South Africa is the wealthiest country in sub-Saharan Africa, possessed of great mineral wealth and extensive areas of rich farmland. But it is also the most unequal country in the world, with luxurious suburbs lying directly across the road from desperate slums and rich estates amid devastating rural poverty. South Africa’s poor are some of the poorest people in the world. And the gap between the rich and the poor continues to be highly racialized, despite the end of South Africa’s infamous system of apartheid in 1994. In addition to poverty, the South African poor face numerous challenges with regards to health and ecological well-being, including food insecurity, unclean water, and high rates HIV/AIDS. However, despite these challenges, there are many opportunities for improvement. Agroecological approaches to development, combined with strong community ties and a commitment to social justice, can lead to significant improvements in nutrition, livelihood, and local infrastructure. Understanding environmental health and agroecology in South Africa has pushed University of Wisconsin-Madison students to grapple with the complexities of improving health outcomes in a development context across rural and urban lines.
The LAND Project has led three student field course and service learning trips (exchanges) to South Africa (as of 2018). On the most recent trip (2017), students learned about the history and ecology of South Africa, the agroecological basis of environmental health, and the multifactorial determinants of health for urban and rural populations in the South Africa. The course focused on both rural and urban South Africa. Students visited multiple sites, including the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg; the village of KuManzimdaka in the Eastern Cape; and Bucklands Reserve and Kaysers Beach, also in the Eastern Cape. Students will be given the opportunity to observe different farming efforts (urban and rural) and assess variations in healthcare across rural and urban settings. Students will also participate in several service learning activities including organizing a children’s “Agroecology Camp.” Later on the trip, students toured an urban hospital and spent time talking with local health professionals. The course included a home stay in a rural village, providing an intimate opportunity for cultural exchange.