Race in South Africa

Johannesburg, more commonly called Joburg or Jozi, has a nasty reputation as a violent, dirty city.  So, naturally, we booked an apartment in the Maboneng district downtown a few days to judge for ourselves.  Maboneng is an urban redevelopment project, with restaurants, bars, art installations, coffee shops, apartments, tiny container stores, and weekly markets.  Gentrified, sure, but without the negative connotation of racial displacement.  It felt safe, and South Africans of every color were around.  To use an overloaded term, it was a picture of post-racial harmony.  In our three days, we met all kinds of South Africans.  The black trainer at Sir Stan’s gym told me to come back and he’ll “really make me sweat”; two men of Indian descent described the culture around marijuana in the country; and we chatted with a mixed Spanish/South African couple over craft beer.  We sipped “africcino,” bargained on the street corner, and ate Ethiopian food.  The diversity was casual and comfortable.

The various shades of Maboneng  "Dirty, violent" downtown Jozi

Our next stop after Jozi was our inspiring DIY safari in Kruger, followed by a three-week road trip across South Africa.  The drive took us south to Durban, down the wild and sunshine coasts to Cape Town via Port Elizabeth, and finally through the interior back to Johannesburg.  The country is mind-blowingly beautiful.  We camped near beaches, waterfalls, and mountains, filled to the brim with odd creatures and lush plants.  The campgrounds were packed since we showed up during the December holidays, when nearly everyone is on vacation.  Camping is the South African national pastime.  Like the scenery, the folks we met at the campgrounds were beautiful.  Kind, funny, and curious, they always made us glad we said hello.

Road Trip Vistas

For all that beauty, the country has a rather nasty undercurrent.  At the Apartheid Museum in Joburg – “Apartheid is exactly where it belongs, in a museum” – we learned a little of the history behind the practice.  Our generation was young enough in the early 90s that we don’t know the story well.  We know that Apartheid was bad, but we forget that the founding of modern South Africa leading to free elections in 1994 was completed against the backdrop of a racial war that nearly spiraled out of control.  Hundreds died while the Constitution of the country was under negotiation.  Had the founders failed, the result would have been disastrous.  (The story is presented movingly in the Museum itself.  I highly recommend a visit.)  Nelson Mandela is featured, but the battle was much bigger than Mandela vs. Apartheid.

Though Apartheid is in a museum, the stain remains.  Racial tension in the country is palpable.  Older white men, in our experience, seem to carry it most overtly.  We met a Greek restauranteur in Jeffrey’s Bay who, 30 seconds after meeting him, proceeded to tell us that the founders of America did the right thing by killing all the Native Americans.  He then pointed at my skin, saying the genetics made us better.  Jacque later commented that the shock on my face was obvious.  In Port Alfred, a 60-year-old hitchhiker we met in the hostel commented on his dirty face: “I must’ve looked half a nigger, no wonder I wasn’t getting picked up.”  Later in the trip, I made the mistake of mentioning the racist old men to a younger South African.  He immediately went on the defensive: “America has race problems, too!”  It’s a point I couldn’t argue.

Blatant racism aside, the country is racially divided.  There are few places where races mix on equal footing.  Even Kruger, a national park funded in part by the government for all South Africans, is mostly frequented by white South Africans.  “A playground for white people,” our host in Cape Town called it.  Whole towns, even, seem populated by only one race.  At times, we needed to stop for gas or groceries in predominantly black towns.  There was genuine surprise that we were even there, though usually that evaporated when they learned we’re foreigners.  Restaurants, beaches, hostels, campgrounds: the story was usually white people with black security guards, parking attendants, and waiters.


It’s difficult to tell if the separation we saw was due to ongoing discrimination.  The Apartheid era intentionally set and kept blacks on a low socioeconomic rung of the ladder; certainly, those socioeconomic conditions take a long time to change.  The economic inequality of South Africa remains high, evidenced by the walls and electric fences around most residences.  No campground is without security and gated entry.  A man we met in Ballito, near Durban, described three times that he physically repelled thieves from his home with a baseball bat and one time that his home was completely cleaned out during a vacation, all the way to the clothes in the closet.  The inequality here is up close and personal.  One man has a huge house and a Land Rover, and a couple miles away, people live in grass-roof huts just off the dusty highway.

The inequality we saw during our drive favored white South Africans in general.  It’s a situation that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party, in control of the government since 1994, has tackled with affirmative action-style tactics.  The policies favor black hiring over white hiring for all types of jobs.  The aim is clear and justifiable, though it seems the pendulum has swung too far.  White people are leaving the country in droves.  Those that we talked to were generally thinking about emigrating or had family members already overseas.  In a campground eight hours outside Joburg, an 18-year-old summer hire put it succinctly: “This place is fucked up for me.”  He was going to Montana the next summer to work on a ranch, and his friend was shipping off to French Foreign Legion boot camp in a month.  Coming from farming families, they simply didn’t see opportunity as lower-class white people in the new South Africa.

Coffee Bay

Apartheid hangover, racial division, socioeconomic inequality, reverse racism:  they’re less obviously evil than Apartheid, but work more insidiously to bring a country to its knees.  As it did in 1994, it will require brave people of all races to fix the country.  Toward the middle of our journey, we had the pleasure of traveling for a few days with Jaco and Riet, a couple from the Northern Cape Province around our age.  They are Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers many hundreds of years ago.  South Africa is their home more than America is my home; parts of my family have only been in the States since the 1900s.  While telling us about friends who had moved to Australia – a good number, to hear them say it – they made a commitment.  “This is our country,” Jaco said, “we can choose to leave, or we can choose to stay and be a part of the solution.”  They’ve chosen the latter, and I hope for South Africa’s sake that many more in their generation choose the same.  Selfishly, I’d love to return to the country in 20 years to see that the feeling we had in Maboneng has grown.  It will take bravery like Jaco and Riet’s, from South Africans of all races, to make that a reality.

Cape Town


2 thoughts on “Race in South Africa

  1. Paul, your article on South Africa is excellent. It reminds me of the many times I’ve experienced racism from several sides of the issue. When you consider that racism has been around from the beginning ( the victorious would enslave their captives) society has made progress. None too fast for the victims. Unfortunately color differentiates us. It is a natural barrier and prevents the natural progression of social intercourse. The French were probably the most enlightened starting from the time of Louie XIV & XV; but, they lost their way. When you consider that the Church actually subscribed (and preached) that the white man was superior and it was God’s will, it’s not at all surprising that changing this attitude has been so terribly slow. The best (and probably only) solution is education and time.

    We really very much enjoy your blogs. It absolutely and definitely bears repeating that you must proceed with the publication of your experiences.

    Sent from my iPad



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s