South Africa Race Relations
Race relations and the remnants of Apartheid in South Africa are so complex and deeply rooted that trying to make sense of it can make your head spin at times. During a road trip through the Eastern Cape, I saw so many different sides to the country – a lunch with black revolutionary Steve Biko’s widow and a two-day stay with white Afrikaner farmers in the rural countryside – that I wasn’t sure how I felt about both the past and future of South Africa.
Our afternoon with Mrs. Biko was inspiring. We visited her husband’s grave, where she spoke of the contributions he had made to end Apartheid in South Africa and to raise black consciousness. She allowed us to tour the business center she had set up for black South Africans, where people could receive help with resumes and obtain access to computers and fax machines.
Only a day later, we were in home-stays on Afrikaner farms, where black male workers were still referred to as “boys” and dogs were trained to attack anyone who was not white. How could this be the same South Africa? Were things really getting better or had not much changed in the 11 years since the end of Apartheid?
We quickly learned that things were not as simple or easy as they first appeared. Some people still held the same views they had before Apartheid ended, making race relations tense. Some people had managed to forgive the atrocities they had endured because they believed in a better future for their country. Many blacks were still living in poverty in townships; many white Afrikaners were facing huge financial hardship after losing farms that had been in their families for generations. Some blacks were using new advantages to leave the townships and gain educations and money; some whites continued to live in the sprawling mansions in gated communities just as they had during Apartheid. Things were better, things were worse, things were the same. How do you make any sense of it?
I think understanding that relations in South Africa remain complicated is a sure way to help understand the country you are encountering. Talk to people wherever you go, and make an effort to engage with people from all different backgrounds – blacks, whites, coloureds, Xhosa, Cape Malays, Afrikaners. You will encounter them all in Cape Town.
I also found it useful and interesting to do a variety of reading before I left for Cape Town. A simple understanding of Cape Town’s history, from the San people to Jan van Riebeeck to Steve Biko, is useful, as is reading literature from South Africa authors. I would enthusiastically recommend JM Coetzee (particularly Disgrace) or Nadine Gordimer – both are internationally popular and respected South African authors who paint a picture of what race relations in South Africa have been like, spawning about 30 years. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read beloved former president Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, as nearly every South African you will meet has read it, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness which deals with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
South Africa has a confusing, painful and intense past – which a majority of Capetonians will tell you makes the present and the future all the more rich and interesting. How they deal with relations seems to be a glimpse at humanity, or at the very least, real human beings.