Lessons from South Africa – My International Internship Journey

By Timothy Siew

View while on an overnight hiking trip which brought me to Cape Point (the commonly believed meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic ocean) and the Cape of Good Hope (Southwestern most tip of the African continent).

Singapore is proudly a multiracial and multicultural society, boasting a low crime rate. We often dismiss this as government propaganda we are consistently fed to believe. However, there is a small minority who say we take what we have for granted. As the saying goes, “ignorance is bliss”. How true is all of this? As I sought to uncover the rough realities faced by others in this world, I chose to go where few Singaporeans have gone before, South Africa. It was a journey of discovery for me, to experience first hand pressing issues facing other far-flung societies.

Some questioned my decision to go to South Africa, which has the strongest economy in the African continent, asking what I can learn from living in such a rich country. Especially one, on the surface, is comparable to Singapore; well-leveled roads, clean water available throughout the country and built up cities. What I can say is that they cannot be more wrong. Beneath this beautiful city exists an ugly reality which needs all the help it can get. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world (over 50 murders a day), high rates of HIV (10-11%), and an extremely racially charged society as a result of apartheid. It is by no means a safe country to live in. The Australian travel advisory gives the country a rating of “Exercise a high degree of caution”, the same rating as countries such as Burma, North Korea, East Timor, Rwanda and Uganda, just to name a few.

A typical black township. Some residents in the townships are the poorest amongst all South Africans and crime here is rife.

Apartheid is the forced segregation of people according to their skin color; White, Coloured and Black. As apartheid only ended 18 years ago, most of the adult population had grown up during the apartheid era and hatred between racial groups is still very prevalent. Even though apartheid had ended, racial groups still keep very much to themselves. There are coloured and black townships and schools are still predominately attended by children of a certain racial group.

I did my internship at the Cape Town Refugee Centre, serving arguably the most hated group in an extremely xenophobic country. My daily commute to and fro my workplace was laced with racism. It finally hit me – this is what we have been taking for granted in Singapore, racial tolerance. Asians in Cape Town are rare, and Chinese are an extremely tough find. Every day without fail, as I walk along the streets, I get taunted with the now familiar “Ching Chow Bong”, “China China”, “Chinaman” by random strangers. I’d get people jumping at me with Kung Fu poses and asking me if I know Kung Fu. In extreme cases, I get strangers coming up to my face with racist slurs, kicks that stop right at my face and challenges to fight on the streets. Through this very rough reception on the streets by strangers, I finally understood the undervalued concept of racial tolerance prevalent in Singapore. One aspect of life in Singapore that we take for granted was now staring me in the face. I was fortunate to receive only mild racial taunting as racial targeting there can turn violent very often.

The low crime rate in Singapore is something we often take for granted, it never occurs to us in Singapore to carry a weapon to defend yourself, but it could be something essential in more dangerous cities. While Cape Town city centre has a significantly lower crime rate, my work often took me to poor townships where crime is rife and at any moment things might take a turn for the worse. Even a local policeman told me to thank God for everyday I am alive in Cape Town as I may just die anytime on the streets. Hearing horror stories of friends I know being beaten up and robbed was something I had grown accustomed to. Seeing with my own eyes people getting roughly manhandled and robbed violently by those who seem to have no humanity left in them was no longer shocking to me. My roommate had been smashed against a fence and robbed by three men with knives just outside our apartment in broad daylight on the main street. I even had someone pulling a knife on me, demanding I hand over my money. Learning how to look out for myself and to be extremely aware of my surroundings, sometimes to the point of paranoia, became a norm for me.

It finally occurred to me that we often take our safety for granted. Being able to live in a society that I do not fear for my safety or face open racism is a huge blessing. These two issues were the most glaring things that I feel many Singaporeans take for granted.

South Africa takes in tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from all around Africa each year. Doing an internship at the Cape Town Refugee Centre allowed me to come into contact with those that were in dire situations. What really struck me was that some of the refugees seeking help at the centre are people my age, or even younger. It made me reflect on how fortunate I am to be born in Singapore, and how the situation could have been so vastly different had I been born in another part of this world. In addition, the flair and passion for some to further their education made me realize how lucky I am to be able to afford education.

A traditional South African band playing tribal music at the Mama Africa restaurant in Long Street, Cape Town.

My overseas internship to South Africa was truly an eye opener that gave me the opportunity peek out of the well I have lived in all my life. Living and working overseas is a totally different experience from that of going overseas for a holiday. Residing in a country for a lengthy period allowed me to soak in the culture and better understand the problems that are faced by other societies. This is especially so for issues which have never been a problem for us in Singapore. It was an incredible journey which I do not regret embarking on.


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Timothy Siew is a Year 2 Sociology Major who decided to take the path less travelled and went to South Africa on a two-month internship instead of heading off to U.C. Berkeley on a summer school programme. While looking at the choices available to students with the NUS International Relations Office (IRO), he came across an internship/volunteer programme in South Africa and acted upon his desire to do something in making a difference where help was needed the most. Despite strong objections from his parents and his own personal fears (try google-ing crime in South Africa), Timothy knew he could not let the opportunity pass him by.