This week’s guest author: Casey Mangan
The Republic of South Africa is the southern most country on the African continent. Which brings us to our first misconception of South Africa: yes, it is actually a country, not just a vague geographic region in the southern part of Africa. For many scholars, the history of South Africa goes back to the beginning of humanity as they hold South Africa to be the cradle of civilization. The human history goes back at least 2000 years to the Khoi Khoi, San, and later the Bantu people groups who created and lived in complex pastoral societies.
The South African population today embodies its reputation as the Rainbow nation, which brings us to our second misconception of South Africa. Misconceptions about South African diversity fall on either end of the spectrum. Some people think South Africa is entirely composed of Black people, while others view it as the “White Africa.” The reality is that 75% of South Africans are Black, but even then there are many different African people groups in South Africa who have been defined as Black, of which Xhosaand Zulu are just two of many examples. 13% of South Africans are White, with virtually all being of Dutch or British ancestry. 9% of South Africans are of mixed white, black, and Malay descent, also known as Coloured people. The settlers of the Cape Colony did not enslave Khoisan people, but rather brought in slaves from the then Dutch East Indies. British Parliament formally abolished slavery in the Cape in 1833, but most of the former slaves stayed in the Cape even to this day. 3% of South Africans are of Indian descent, many of whom live in Kwa-Zulu Natal. In fact Durban, the largest city in Natal, is the largest Indian city outside of India. To put this diversity into other terms, there are 11 official languages, and it is not uncommon to meet a person who speaks over half of them.
The first main misconception of South Africa (and most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa for that matter) is that it is a wild land populated by sparse villages, but predominately filled by the cast of the Lion King. The second misconception is that South Africa is filled with shantytowns and poverty and brokenness. Neither of these assertions is without some merit, but they both greatly understate the diversity of South African society.
The reality of modern South Africa is beautiful. It is not without its problems, but it should be seen for much more than the World Cup, safaris, and Apartheid. The African spirit of togetherness, Ubuntu, makes a foreigner instantly feel welcome. From my journal during my first day in South Africa:
While walking around Soweto, a conglomeration of 40 townships on the SW edge of Johannesburg, I noticed that the squalor common to Western stereotypes was juxtaposed by the warmth, hospitality, and liveliness of the people. The people provide all the warmth you need on a cold winter day in the Gauteng province.
Having just spent my entire summer in the fast-paced, career driven culture of Washington, D.C. (working with the Durf himself at Polaris Project), I was blown away by the fact that people who have never seen me before could be genuinely excited to see me. The concept of a stranger hardly exists in South Africa. The beauty of the land (trust me, it’s absolutely stunning) is far surpassed by the beauty of the people.
South Africa’s human diversity is also matched by its infrastructure. Like any country, region, city, or town in the U.S., South Africa is not without is problems. Leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup the media were concerned about safety and crime rates (like this report from the BBC). When it was all said and done and Spain hoisted the trophy, nothing happened. Everyone was perfectly fine and celebrated the World’s sport together in harmony. I have felt far less safe (more unsafe? you get the idea) in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. than I ever did in South Africa. As South Africa continues to move on from the horrors of Apartheid, it still faces major challenges and has a long way to progress. Writes Misha Glenny of The Guardian (UK):
South Africa is the only country in the world in which the first and the developing worlds exist side by side from one end of the land to the other. The first provides good roads, 728 airports, the largest cargo port in Africa, and an efficient banking system. The developing world accounts for the low tax revenue, overstretched social services, corruption, and land and sea borders that have more holes than a secondhand dartboard.
The beauty of the past 19 years of South African history, however, lies in the social reconciliation and embrace of diversity in the national identity. The scars of Apartheid are still visible in the South African economy (see this article from The Economist), but the social fabric has emerged as incredibly beautiful and full of hope. In spite of the problems faced by South Africans, they remain a joyful people. There is no poverty of the heart in South Africa. Whenever modern amenities fail (a lot more often than Americans would care to experience), South Africans simply smile and say TIA (This is Africa); then they adapt and move on. Now that I’ve been back in the States for a while, I have decided that I prefer the contagious joy of neighbors to the constant distraction of iPhones, Netflix, even consistently hot water. I will leave you with some wisdom from my professor at the University of Cape Town.
“Expose yourself to positive images of marginalized communities. Do it in your own backyard as well.” –Quinton Redcliffe
If you have experience in both the U.S. and another country (for at least 3 months in each spot) and would like to write a post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can send you more information. Thanks!
Keep seeking truth.