Most FGCU students would belong to what is called the “born-free” generation in South Africa — those who came after the end of the oppressive apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination that ruled the country from 1948 until 1991, when President F.W. deKlerk’s government instituted reforms and repeals intended to end the oppression.
Yet while the millennials of another continent might have the birthright of freedom, the South African government of embattled former President Jacob Zuma faces accusations today of continued social injustice, including defunding of and inequality in higher education, a situation that has sparked student protests. Zuma finally succumbed to charges of corruption and calls for his resignation by his own African National Congress (the party of iconic anti-apartheid torchbearer Nelson Mandela) when he stepped down Feb. 14.
It was the desire to investigate how effective — or ineffective — social change has been in post-apartheid South Africa, and its impact on higher education, that sparked an FGCU faculty-student collaboration last summer. Dr. Jon Braddy (above right), assistant professor and Communication program leader, and student Gunnar Gibson (above left), a 2017 Communication graduate, toured the Dark Continent for five weeks last year to investigate the “new” South Africa. Their work was made possible by a generous Seidler Undergraduate Research Fellowship and additional support from College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Gregerson and Billy Gunnels, director of the Office of Undergraduate Scholarship.
The result of that sojourn: a documentary titled “Liberation.” The 45-minute film will premiere Wednesday, Feb. 28 as the grand finale of this year’s Seidler International Film Festival. A reception takes place at 6:30 p.m. in Edwards Hall 112 with the screening at 7. The free presentation is open to the public.
“Six towns … five weeks … a lot of traveling,” recalled Gibson, whom Braddy recruited for the project as cameraman because of his experience as a video producer for regional Harley-Davidson dealerships. “We also spent a lot of advance time setting up interviews with higher-education professors, lecturers, students, museum directors, the head of a rugby team … three or four months of prep.”
As for the physical journey to get there, “You have no idea how far away the southern tip of Africa is,” Braddy said. He and Gibson flew from Fort Myers to New York City, then on to Dubai before visiting Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Bloemfontain and Cape Town.
The educational excursion immersed them into South African cuisine (“The food was delicious … I don’t think I had a bad meal there,” Braddy said), the countryside (“Every city we went to was distinctive, but beautiful,” he said), culture and sports. It was an experience that illustrated not only the literal distance in miles between the U.S. and South Africa, but the gap in knowledge of each other’s ways of life.
“They know all about our television shows, movies, rap music … they know everything about us,” Braddy said. “But we know so little about them. What comes back is so filtered.”
The pursuit of evaluating the current state of post-apartheid South Africa soon showed the FGCU researchers what a contested issue it still is, and that there are no clear-cut answers. While they make it a point to say how friendly everyone was, they also say how guarded their subjects were when discussing the political state of the nation.
“They don’t want to talk about this issue, and the only ones who will are at the highest ranks of their particular organizations,” Braddy said. “Talking about life after apartheid is sensitive. They don’t want anything to flare up … there’s that kind of simmering below the surface.”
“We went over there with a game plan … we had our questions,” Gibson said. “And everyone was giving us different solutions, different answers, so we had to restructure and figure out where the film was going to go. Ultimately, it’s not our country, so the solutions aren’t ours to decide. We present the situation and let others decide.”
Besides the polished “Liberation” documentary, the FGCU researchers also produced deeper, behind-the-scenes looks at their project. An entertaining, often-humorous video blog Gibson produced during the trip features numerous episodes posted on YouTube that show everything from a trip to a zoo they describe as a “safari on the cheap” to mountain climbing, local beer tasting and Gibson shopping for medicine to help an under-the-weather Braddy. See “South Africa VLOG” on YouTube or watch the first entry below.
Braddy, meanwhile, wrote a detailed report on the project, “This is Africa,” that offers an in-depth review of the journey. It’s in that report Braddy relates not only the impact of “Liberation,” but the value of this unique professor-student collaboration.
“Our project records, in the register of film, instants of time; one generation after the deconstruction of apartheid, the results of the implementation of a conscious choice among the citizenry to pursue reconciliation, and the fruition of those actions in the present,” Braddy writes. … “Our documentary chronicles the jaws of death South Africa faced in the 1980s, it highlights choices made for rebirth, rejecting bloody civil war for the path of social justice; and it provides a time-stamp of the current milieu (culture, sport, history, foodways, attitudes) as viewed through the register of film.”
Writing of the personal rewards, Braddy notes that his report “serves as a reminder for myself of a metamorphosing journey; not only of a global trek, complete with exotic animals, fantastical locations and obstacles of personal challenge; not only of the encounters with people from afar, the perception-checking that occurs with every conversation, the stories that add deeper understanding and recalibrate meaning; this serves as a reminder of the dynamic and transforming power of a fellowship between mentor and mentee.”