Written by Kristy Yiu
I am sure many other QE scholars can resonate with my frustration with the visa application process – hours of paperwork, doctor’s appointments, passport photo sitting, and commutes to the consulate office add another overwhelming surge of stress on top of all the other pre-trip planning necessities. By my third trip to the South African consulate office in Downtown Toronto, my frustration had reached its peak. I was two weeks away from having to leave the country and I was sent home empty-handed, visa-less once again. The latest reason for rejection was determined by a single word: “internship.” They noticed that my purpose of travel was defined as an internship on my letter of support and requested that I have it changed to “volunteering.” Before I could even process my emotions, I was already calculating the logistics of requesting for another revised letter, travelling back to the consulate, and getting my passport returned all within the span of a week.
To me, the two words made no difference. At first glance by most unfamiliar with the country’s history, it seemed like unnecessarily critical on the consulate office’s part, but their insistence on differentiating between the two reveals a great deal of their historic struggles as a country and why it has led them to this point. From their perspective, the term “internship” implies financial involvement and it leads to the assumption that I am taking away resources and opportunities from their country that could otherwise be allocated to another local student. On the other hand, by reframing my purpose as “volunteering,” it reassures the consulate office that their country has no financial responsibility towards my trip. Although there are likely many factors that may have contributed to this “internship” versus “volunteering” visa application setback, I suspect that the history of colonialization and the current state of the country may have affected their attitude towards foreign visitors and influence. Stemming from a long history of exploitation, when their natural resources have been pilfered for the benefit of these wealthy countries today, it is understandable that South Africa may seem over-protective. From the standpoint of geographical determinism, South Africa’s wealth of natural resources should have guaranteed it as one of the most prosperous countries in the world. But instead, the act of colonisation has robbed them of their land’s inheritance and left them with the long struggle of apartheid, immense disparity between the rich and poor, and a lasting sense of distrust. In the age of globalization, the need for collaboration between countries is increasingly emphasized, but the effects of the past are still lingering and manifesting in various avenues today, such as the shaping of values and beliefs, and can have profound impact on future international partnerships. As a QE scholar, I had the privilege of traveling to another country for three months and immersing in their culture and history at a level beyond that of a tourist on vacation. From a research viewpoint, I learnt to acknowledge the importance of local context when applying global initiatives specifically to that region. Ultimately, this experience allowed me to recognize and value the differences in our perspectives, but more importantly, to appreciate our commonality in the desire to achieve mutual goals through collaborative efforts.