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Perspectives – Conversations in South Africa

“It would have been impossible for me to own my own business … or even just be a tour guide twenty years ago.  Before, only whites could be tour guides and interact with whites.  I can’t tell you what a difference there is between now and before apartheid ended”.  

This from a woman of color – Cathy – who is not black – and who grew up in a coloured township with parents who had enough of an income to send her to school with lunch everyday and firm admonishments “not to take the free soup and bread and take it away from those who need it more.”  Coloured was differentiated from Black under apartheid – they were the descendants primarily of slaves brought in from Asia and the near East – and they were treated better and held more privileges than black Africans under Apartheid – though were still marginalized.

“As a woman, I was forced out of my teaching job after five years with mandatory work limit rules before apartheid.  They hired a bachelor to replace me.  You see, apartheid went well beyond race.  It impacted everything – male, female, race, religion. Where you could sit.  Who you could marry.  Everything – much more than race.”

This from our white city tour guide, Andrea, who has lived in the country for over forty years, but still maintains her German citizenship and pays German taxes.  “Before the end of apartheid and during the unrest I kept my citizenship so I could leave if I had to.  Now it’s just paper, but at least I can get a good pension in Germany if I needed to go back for it.  Here, there is no safety net.” 

Both women acknowledge the problems still here.  Cathy sees promise, and acknowledges the problems still faced here through a more optimistic lens than Andrea, who talks about the difficulties living here with more frustration and reflections on what is wrong.

What Cathy calls “settlements”, Andrea refers to as “squatters”.  They are both referring to the same thing – informal communities where people set up shanty homes on unused land to be closer to work in the cities so they spend less time and income on transport to their jobs.  Many of these people come to the cities from rural areas where there is no work or way to support themselves.  They set up homes where they can make space for themselves, and those homes turn into communities.

While Cathy describes settlements as places that eventually will be embraced as townships and provided with proper clean water and heath care and housing and schools and services, Andrea describes the squatter shanties as places that are dangerous.  While the residents aren’t necessarily bad themselves, the shanties are havens for criminals and thieves who commit crimes in the city and then shelter there.

I suspect both women are right, in their way.

These women seem to have much in common. They are both entrepreneurs and are intelligent and have gumption.  They both come from families with some means that gave them a decent start, and an advantage over many others here.  Both revere Nelson Mandela.  Both are glad for the end of apartheid. 

Both point out the shortcomings of South Africa’s rapid development and the country’s struggle to keep up … Cathy the shortage of power and the lag in meaningful resources to build more power plants to end the rolling blackouts that plague the country.  Andrea the architectural jumble that makes Capetown a crazy mix of urban planning and missed urban opportunity – with colonial next to modern and rapid development over planned foresight.

They both discuss the black-on-black xenophobia that currently pits local blacks against the economic and political refugees from other countries across Africa who have fled to CapeTown for employment and opportunity – and are perceived as a threat by many for taking away jobs.

More significantly, they both believe the next generation – the youth under 21 who grew up outside of apartheid and its influence – will be the true change agents in this country.  They both believe that these young people – who grow up in the new South Africa – will have a very different perspective – and fewer limits on their view of what’s possible for South Africa’s future.

But while Cathy is carefully optimistic, and qualifies the problems in education and healthcare in the more forgiving and promising light of someone who has tangibly benefited from the social shift and understands that people need a hand up when they start from so far behind, Andrea points out the frustrations of a city that could – and should – function more competently.  

The escalators that were repaired for the first time in years before the 2010 World Cup and then never repaired again after they broke a month later.  The mandatory employment rules that dictate a high percentage of hires a business must make must comply by race requirements, which she feels limits economic development and opportunity for everyone.  The feeling of unfairness now in a society that she says has policies that prefer blacks rather than treats everyone equally.   The crime that plagues the city and oppresses freedom to safely move around the city at night.

And as a Capetown citizen who clearly loves her city and its history, she is frustrated by the current political movement to rid the city of colonial symbols, statues and monuments.  “We are all South African”, she says.  “You can’t just erase the past.  You must put it behind and move forward and look to the future.”  She is exasperated, and, I suspect, a little uncertain for her future here as a white resident.

Missing from this comparative of course is a conversation with a black woman … which I hope to have soon.  (It’s probably telling that this has not been easily accessible yet to a white visitor.) And I will bet she will see things differently still.  And i know that in a social environment as complicated as this it’s impossible for me, as an outsider, to grasp the depth of what’s truly happening from limited interactions. 

But I do think this city – and this country – is in the midst of a remarkable transformation.  That is difficult.  And uncertain.  And exciting.  And promising.  And probably a bit scary for everyone living here.  

And what strikes me the most, as I listen to both women discuss what’s happening in South Africa today, is that these exact conversations  – and fears and frustration and worries – still happen back home.  Even though our civil rights laws were approved decades earlier.  

And I can only hope South Africa figures it out faster than we have.


Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate lives in Seattle, WA. She is a two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate, a former political consultant and communications specialist, and a former travel blogger and cyclist.