Washington, DC — A Congressional delegation returned to Washington, DC Saturday after a week-long trip to South Africa where they encountered efforts to come to grip with HIV/Aids that moved some of them to tears, political challenges of U.S. policy that angered some, and commitment to reconciliation that several of the lawmakers called remarkable.
"We're trying to put into perspective history and the future," said Congressman Amo Houghton (R-New York) who led the delegation. In South Africa, Houghton said, there are experiences with racism, HIV/Aids, "forgiveness and understanding" that resonate with the U.S. experience. "Every time you come, you pick up something."
John Lewis (D-Georgia), the ranking Democrat on the trip, acknowledged that South Africa-U.S. relations have been strained because of differences on Iraq, and the delegation heard sharp words from South African parliamentarians over the issue during one meeting. "We tried to make it clear that we're going to continue to try and maintain strong ties," said Lewis.
The 14-person congressional delegation was made up of six Republicans and eight Democrats. Some brought their spouses. Unusually, a 21-person delegation from the Washington D.C.-based Faith and Politics Institute traveled with the delegation. The Institute's mission is to provide space for moral reflection for politicians. "The seeds of South Africa's story are seeds of profound faith in the face of fear, truth in the face of denial, forgiveness in the face of vengeance, and hope in the face of despair," wrote Institute President Reverend W. Douglas Tanner, Jr. in a statement that was part of the delegation's trip briefing package.
Over a crammed seven days, the group held discussions with U.S. officials in South Africa, visited centers for HIV/Aids victims and orphans in Soweto, held discussions with Daimler-Chrysler on the management, prevention and treatment of Aids in the workplace in Cape Town, and heard from Truth and Reconciliation Commission representatives.
In Cape Town, the group also met with F.W. de Klerk, the Afrikaner President who began the process of dismantling South Africa's apartheid system in 1990 and also met with National Assembly speaker Dr. Frene Ginwala and other parliamentarians. They also met with Reverend Frank Chikane, Director General in the Office of the President.
The group visited Gugulethu Township where they spoke with HIV/Aids victims and township residents at the J.L. Zwane Centre, and visited the Amy Biel Foundation there. The foundation was established by Biel's parents after she was stoned and stabbed to death by a mob in the township shouting anti-white slogans.
In what was perhaps the most moving part of the delegation's visit, on the morning of their last day they were guided around the infamous Robben Island by Ahmed Kathrada who, along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other African National Congress leaders, spent years there as a political prisoner. Kathrada spent 18 years there. "I took off my cap," said Lewis, a noted civil rights leader in the U.S. "I felt that Mr. Kathrada, Mr. Mandela and others consecrated this place; made it holy ground."