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Apartheid-era bench

Apartheid-era bench

Whenever you travel somewhere, you tend to pick up on the social norms/mores of the people and the extent to which you do, of course, has to do with the amount of time you’ve spent there and the quantity and quality of the time you’ve spent with the local people.

South Africa is a confounding country, and I wanted to write this post merely as a way for me to catalogue the impressions that bore upon me of this land and its very complex treatment of race. The history of this land is multi-layered and contentious, you can sense that from any conversation with a South African that pertains to the stories of this land essentially made up entirely of migrants – the Dutch and English from Europe and the Bantu African tribes from the north. The only people indigenous to South Africa were the San and the Koi – and most of them were killed as the other settlers moved in ( I mentioned in a previous post that it was legal to shoot a Bushman until 1920 in South Africa).

So I make no judgment, no analysis of moral superiority or inferiority with these observations, as that is all they are. I am sure that if I could have stayed in South Africa longer than three weeks as I did, my impressions would change, adapt and deepen. However, I believe there is validity in anyone’s initial impressions of a country they are visiting and as such, I hope you will take what is written here as such.

Square in Cape Town with a monument to the slaves who built and helped populate South Africa

Square in Cape Town with a monument to the slaves who built and helped populate South Africa

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in South Africa was simply how open and willing people were to talk about race and racial issues. They don’t have reservations to express themselves and their opinions, even if those opinions might be interpreted as overtly racist. This fact was interesting to me, in and of itself. Without even asking, the topic just seems to pop up in conversation. This is probably also due to the fact that I do have an inquiring nature, and I do tend to ask people about their lives, their work, their personal experience of their home, so that could also account for some of it.

When asking what it had been like to be in South Africa since it’s first free elections in 1994, a colored female taxi driver told me “Well, back then I wasn’t white enough. Now, I’m not black enough.”

Menu at Robben Island prison for different races

Menu at Robben Island prison for different races

In an attempt to undo some of the harm inflicted by apartheid, the South African government has implemented some very rigid affirmative action laws that essentially dictate a quota for the number of blacks that must be hired by any given public or private organization, often resulting in an emminently more qualified and experienced white person being overlooked for a job in favor of a less educated, less experienced black person. A number of whites I talked with expressed extreme frustration with this situation and spoke of friends who’d already left the country because they couldn’t find work. Some even suggested that it was like a softer version of reversed apartheid.

“If you’re a disabled, black, woman…you could literally be handed any job, anywhere. Hands down without questions. That is the trifecta.”

The group that appears to have been left out in the cold both during the apartheid years and during the current newly attitude-reforming rainbow state is the colored person. The whole definition of a colored person in and of itself took some adjusting to as we simply don’t have this “third” distinction of race back in the United States. In South Africa, a formerly 11-race apartheid system has now broken down into a socially acceptable 4 race classification of “Black”, “White” “Colored” and “Asian”. Anyone, with a mix of white/black/asian in their blood is labeled “Colored”.

“It cracks me up that you Americans think you have a black president! Obama’s not black, mate, he’s colored!” – I heard this observation on more than one occasion when stating my place of abode.

“A Zulu would never mess with a colored person. He knows he would get messed up.”


Monument to the tribes that lived and migrated to South Africa

Monument to the tribes that lived and migrated to South Africa

My colored Baz Bus driver helped fill in the picture for me of what it’s like to be a colored person living in South Africa. His above quote spoke to the toughness that all races in this country attribute to the colored people. His father was a South African born Indian man, and his mother was half white and half black. Here is something else he shared with me:

“I’ve been married twice before and both times my wives were white. My first daughter with my first wife turned out to be rather dark skinned like me – and she used to go around saying “No, daddy, I’m white! I’m white!” It was pretty hilarious – I’d just laugh at her, then set her straight…she won’t be popular in school talking like that. Now, I have two sons with my second wife – and they both turned out looking as white as you can get. It is so funny when I go out with my sons now and I’m in the supermarket and they’re running around giving all the white people a fright because they think they’ve lost their parents. The look on their faces when they realize that I am their father…oh man! It’s priceless.”

Xhosa boys I met who were fishing on the Wild Coast

Xhosa boys I met who were fishing on the Wild Coast

He explained to me that a colored person identified with the issues of the colored person. He couldn’t understand when I explained to him that an American who was born with any amount of black blood was considered black. It really left me wondering which environment was better (not that any society that affords different treatment based on skin color is ever good) for a person of color? To automatically be socialized and cultured as “black” because of a trace of black blood, or to be able to identify with an entirely separate third group that has its own unique sense of community and brotherhood that doesn’t ascribe to the ideals of either “white” or “black”?

What do you think?

This four race system and the automatic stereotyping that goes along with it is further complicated with the additional sub divisions of people based on their tribe or the language they speak. No matter what, people in South Africa willingly or unknowingly constantly ascribe reasons and motivations for people’s behavior based on their color and/or their tribe. For instance:

“A zulu was, is and always will be a violent person. They are warriors, it’s in their blood.”

“Blacks are just lazy, that’s all there is to it. All they (the Zulu in Kwazulu-natal) want is a free handout.”

“No white person will ever move back to the Transkei. They’ve all left. That is over. That is Xhosa land, its tribal land now.”

“Even when he (a Zulu musician who was performing) is being nice to you…he’s not really being nice. He’s playing you…for your money. That’s what they do.”

“Any racism that exists between whites and blacks cannot even begin to compare, in terms of hostility, to the violent racism that exists between different black tribes. They’ve been killing each other for generations.”

The most emphatic comments I heard, however, concerned the overwhelming hostility that can exist between white Afrikaans speaking South Africans and White English speaking South Africans.

“Yar. No-one can let go of the bloody past, Bru. That’s the problem. No-one can let go. They won’t ever forget the war with the English, and they think everyone should speak Afrikaans.”

Balcony where Mandela made his first speech after his release from prison, calling for forgiveness and unity among all races

Balcony where Mandela made his first speech after his release from prison, calling for forgiveness and unity among all races

“Nelson Mandela was a great president. He did a great job of bringing the people together. What people don’t seem to remember is that he killed people too. And of course, things have gone downhill since he died. The ANC will automatically win every election from here on out.”

“There isn’t a white person in this area who hasn’t had violence directed at them by a black. Many of my friends have left. I know people who’ve had their homes taken from them, or who have been shot at.”

This was said to me by a girl from Johannesburg at a bar in the Drakensburg. I asked her whether she shared the fear that had been expressed to me – that the situation would escalate into a mass land-grab like what happened in Zimbabwe?

Sign capturing historic facts concerning Apartheid in Cape Town

Sign capturing historic facts concerning Apartheid in Cape Town

“Oh – its already happening, man. Even these tribal land claims that are currently being processed by the courts…Many of them are fraudulent. And then the white farmers are given rock bottom dollar for their land and told to leave – and then once the blacks get it, they have no interest in continuing the practice of commercial farming – they don’t have the skills for it. If the government is going to turn over these white farms, who is going to ensure that the farms keep operating?”

Finally, one of the more recent racial phenemenom that is happening in South Africa concerns Xenophobia. This is a racial hatred that is being expressed with outbreaks of violence that is directed towards non-south african born blacks, who have been pouring into the economic promised land for years from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and so on… Here are some of the comments are heard about this issue:

“I would always hire a black non-south African over a black South African. They will work harder, with less trouble, for less money. ”

“They’ve got to increase security at the borders. They have got to stop letting (the black non-south Africans) them into South Africa. They are taking our jobs. It’s hard enough for South Africans to find work, yar? Problem is too, they come here and set up businesses or shops, and then they arrange to have all their family and friends move down to be with them – and they’re allowed in!”

“What do I think of Xenophobia? I think we need more Xen and less phobia”.

"Apartheid Squirrel"

“Apartheid Squirrel”

Many of the conversations I had left me confused and saddened, most often with more questions for every answer I received. I can’t help also draw the conclusion that much of the division between races nowadays has less to do with skin color, and far more to do with socio-economic distinctions.  It is becoming a country of class rather than color. Predominantly, the wealth is still with the white population and impoverished areas and townships are invariably black.  It is beginning to change, but I can’t see how things are going to improve significantly until the wealth gap narrows – but the same can be said of the United States as of South Africa.

Education is the key.  No child is ever born racist.  It is a learned behavior and equality of all people can only be achieved through love, tolerance, and opportunity/education for all South Africans.

If there is one universal sentiment that I heard expressed from everyone I met- be they white, black, colored or Asian, it was a deep and abiding love of their country. Despite how shockingly deep racial tensions get, despite the outbreaks of violence, despite the threat of civil war that many believe is coming – people speak of their “Rainbow Nation” with great pride, passion, and attachment.

It’s Africa, the land is beautiful, it gets under your skin and seeps into your soul, forever staying with you.

I was there three short weeks, but surely felt the same pull.