Getting under the skin of South Africa

South Africa, the rainbow nation, is a land of dichotomies and contrasts. While the natural beauty and diversity of the country is stunning and the […]

South Africa, the rainbow nation, is a land of dichotomies and contrasts. While the natural beauty and diversity of the country is stunning and the wildlife tantalizingly exotic; it is the people we have met here that leave the biggest impression. From fellow travellers to the locals, both black, white & everything in between, everyone is engaging and ready with a smile and a tale. We have spent many nights simply sitting around meeting people at the backpacker inns we have stayed at, rather than heading out to explore, simply because the people were so interesting. India was very different to this, we met a lot of fantastic people there, but the place somehow forces you to put up more barriers I think, if only to filter out the visual and sensory onslaught that India entails. Perhaps travellers there were all just seeking or searching for something different and off on their own trip. Africa has none of that, it is a place for the adventurous and the energy of the local people just seems naturally more socially infectious.

On the traveller side, we have met lots of students, doctors, nurses & other volunteers, mostly European (many Dutch) & some Americans with big hearts and aspirations, but few from Australia or Asia (perhaps that’s just seasonal?). There are many older travellers, retires and business people and regular interceptions of other longer term travellers like us, mid-stream though around their own world adventures of different types. There are too many travellers to mention of course, but its hard not to give a special plug to a fellow mad aussie Tristan – who is running 52 marathons in 52 countries in 52 weeks, yet still finding time to ‘run with the bulls’, attend rock festivals and have a regular night on the town. (Follow him at www.runlikecrazy.com)

And then there are the South Africans. South Africa is both rich and poor, it is Africa on a micro scale with all its different tribes and yet also global with its English, Dutch, Asian and Indian roots all bound together. In so many ways, the country is a crucible for the rest of the worlds’ struggles and its internal conflicts seem to represent all of our burdens as globalization and the ‘one world’ concept struggles to become reality. On the surface everyone is incredibly friendly, you get genuine engaging smiles & conversation from almost everyone you encounter. Perhaps this is part pre-world cup face, part cultural, but it is touching & welcoming nonetheless. The more time you spend here though, the more you start to scratch the surface and realize the country is bubbling away with strained racial tensions and still trying to come to terms with its past and its future. Racism is real here. In Australia, there are plenty of rednecks and racial overtones but most are bred through ignorance and lack of contact with other peoples. It is almost superficial, South Africa is different. Here there is a history and cause to the prejudices. Like its famed diamonds, it is uncut; each potential facet has its own character, history, issues and opinions. Yet with all its potential, it is still well short of the necessary polish and cuts required to really catch the light. Perhaps time is the polisher here, it is hard to be sure.

White South Africans seem to be a paranoid bunch, mostly justly chastened by their own experiences I am sure. We were constantly warned about crime and to expect the worst in people, despite all our experiences to the contrary. One white South African I met told me that “we fear them because of the potential for crime and violence we see disguised in every face. They fear us because of what we have & can do to them” with our wealth, power and knowledge of the system.

Another South African from Joburg told us, that since apartheid every Taxi (with a black driver) he gets in, drives at insane, dangerous speeds, as some form of subtle retaliation for sins past. Now, the next generation of white kids (his sons) have grown up experiencing this and they feel anger and resentment seeding new racial issues of their own. The cycle continues.

Another guy we met showed me an SMS from his daughter, the gist of which read “Hi Daddy, grandad got shot the other day, he is doing much, much better though”, a childhood positive spin on an otherwise everyday Mercedes hijacking in Joburg.

Other’s reminiscence about the times of Apartheid because things got done then, under the new regime everything is corrupt, African style – suggesting that the place is dysfunctional at every level of organization these days. The papers seem to suggest so as well, with scandals aplenty. President Zuma has loads of wives & 25+ kids, perhaps he just needs to feed them all somehow 😉

On the flip side our black Suweto tour guide, was showing us the township which we were expecting to be a ghetto, but looked like a pleasant neighbourhood in comparison to the barbed wire, guard dogs and heavily patrolled Joburg residences. He explained its simply by “Ubuntu”, as in, “we believe in community above all else”, something the white folks don’t have.

Our guide in Kruger had a lot to say on Apartheid and both his and his fathers struggles working under British and Afrikaans rule and the mines of Johannesburg, but that story we mostly knew already. Most revealing were his comments about the other tribes, particularly the Zulu (Zuma the PM is a Zulu), describing them as not very intelligent for a start. Suggestions and overtones we would hear many times, the black population themselves seem firmly divided by their own tribes and politics. The divide is far deeper than simple skin colour.

In Durban we met Indians (there are something like 1.3 million in Durban), seemingly the most positive of the lot, while in Capetown we met ‘coloureds’ (of Malaysian / Indonesian slave backgrounds). All were quick to offer different views, opinions and issues again, to the same endless debate. Everyone is very forward with their conversations about race and race issues, it seems to be the one saving grace – open discussion, however negative has to be some kind of step.

While we have been here the leader of the ANC youth (a subset of Mandella’s old party, the ANC), has publicly been singing a song containing the inflammatory lyrics “kill the boer”, he has violently thrown a BBC journalist out of a news conference and just visited Mugabe in Zimbabwe praising some of his policies against white farm reclamations and attitudes towards foreign company ownership. In the same week, the leader of the AWB (the Afrikaans version of white supremists I gather) gets murdered by 2 black farmhands and both parties are rallying against each other with retaliation statements, while the rest of nation waits on tenderhooks, suspecting a race war to break out.

All this in the lead up to what should South Africa’s coming out party. If anything was going to unite this place, the World Cup should. It’s a black mans sport, the national obsession and a global showcase of South Africa to the world, one suspects it is their best chance at trying to forge some national unity.