Reflections – South Africa

South Africa

It was a good experience in seeing how a backpacker business is run and what it’s like to work with management who have their head up their ass. Really, the money thing was a minor issue for us but working with the two cleaning ladies and one caretaker put everything into perspective. We got to know these two women especially, who are of the Xhosa tribe. They worked seven days a week without holiday, woke up at 6:00 a.m. to hitchhike into work and started work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. They got paid 60 Rand a day (That’s like 13 bucks Canadian a day). A pizza can cost anywhere between 32 Rand to 50 Rand. They weren’t allowed to eat anything other than eggs and bread or enjoy any of the other luxuries that Lizzy and I had. Not that that stopped Lizzy and me from ferreting food away for them. We did it whenever we could and as much as we could without it making it look noticeable. Not that they ate much to begin with, but there was no way I was going to enjoy fruit when the caretaker and cleaning women could only have bread. We started encouraging the guests to mention in the guest register book about the breakfasts that they had (made by these two lovely women) and this in turn prompted some guests to tip them. In the end, we just gave all three whatever tips we made in the bar. It was one real inside view of how people get exploited and taken for granted. One time, the caretaker was accused of stealing some crockery and asked to leave without even asking him if he did steal anything or how he came into contact with these cooking pans. It was only when somebody haphazardly informed the owners that they were actually given to him that they invited him back to work. I don’t know if there was even an apology made.

To me, the message was apartheid may be officially over but it still runs deep into the South African way of life for a lot (not all) of people. It’s disturbing and after some thought; I realized that I couldn’t expect people to change so quickly. After living for so many years with an archaic, oppressive and repressive political ideology, a mind set that denied black and coloured people basic human rights; how could one expect another to simply turn it off or substitute it for another, from one day to the next? Unfortunately, it is a process that takes a lot of time and effort. Neither of which some people are still not interested in investing in. They still cling to the days of old. Even in the backpackers, we had some older South Africans come through and after a couple of drinks, spouted their tainted/jaded views of blacks. Even just saying that word, black. The political correct movement in Canada had made me feel (and this is not a complaint) very uncomfortable using words like ‘black’ or ‘coloured’ to distinguish one person from another. Unless I was a redneck and/or too accustomed to distinguishing people by their colour, I would say things like African Canadian, the person’s names or, ‘that guy in the yellow T-shirt’. I just don’t feel comfortable using it, yet everybody says it around here. I have even used the term now again because it does, unfortunately for the majority, distinguish between the haves and have-nots. It is very common to see white people having a black worker doing some type of manual labour or care taking job for them at their house.

In some areas though, things have changed despite the slow pace. More and more coloured and black people are acquiring better jobs with higher salaries. You can see their faces in movies, T.V. series, magazines and even mannequins. I wasn’t long ago that you would never have seen such things.

Quick recap: The Dutch East India company established their trading post in 1652 near Cape Town which soon became a colony. From there, the Dutch settlers developed their own dialect (Afrikaans), started the slavery industry and expanded eastward. Despite the Boer (Dutch-Afrikaner) war with the Xhosa in 1779, the Boers continued expanding their empire until the British annexed the Cape in 1806. The Boers regarded this as uninvited interference, particularly when the British did the intolerable and abolished slavery in 1834. Warring amongst the tribes and ever increasing tensions between the British and the Boers led to another war in 1899-1902 which resulted in the Boer’s loss. With the 1910 creation of the Union of South Africa that gave whites political control and with the Afrikaner National Party’s election win in 1948 that restricted non whites from having any economic and political power whatsoever, the outlook for non whites was very bleak as the inhumane laws were violently enforced by the white security and police forces. Many protests were staged by non-whites (and some whites) and some resulted in massacres of innocent people and children and the brutal slayings of political activists. The story of Steven Biko is a stellar example of this. (One popular movie, ‘Cry Freedom’, dabbled a bit on his short life). Of the organizations that openly opposed the racist regime, the African National Congress (ANC) was arguably the most popular despite many of its leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, were being imprisoned. Pressure from the national and international community, economic and political sanctions, the quasi-successful liberation efforts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola nearby and the poorly veiled attempts at reform ultimately led to the demise of the white government rule. In 1989, F W de Klerk’s reforms, including the release of political prisoners, Nelson Mandela among them, repeal of Group Areas Act (which put blacks in certain areas of the country. Once outside these areas called ‘homelands’ they had to carry ID passport cards with them and if they didn’t have them, they were guilty of some silly made up rule and thrown in jail or deported back to their ‘homeland’ area) and the signing of a peace accord with the ANC, things started to brighten for South Africa. The thousands of hours put in by white, coloured and black South Africans, many at the risk of theirs and their own family’s lives, to put an end to apartheid were beginning to pay off. With the election of the ANC’s legendary Nelson Mandela and a new political direction planned, South Africa started learning about democracy. With Thabo Mbeki’s current position as president, his challenge is to lower to the level of unemployment, lower crime rates, create economic equality and steer clear of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe’s corrupted notion of democracy. It’s a tall order.

When we landed in Johannesburg we flew over some townships. It was appalling to see thousand upon thousands of dilapidated shacks. You can see the same thing when you drive away from the airport in Cape Town. Homes consist of corrugated iron roofs with a mish mash of dirty multicoloured wooden boards nailed together on a leaning crooked frame. Some have toilets inside while others o to the communal township toilet and water taps. When Lizzy and I were in Camps Bay, we did a township tour in Haut Bay. The tour was called ‘The Green Turtle’ and it was very well organized and informative. Our tour guide gave us a history of township development, forced removal of blacks from their homes by the Afrikaans to the townships, fires and riots with the Afrikaans in the townships that resulted in many deaths of innocent people, differences in status between the whites (have most, if not all), coloured (caught in the middle. Not black but not white either. Have some liberties) and blacks (don’t have a hell of a lot of anything), racism not only between whites and blacks but between coloureds and blacks, Xhosa and Zulu etc., and exploitation and abuse of black people that still occurs today by white and coloured South Africans. Some people have done other tours in townships across the country and while some can be good, others are not. One reason we heard was that some tours bring you through the townships and peoples’ homes and frequently ask you to donate more money at every stop and this is after you have paid your initial 200-300 Rand tour fee. It’s like a tour guide parading you around to people looking for handouts and your guilted into giving. A lot of these companies claim that a part of the proceeds go to the township people but I really don’t think it goes very far. The tour we did basically paid for our guide, taxi driver, and our township guide who ran a nursery. Nevertheless, if you get a chance to do it, I highly recommend it. It certainly is eye opening stuff. We were taken through a few homes, a sangoma’s (traditional healer) business, through the streets and a few places where people make arts and crafts. The surprising thin was that some people had really nice homes comparatively. We were told that these people did not want to leave their neighbourhood irregardless if they could afford it or not. For some, it was prestige and respect from within their own community, for others it was pride. Another thing was that no matter how much poverty there was, a tangled mass electrical wires ran into most people’s homes to power their televisions. We hung out in the nursery for a while feeding the kids. Every child patiently waited for their share of food and drinks, each careful not to drink too much so that other scan have some drink as well. Part of our money went to this place because they barely had food and anything for the kids to play or learn with. They were awfully cute ranging from one to six years old. One child with soiled pants insisted sitting on Lizzy’s and my lap on separate occasions. He was pretty funny as he wobbled on unsteady legs around the room with a white ring of mushed food around his lips. We liked him instantly. Outside, people were just hanging around, working, or looking for work at temp jobs. Lower paying jobs are hard to find and most people are not qualified to for the upper tech jobs.

Some people would argue that having any job is better than having no job at all. While there is truth in that statement, that is not the point, is it? Without a doubt, unemployment is a big problem in Africa, let alone South Africa, where you can see loads of people standing on the side of streets, corners and intersections with their fingers out signalling that they are available for work. It isn’t an easy task for any government to employ a workforce of millions in a short period of time but it never should’ve come to that point; and with the South Africans paying black people a wage that no white person would settle for, the eradication of economic apartheid is a long time in coming.

There is a good book to read that shows the racist mentality of some of the people of South Africa and the conditions in which they lived in. It consists of bunch of short stories. It was actually made for high school teaching: To Kill A Man’s Pride (and other short stories from South Africa) 2nd edition, edited by Marcus Ramogale. Published by Raven Press (pty) Ltd.

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