My Experience of South Africa

29 December 2011 --- As I prepare to leave Cape Town, I am reflecting on my experiences of South Africa in comparison to the U.S.

I have met many people from other African countries --- taxi drivers, store clerks, people on the train, the work team living here at Lighthouse Farm Lodge --- some black, some white. Several of the older white people that I have met grew up in Rhodesia and came here when it became Zimbabwe; others are originally from England. One man who grew up in South Africa was of the age to do his national service (military) during the war with Angola in the 1970s. Similar to Vietnam veterans in the U.S., he said that experience broke him, which has required considerable healing. He had grown up Jehova's Witness and could have been a conscientious objector, but had left the faith by that time. Now the South African military is all-volunteer, like the U.S. The society here has a similar level of inequality to the U.S., which means there is a large population in poverty with such limited choices that they are inclined to volunteer for the military. Sometimes I think this is the basic purpose of maintaining the tremendous inequality in the U.S., to provide soldiers for our volunteer army.

Our guide on the wine tour was a young airline steward during the Apartheid days. His brother was active against Apartheid and he was visited by some national security authorities compelling him to spy for them, to inform on his brother's activities. He said he managed to avoid that, but instead was used as a spy currier service. Because he was flying all over the world, he was sent with packages for clandestine meetings with Russians. Following that chilling story he shared deeply his concerns about his prejudicial feelings having grown up as a white South African.

I have met some blacks who have grown up in South Africa. One young man (19 years old) lived in a black township. Yes, there are still townships and they are quite racially segregated. He told me he had a girlfriend, but it was not serious because she is black. He wants to married a coloured girl, "mixed, you know" he said, because he wants to live in a coloured town.

The Indian population is largest in Durban because the indentured people came to that area of South Africa . Most of the food at COP-17 was Indian, which they call "oriental". Indian families are all about as I have been touring Cape Town and the western Cape peninsula, but I have not had an indepth conversation with any of them. Coming home from my Boxing Day outing on the train I was with a Muslim extended family. The grandmother was handing out candy to all the children. One young woman was completely covered, only her eyes showing through slits in the black cloth over her head, but she was the most vocal in the family, laughing and talking the whole train ride. Other women in that family had scarves on with their faces showing.

But the most of my conversations have been with blacks who have grown up in other African countries. If I say anything at all, immediately everyone knows that I am American. Virtually no one has ever heard of Belize, even though I find many similarities in customs and language because of the British influence here. In general people are very friendly, asking if I am on holiday, how long I am staying, etc. Many people, both white and black, have commented that I am not really in Africa yet. Those from other African countries are always pleased that I am going to Kenya, saying there I will experience the real Africa.

The similarities to the U.S. are the level of inequality, the all-volunteer army, and the extent to which South Africa is an economic mecca which attracts people from other countries looking for a better life. But in South Africa the white population is a small minority. I'm not sure of the figures, but perhaps 10 percent. Can you imagine the U.S. where 90 percent of the people were Native Americans living on reservations?


Back to Africa