South Africa's biggest Elephant. It's complicated.
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Published: March 20th 2015
My starting point.
Before I arrived in South Africa I knew a few things about the place, especially that during the 60's 70's and 80's that the racist abomination called "apartheid" had dispossessed and enslaved the indigenous Africans plus all non-white citizens while empowering the whites to rule supreme over them. Their nightmare ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was freed from jail, emerging as one of the greatest statesman of all the ages. He forgave their brutality and called for reconciliation. He persuaded the non-white peoples to live in peace together with the whites. A mere 20 years have passed and I was keen to see for myself how the society had grown, in particular to witness what the conditions for African and non whites were, and see if white privilege still existed.
I discovered that it's very complicated. That this huge Elephant in the room is as complex as those 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles where all the pieces look alike. Grey with dark streaks. You think you find the
piece that fits. You pick it up to try but it's not a fit. You look again. I learned something every day, even now I'm revising my previous perceptions. I learned a lot.
After a month as an observer, I left with some strong impressions. I may be right but I could also be wrong. The puzzle was not finished. Some pieces still don't fit, but here are my random impressions. Remember that I only experienced life in Cape Town and the Cape provinces. Cape Town is the city of white prosperity and that is what I saw. I wanted to go, but did not, to Johannesburg where black prosperity resides nor to Durban where Indian prosperity dominates so I saw neither.
In Cape Town I saw well-heeled leafy suburbs with lovely modern houses beautifully laid out on tree lined streets. And glimpsed countless sprawling, desperately poverty stricken areas, eyesores on the outskirts of the cities and towns where the black, coloured and non-white people live in shacks, elbowing each other for space to move. These are not
suburbs. Those are Townships. The two contrast radically, as different as could possibly be. Whites were the only persons I saw living in Cape Town's leafy suburbs. There are no whites living in the Townships. Townships clearly are not equal opportunity housing in CapeTown or anywhere else.
Secrets of the Language.
I discovered something peculiar about the use of the word Township. Townships exist only in South Africa! And while the rest of the world would acknowledge such housing to be depressed areas aka slums or ghettos. Not so Capetonians. They wouldn't agree that's what they equate. Wikipedia explained it a little for me. "Township" apparently has a legal status in South Africa. But the living conditions in those places the world recognizes as townships clearly equate ghettos/slums anywhere else. To me the legalese is a smoke screen, let's just call a spade a spade since "a rose by any other name.... "
So, according to Wikipedia "The legal meaning of the term "township" in South Africa differs from the popular usage, and has a precise legal meaning<sup id="cite_ref-10" class="reference" style="outline:
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without any racial connotations. The term is used in land titles
and townships are subdivided into erfs (stands).
"Township" can also mean a designated area or district".
I heard words in daily use that I associated with the apartheid era. For me that took some getting used to. People there still frequently say coloured and non-white. To my ear those are antiquated, colonial even offensive "divide and rule" terms once used, e.g. to keep house and field slaves divided by "privilege" in the southern US. Eventually I discovered that there exists a great amount of divisiveness among the "non whites" so that persons who are "not black" elect to call themselves "coloured". This plays out in housing districts of the Townships. I had this detail confirmed to me by BOTH white and black citizens.
learned interestingly that there ARE segments of population today who would be happy to continue separate living (which is what apartheid meant). Primarily..... the Moslem communities and among newly arriving English immigrants. Hmmmmm.
More on the language of race, an argument that I heard and found dis-ingenious was being proposed by white voices I.e they are entitled to call themselves African because they were born on the continent of Africa. Can the argument work in reverse? Are black people born in Europe termed European? Or more precisely Caucasians? White citizens are rightly called South Africans as citizens of that country, just as black citizens are British or German or French etc. But to me, claiming to be "african" was tantamount to a sleight of hand. African is an ethnicity.
On Second Glance.
The streets of Cape Town, in the "leafy suburbs" in some respects reminded me of the streets of our equivalent leafy suburbs, places like West moorings where you see virtually no
one outside the walls, the streets being deserted but lined with cars. If you do see someone on the street in CapeTown it's a black worker out on a job or on foot going to work at one of its suburban residences. CapeTown homes however are forbiddingly ramped up for security with electrified fencing atop virtually every brick wall. At first glance I didn't see the rows of electric wires. They are very neat. But once having seen them I saw them everywhere. Hostile. Later I realized how many conversations were about crime, burglary, securing ones car etc so that explained why. Indeed, the day before we left to return home, the house of one of the friends was broken into, ransacked and burglarized....theft of TV and jewelry. Yet her electric alarm system apparently had not been triggered. Hmmmmm.
When we first arrived in the city we were puzzled to be assured of how much wealth was in the hands of non white South Africans. The richest man in the country is black, I heard. But nothing that we saw supported
this claim. Where were all these well off black people? Or even the middle class blacks? Blacks are visible everywhere..... as workers in the shops and malls, working in the tourist centers, working in the restaurants and buses, working in the houses. But they were not rubbing our shoulders shopping in the stores, not dining at the next table in the restaurants, not living in the house across the road. They were invisible. If they existed where were they? At first we pressed our hosts, asked probing questions, querying what was said. I sensed an exasperation and impatience with our probing, a defensiveness in the answers. Clearly we were missing their point. So I opted to observe what I could, make my own notes. I would try to chat with as many people as I could throughout the vacation and form my own opinion.
My proposal to visit Johannesburg never materialized and was met with mixed reactions. The younger white Capetonians thought it was a great idea and that I should do it. They described it as a vibrant, alive modern place. A happening city with a go get feeling, the complete opposite of conservative, restrained quiet Cape Town.
Older Capetonians were less enthused. They talked about its high crime rate. The younger ones shrugged their shoulders.
SEEING THE TOWNSHIPS
So, the non whites of Cape Town are living in the Townships. That's why we only saw them as workers in the city and suburbs.We visited three Townships with Nhoza as our guide, friend and fellow musician of Daniel who is the son of Alison. Nhoza Sitsholwana comes from Langa. She lives in Langa township. Her passion is singing and she plays gigs at home and internationally. She works as a guide and did a fantastic job on our tour. She shepherded us into Langa and there they were! Black people by the hundreds spilling out into the streets everywhere. Townships are alive, bustling, teeming with people. The street bustle here contrasts starkly to the silence of the "leafies". There are no electrified fences to be seen. Townships are scored by poverty. Stretching as far as the eye can see everywhere, densely packed, are tiny box-like shacks made of corrugated iron. I imagined they must be very hot in summer and
stay very cold in winter. I hear each of these boxes can be home to several people, perhaps a dozen! Langa had paved streets but some other townships we drove past elsewhere were so densely crowded and so ad hoc in growth, they had no streets. And no car owners.
One feature of townships is that they are situated on the far reaches of the cities and towns. Without private cars or solid public transport system and needing to get to work in the city anyway, it is quite a common sight to see black figures walking along the highway. Seemingly out of the blue, coming from the middle of nowhere and going god alone knows where! There was nothing to be seen for miles to explain their presence - just that long stretch of highway and those walking figures. Really strange.
That is not to say all township life was like that. The majority, but not all. Things are improving. Galvanize shacks in some areas are giving way to clusters of concrete apartment buildings and houses. Electric poles and wiring is
very visible, even a scattering of cable dishes, but most promising of all are the numerous roof top solar panels on the new buildings. That warmed my heart. I understood there is running water but no sewerage or garbage services. So the accumulated litter, dirt, stagnant water and grime are everywhere. Down and outs lie on the sidewalks. Other people run small one room shops and services outlets on the street side which they board up at the end of the day. Or sleep there.
Poor as they are in the townships, people from even poorer neighbouring african countries come to South Africa to seek their fortunes. Obviously they move into the townships..... Different languages, different cultures, setting up rival small businesses in this confined space. Trouble breaks out and can turn violent. Even the Chinese are muscling in to set up business in the townships but with a noticeable difference- they are making no effort to assimilate. They remain aloof and are "good with that". It doesn't win them any black friends! But they don't seem to care. And resentment is growing. "Watch this space"!
A further complexity I learned of seemed to me an
extension of a growing universal indifference among young people everywhere for things that matter to older generations, things they regard as precious. In Langa Nhoza spoke animatedly and with distress about the FREE BORN as they are called. This is the post-apartheid generation born in freedom. But they show no respect for the monuments, no concern for the just recent freedom struggle. It sounded so familiar to my ears, part of what I notice as a global sense of "entitlement " by the generation born in the 90's . But since Nhoza is not old by any means, it must also be a deeper issue.
Unreservedly I can say the highlight of my visit was the people. I found the people, all of them who I met and chatted with, black, 'coloured' non-white and white were warm, friendly, welcoming. (I'm still having trouble with those terms and want to stop now!) Having been in the tourism business for three decades I know how to read faces and demeanors, to see behind smiles. I watched. The smiles of the black faces
always shone through to the eyes. These were real smiles. And virtually every black staffer that I chatted with was willing to engage with me and respond. I once chatted with an older man just sitting on the sidewalk in Langa. On leaving he tried to give me a special handshake but I didn't realize it. When we left Nhoza explained so I dashed back to do it right and he was delighted! Later I wanted to use the handshake at every opportunity when meeting and chatting with non white people ...... only to find out that the coloured community don't do it. Shucks. We also had several white service staff and they were just as friendly... No hesitation to serve us. I didn't have deep conversations with the staffers of course but we did have very friendly exchanges. I saw this as a mark of their personal confidence. There was no obsequiousness or hesitation. We looked each other in the eye, we chatted face to face and shook hands.
I also had many opportunities to see the interactions between white homeowners and their domestic staff at the two homes where we stayed. I daresay Alison's house staff in
Wilderness were "coloured". Her helper's name was Dora and she spoke Afrikaans and a little English. Afrikaans is apparently the tongue spoken by the coloured communities. In Cape Town the name of Jean's helper was Alyshia. She is black, spoke Xhosa and is fluent in English. Afrikaans and English are the two languages which cross the colour barriers. Tribal languages continue in common use but also serve to separate and divide socially in the townships.
I never noticed or heard among my hosts (all white) even a smidgen of racist attitude toward any of their staff anywhere at any point. There was complete respect. Alison even goes further out of her way to wave acknowledgement to the highway works crews because she recognizes the thanklessness of their jobs. And they always waved back. At home, both Alison and Jean display definite regard for their staff, interacting and doing much the same for them as we do here... offering them something to eat and drink, a lift after work, asking about their families etc. The One instance of suspicious attitude showed up in conversation after the burglary at the friend's home when everyone seemed convinced that the helper
must have been involved.
Judy and I both wished to see, but didn't find, people wearing traditional fabrics or designs or living in homes that reflected african styles. We saw neither. What was noticeable was the extent to which township people and school children, even at the height of summer, were wearing woolen sleeveless pullovers, with long sleeved shirts and ties. In the end I understood it had to do with the fact that it's quite chilly in the early morning when they must leave their cold galvanized iron homes to head to work. And wearing them throughout day guaranteed they wouldn't be lost or stolen.
There were news reports during our visit which gave me a broader perspective than my direct interactions could.
A statistical report on South African Millionaires said there was a decline in white millionaires and a rise in non white ones. Meaning 69% of millionaires were white lol, 22% were black and 8% were Indian. Reason for the decline in white ones was migration! The areas where non white fortunes were being made were in new sectors like financial services, real estate and construction. Old, white
money continued to dominate the other sectors.
There was a scandalous case of racist slurs used in emails between a guest house owner (coloured I think)and would be visitors (black I think) which ended up as front page headlines. The guest house owner called the clients "hottentot" which is now a slur and made references to facial features. It was really disturbing. A few days later there was unrelated unrest among black students at a campus of Cape Town U. Black students blocked others from getting to classes. The others were not in support of the issue and violence followed. The issue was the univ deciding to refuse admission to students (who were mainly black) who had a sizeable backlog of fees owing.
Excrement was thrown during that protest and days later at another black student protest at a figure of Rhodes .... Cecil Rhodes, educational benefactor who was also a white supremacist. The man whose wealth and name founded the globally prestigious Rhodes scholarship (and the Kirstenbosch gardens!) was also the instigator of the principles of early apartheid since the 1800s.
The End is Not Near!
All of these things helped to explain to me
why South Africa's other Elephant, the one in the room still looms so large and is so complicated. It's been sitting there so long, like weeds, people seem no longer to see it for what it is. Or know what to do with it. But there is hope... The town of Knysna is a multi racial town with everyone living on the same terms. So it is possible. It looked and felt good to see.
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