“The way it is:” First Perspectives in South Africa


I’ve been in Cape Town for just over a week. I’ve surfed at Muizenberg and stood atop the summit at Signal Hill. On the streets of Rondebosch I’ve ridden in precariously overcrowded “taxis” (which are actually minibuses) and in the halls of the Univesrity of Cape Town I’ve stood in hours-long “queues” (which are actually lines). But the moment I realized just how far I am from home came in a place symbolic of the country I’ve lived in my whole life: A run-down township.

Cape Town’s economic disparity doesn’t vary widely from that of American metropoli; Indeed, both the glitterati of Rodeo Drive and the paupers of Skid Row call Los Angeles home. But it seems that South Africa doesn’t bother hiding its most destitute. And I spent some time with them on Tuesday.

The townships—living residue of the 1950 Group Areas Act, in which South Africa’s ruling National Party forcibly relocated several black communities and destroyed the longstanding infrastructures—line the freeways just beyond City Center. My group of study abroad students spent a morning in two of them (Nyanga and Manenberg), scrutinizing the makeshift shacks and shoddily paved schoolyards like one would the halls of the Louvre.

The townships aren’t tucked away. They’re just off the main roads. And it felt deeply awkward to walk around them and interact with kids who will never know our names or our life narratives, and to smile at adults who knew that we had no business being there. (The kids, ages 6-15, had a bizarre, almost mechanized instinct to jump on us and insist on piggy-back rides.) I wanted to scream each time I saw a UCT student slip a camera from her pocket and snap a portrait of “authentic township life.” One friend called the trip “poverty tourism.” That’s what it felt like: A junket into Africa, back before sundown for drinks.

But despite the disturbing discomfort of that outing, my morning in the townships (the implications of which I’ll write more on later) affirmed one thing: Twenty years post-apartheid, the inequality that once beset South Africa hasn’t fallen away.

That’s not a novel claim, and it’s not one whose truths are limited to the African continent or this country. (We know well that the United States still suffers from similar root issues half a century after our own Civil Rights Act.) But it places South Africa in the midst of a fascinating and confusing historical moment.

Consider the zealous and polarizing debates of the 1980s: Should Reagan bulldoze the “affirmative action regime” that grew out of the post-Johnson years? Does the federal government owe African Americans influential posts in agencies from which they had long been excluded? How ought politicians reconcile centuries of unjust policy with what one South African friend of mine dubbed “the way it is”? South Africa now stands in the clutches of those questions; ones for which the US still hasn’t found effective and comprehensive answers.

We know that apartheid was wrong. And we know that racial equity is right. But nothing is that simple (especially in South Africa), and such equity doesn’t yet exist. We’re also not quite sure how to fix it. No one in South Africa, of any race, class, or community history, shares the same opinion or perspective. I’ve set out to hear how South Africans answer those questions, and—hopefully, down the line—come to some working conclusions of my own.

At a bar in Rosebank, a recent UCT graduate (and self-proclaimed hyper-capitalist) named Essi told me that black culture is to blame for the gaps that persist in South African education. He said that if your conqueror is able to overtake you without as much as a fight, and you’re never able to emerge from your oppression, you deserve the second-class spot your society has carved out for you. South Africa, he said, doesn’t owe affirmative action or retroactive assistance to its black populations still mired in poverty.

My liberal ears, trained to hear the racism in every breath, perked up. Essi’s argument seemed colonial—and pretty backward—to me. But Seti is black. He grew up in the Zulu ethos of Soweto and graduated last year with a degree in politics. “If you’re born with four fingers, you can’t spend your whole life wishing you had five,” he said. “You have to learn to do the best you can with the eighty percent you’ve been dealt.” I had trouble with that perspective.

Then, on a tour bus en route to the Cape of Good Hope, I looked out the window and noticed a sign that implied that the Western Cape isn’t controlled by the ANC. (The opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (or DA) governs the province; the ANC runs the other eight.) I turned to the orientation leader sitting next to me and asked her why most provinces continued to vote for the ANC despite its known corruption and failings. “We’re never going to stop voting for the ANC,” she said. “People associate it too strongly with the end of apartheid. We’re indebted.”

That surprised me. Black South Africans won’t allow a new party to become the parliamentary majority, even if its policies have proven more efficient and effective? “The older generation still doesn’t like the idea of white people in power,” she told me. “When Mandela didn’t outlaw Afrikaans as a language, many blacks took issue with that. But you can’t just throw away an entire culture.” Even if it’s the culture of the longtime oppressor, she was suggesting. She told me that Apartheid ingrained in black South Africans a worldview of oppression, and many community elders still live under its weight. They’re the teachers in many townships, and they teach young people—who might be achieving and rising out of the their still-disadvantaged neighborhoods—through the prism of that oppression.

And then today, during my class registration period, I asked my white, 60-something academic advisor whether the course load I’d chosen would be too heavy. (Many orientation speakers and leaders had warned us against taking high level courses—the kind that I’d naturally take as a junior back at Emory.) “In this country, many come into the university without the proper background in some of the courses they want to take,” she said. “There are self-correcting mechanisms for that at UCT.” She pointed out a few course titles that were followed by a plus sign, and noted that those were for students who needed a bit more in-built context. Later, I asked a friend—a grad student at the university, also originally from Soweto—what that was all about. “A lot of black students take those,” he said. Apartheid’s shadow hasn’t faded.

I have a lot of questions. I’m going to keep asking them, and piecing together themes and broader messages in the answers I get. I won’t use this blog to list what I ate today, or to post pictures of the vivid panoramas I see. All that is for other my own journal and, you know, Facebook. I’m going to use it, as I always have, as a space to work through those questions, engage my thoughts and yours, and wrestle with what South Africa tells me about “the way it is.” I hope you’ll join me.

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3 thoughts on ““The way it is:” First Perspectives in South Africa

  1. White vs Black is not the main problem. It is as common a problem as elsewhere in the world – corrupt politicians make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is sad when help comes to these people in shacks in the form of schools and education and jobs but they burn down the schools and strike because they do not want to work but prefer to loot and murder. It is sad for everyone.

  2. Because of your writing, Ami, I know I shall learn and challenge myself in thinking about complex issues while you are at Capetown. I plan to read this piece several times (have just seen it and read it for the first time). I am taken by its depth and by your perception. Keep writing when you can, please.
    Love from the happy reader

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