I ﬁrst traveled to South Africa, to Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town, in 2006, along with 130 women. The trip was highly curated, offering few moments for reflection, or for one-on-one interaction with the local population.
I recently returned from a two-week revisit to South Africa, mostly on my own, and came away with new revelations.
I heard Black, White and Colored (yes there is still such a class) South Africans lament White flight, decry the “get rich quick” tactics amongst some non-Whites, and complain about inept and/or corrupt ofﬁcials.
It has been 30 years since apartheid ended (1992). Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994 (until 1999), and his death in 2013 left the country without their “fatherly” ﬁgurehead. There have been four presidents since. On the surface as a tourist, I did not see, feel or surmise anything other than a vibrant nation with a wide variety of tribes, who speak one or more of the 11 ofﬁcial languages. There were abounding artistic expressions from traditional bead work to modern expressions of creativity. The place was teeming with energy and excitement.
The shopping malls were no different from ours. Outside the malls, prices were inexpensive, goods and products were abundant and service was gracious.
I felt safe despite the armed security at Mandela Square in Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg, where I was warned to be wary of pickpockets and predators on unsuspecting tourists. Sounds like any other large city in USA, right?
The waterfront in Cape Town had no signs of armed guards, yet there was a strong presence of security around that popular tourist area.
When I ventured to sit and listen to how people felt about their country, I got some fascinating stories.
I had the privilege of visiting a community of the well-heeled in Knysna, nestled between mountains and the Indian Ocean. Black folk were in scant numbers, aside from the ubiquitous household staff attending residents.
One older White South African man was seated next to me on my flight from Johannesburg to Knysna. Self-described as “grumpy and disgruntled,” he and his wife were going to scout out a retirement home, in Mauritius, touted as a retirement paradise for expats leaving South Africa. He described how two of his three adult sons had already left the country due to lack of opportunity. The third was struggling. He felt the country was being run by the incompetent and the corrupt.
“We needed to have Nelson Mandela in ofﬁce for 20 more years,” he sighed. By contrast, one young Black banker shared how he felt that too few Blacks have the patience required to adopt multi-generational strategies for nationbuilding, instead going for get-rich-quick schemes.
I met several Whites who were not hesitant to talk about their feelings of dismay. One couple visiting family, had moved to Kent, England, and were also very critical of our country, especially the gun violence.
On the other hand, I met a 90-year-old retired White businesswoman, who was happy to remain in South Africa; one of her six sons was farming their land in the northern Cape, and two others were housing developers in Knysna.
I guess it’s all about perspective.
I overheard two 30-somethings talking about living and working in the USA. Their points of reference and expectation were US movies and television.
One, a Black, who worked in hospitality in Palm Beach and Jupiter, had visited South Florida (Miami, South Beach, Key West). He was advising the other about what to expect. Interestingly, the experienced one told a story of being stopped on Interstate 95, driving while Black, with three companions from South Africa. He panicked but remembered to put his passport in his hand and warn his friends to be nice to the police.
The one being tutored referred to himself as “Colored.” I told him he would be a Black man in the USA.
About being Colored: Our “one drop” rule system of classiﬁcation was simple, by comparison. During one dinner, a woman who looked southern European to me, said, “I hate being Colored.” I learned more about that classiﬁcation reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born A Crime.” I highly recommend it to learn more about apartheid. The awful legacy endures.
I encourage everyone who can travel to go outside of your comfort zone; venture into parts unknown, experience foreign cultures, languages, food and customs, engage with people, and after you return home with, I hope, a better appreciation of our system/history of democracy, then you must VOTE. Vote. Vote! Toniwg1@gmail.com