South Africa is so beautiful, so painful, so complicated. The complexity of the nation stopped me from writing about my experiences and observations for a long time. I struggled to understand the intricate dynamics of South African culture and society, and I didn’t want to write about something I didn’t understand. I still don’t really get it, but I want to share some of my thoughts and experiences. Please remember that this is the perspective of an outsider. My stories and opinions don’t define the nation.
I’d like to begin by pushing back on the tendency to generalize Africa, to speak about it as one place, one culture, one political unit. This type of thinking perpetuates western-centric ideologies and could not be further from the truth. My experiences are admittedly limited, but it is clear to me that the continent is not monolithic. South Africa, in particular, is different than any other African nation I have seen. It is very developed; cars follow traffic laws, roads are paved, the tap water is potable, goods have set prices (usually), and Cape Town doesn’t have that hectic, buzzing, desperate, and totally overwhelming feel of Nairobi or Tangier. However, there is extreme poverty hidden behind the façade of development. Nearly 50% of the adult population (~35 million people) live below the poverty line, 29% are unemployed, and a black person is 4 times more likely to be unemployed than a white person.
During my time in South Africa I saw a country that is overflowing with natural beauty, where nature is incredibly big, close, breathtaking, and a little scary at times. I saw a country still bleeding from historical trauma, where the remnants of institutional segregation are heartbreaking, and where inequality is drawn along racial lines. I saw a country brimming with talented, ambitious, and forward-thinking youth, where goodwill transcends barriers.
South Africa is a lot of things and how you experience the country depends, to a large extent, on what you look like and how much money you have. There is a lot of land in South Africa and it’s brimming with majestic fauna and unique flora. I had the privilege to work alongside giraffes, zebra, kudu, wildebeest, and monitors; I had the misfortune to share my house with a spitting cobra; I saw some of the most beautiful plants imaginable in the most extreme settings. However, my access to this land was intimately linked to my economic privilege, the educational opportunities I’ve had, and my light skin.
As a consequence of colonialism, hereditary land ownership, and mandated segregation, a massive economic gap paralleling racial lines has developed in South Africa. Over 70% of the agricultural land in South Africa is owned by white farmers, and yet less than 10% of the population is white. In many areas, expensive houses and estates sit next to corrugated tin shacks, separated by large fences and an enormous wealth gap. In other areas, inequality exists between towns; a poor town sits next to an affluent town. The houses, farms, and game reserves owned by the white elite have massive security, which is undoubtedly related to economic inequality and the resulting propensity for crime. However, the fences that were built in response to this dynamic exclude the vast majority of South Africans from accessing and engaging with the amazing natural beauty of their own country. So, although the landscape took my breath away, the inequality of land ownership made it difficult to enjoy.
Racial inequality in South Africa extends beyond land ownership to educational and financial opportunities. The average white family makes 6 times that of a black family. In addition, many young black professionals still support their parents (who were likely deprived education and work opportunities under apartheid). Even within the liberal bubble of the University of Cape Town (UCT) these dynamics are evident. Sure, UCT is more diverse than the American universities I’ve attended (by a lot), but it is not an accurate representation of the nation. South Africa is 80% black, 9% white, 9% colored, and 2% indian or asian. However, UCT is only 25% black, but 30% white, 13% colored, and 7% indian or asian (the remaining 25% are international). The glaring underrepresentation of black South Africans at this institution is problematic, and although the administration is attempting to address this, progress has been painfully slow. As a consequence, I found that I was often completely surrounded by white people in academic spaces.
What was more challenging for me than observing this inequality and segregation, was the daily confrontation with racism. Although I grew up in a deeply racist society (let’s not forget that America has a race problem too) I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in South Africa. The racism in South Africa is bigger, more blatant, and more oppressive that anything I have witnessed before. Throughout my time there, I observed degrees of racism, ranging from blatant, to subtly dangerous, to implicit bias. On one end of the spectrum, I was told (without any solicitation) that “segregation was good because racial mixing would ruin white society”. More common however, were subtle forms of racism hidden behind translucent veils of philanthropy. Plenty of white people participate in community development, school building, mentoring, and charity of other kinds, but hold an implicit (sometimes explicit) viewpoint that without their assistance, people of color would be living in squalor. To me, this type of paternal racism is even more damaging than explicit racism because it builds dependency, takes away agency, and is extremely difficult to combat as the enemy is disguised as your friend and patron. That being said, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many open-minded and forward-thinking white South Africans who actively push back on racism every day.
Observing these dynamics caused me to reflect on the ways in which I may have unconsciously perpetuated similar ideologies. Although I consider myself to be a proponent of equality, I know that I have my own implicit biases. I grew up with (and still enjoy) considerable privilege, and I don’t know if I have done enough to acknowledge this or push back on discrimination and prejudice. What I saw in South Africa opened my eyes to how easy it is to ignore the small discriminatory decisions we make daily, and it renewed my commitment to critically analyzing my actions and how they impact others.
As an outsider, I don’t feel that it is my place to fix the issues that South Africa is struggling with. I believe that we need creative, home-grown solutions to address these wicked problems, and these should developed and implemented by South Africans in an authentic and self-empowering way. That being said, I will do what I can to support the cause. In writing this piece, I simply hope to shed light on some of the challenges that South Africa faces, bring the discussion to a different group of people, and build awareness around the global struggles of inequality, racism, and poverty.
Despite these challenges, I fell completely in love with South Africa. There is so much beauty behind the pain. There is so much vibrancy and resiliency in her people. There is so much potential for good. When I was forced to leave unexpectedly (due to the global pandemic of 2020) I felt a deep sense of loss and I know that I will do whatever it takes to return as soon as possible.