Lizo “MC” Mgobozi talks with Burr and Burton Class about Growing Up During Apartheid

Georgia Lord

Born during the thick of apartheid, Lizo "MC" Mgobozi spoke about his experience growing up in Langa Township, South Africa, to Burr and Burton's Humanities Workshop class via Zoom last week. In the current unit of the course, the class is studying South Africa's history, apartheid, and truth and reconciliation.

In South Africa, townships refer to the underdeveloped and racially segregated spaces where non-white citizens were forced to live in during apartheid. MC began his tour business, ProteamSA, after realizing that the stigma and stereotype surrounding townships does not accurately reflect the vibrant culture of the black South Africans who inhabit them. 

In giving first-hand tours, MC is relentless in his quest to change the perception of townships and bridge the gap between white and black citizens in South Africa. It was through his tour business that he met Burr and Burton teacher Barb Muench. Muench took a sabbatical in the fall of 2017, and spent six weeks in South Africa volunteering in Zola Township. Prior to her time in Zola Township, she took a tour of Langa Township through ProteamSA to better understand the people and culture. Little did she know she'd find a friend in her tour guide. 

The class started with MC describing his childhood, "I was born into a family of 28 people in the house. . . it was only my grandma who was working, and she had an income of 27 Rands per month, equal to $2 USD." During apartheid, there were only four jobs available to black people: gardener, miner, laborer, and domestic worker. MC reflected on the education system, "In America, you're teaching kids to be independent, to be able to think for themselves. The type of education system that we had as black people was designed to limit us to certain resources so we can't stand on our own two feet." 

After listening to MC's journey, a Burr and Burton student asked a thought-provoking question about the difficulty of being forced to learn in your non-native language. 

In response to the question, MC pointed out how there were only nine people in the Burr and Burton classroom compared to the 81 students in his classroom growing up. On top of the lack of individual attention they received, the entire syllabus was taught in English and not in their mother tongue of Xhosa. They were also forced to learn Afrikaans, a language that was brought over to South Africa when the Dutch colonized the country: "If you want to kill a nation, if you want to deprive a child of his or her identity, take them away from their language." 

In an attempt to manage non-white South Africans' movement during apartheid, all black people were forced to carry something called a dompas. A dompas contained details on personal identity, address, occupation, and curfew. Within the passbook, there was a list of rules for non-white South Africans. To provide context, MC related it to having a Vermont driver's license and not being allowed in New York without getting arrested. 

MC described the dompas as a system that was "made to lose [their] black consciousness." South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko coined the term "black consciousness" after founding the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko organized the movement to empower and urge black people to be happy with the skin color that they were born with, and to fight for themselves. The Humanities class is currently learning about Biko through a movie called Cry Freedom. 

To end the conversation, MC spoke to the class about where he is now and what he's doing: "The intention of my business was to integrate white and black South Africans through township tours. My vision was to give people an opportunity to interact in a different space so the white community can stop living with their speculations or assumptions, and to really understand where black South Africans come from." 

He then went on to praise the Burr and Burton class for showing up and learning about where he comes from, "Guys, you're doing it! You're doing it from America. The class that I'm giving to you now I should be giving this to South Africans! We don't mix, we don't understand where white comes from. All we understand is through our own speculation: white man is rich, black man is poor… We've been out of apartheid but we're still living in a segregated society." 
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