I took a three day trip to an area four hours north of Cape Town. The area was called Clanwilliam. The primary focus of the trip was to see historical rock art, created by the San people over 27,000 years ago. The art was fascinating as it shed light into the lives and experiences of people long ago, however It was the secondary activity in Clamwilliam that becomes the center of this blog. While there we also were able to explore what rural life is like in South Africa. Through this lens, I got the opportunity to visit some of the institutions that were important in the community. The most interesting institution was called Bosasa: Youth Center.
By the name alone, I thought I was going to a community center where youth have a place to come and use their time productively after they leave school. When I got to Bosasa I realized that it was actually a youth rehabilitation center. When I entered into the center initially it was quite intimidating. We stood around the director of the center and inquired into how the center was administered. He explained that the center was filled with male youth from the ages of 12-17, all being held there for crimes relating mostly to drugs, theft, or murder. As he was telling us this, we stood in the middle of the courtyard, where the young people began to surround us and listen to our questions about their everyday life. It was an awkward image to say the least. One that probably wouldn’t of happened in the states (for security reasons). Luckily the ice broke between the young people in the center and the students that came from UChicago. It was actually a pleasure to interact with them.
I want to emphasize the nuances that I saw when looking at the relationship between these young people and their surroundings. I asked them what they thought about the center and some expressed how it was a safer in the center than in their communities, others expressed the strong desire to go home and see their families. I asked them what their goals were, and most of them expressed productive desires of getting jobs and one guy even explained how he was one day going to travel the world.
Being able to talk to interact with the youth brought to the forefront the humanity of people, even those who are incarcerated. Hearing about their lives, what they experienced growing up, the struggles they continue to face, are all things that bring universal issues to the surface of my own understanding. These are issues that revolve around people being products of their environment. There are issues of class and race that are once again stabbing through the heart of society. These are issues that force youth to act as adults before they even land in their teenage years. Going to Bosasa Rehabilitation Center forced me to think how different these students lives would have been if they were born into a different socio-economic background. There were many sad moments on that day (especially when one of the youth shared an anecdote of why and how he killed someone in a gang fight). But there were also many hopeful moments.
Many would argue that the incarceration system in the states does just that: Incarcerates. But the center that I visited in South Africa did more than that. You could tell the emphasis was really placed on rehabilitation and not solely on punishment. The young people in the center went to school every weekday. They also got to participate in life training classes and vocational sessions that taught them computer skills, wielding, woodshop, and even an arts education section. They have access to a counselor for a social and mental health and a doctor for physical health.
Ultimately no one wants to see youth in jail, but this center offered a small sense of hope when youth did end up in troubled situations. I truly believe there is power in hope and I felt that power when talking to the young people there.