Tag: Apartheid

Living Behind Walls

South Africa is an amazingly beautiful country. The diversity of landscapes, cultures, animals, and cities is world-class, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time down there. Based purely on its tourist merits, South Africa might just be one of the world’s top destinations. But South Africa also has a very dark cloud over its head, one that is omnipresent, and one that will take many years to clear.

South Africa’s cloud is safety and security, rooted in their post-apartheid recovery. Bottom line – a lot of bad stuff happens there, and it happens all the time. Don’t get me wrong – one can travel safely and comfortably very easily (otherwise, I wouldn’t have invited our parents over to visit!). We made it all over the country, including a week stint in its most dangerous city, with no issues whatsoever. But, you gotta be smart about how you travel here, and you gotta be even smarter about how you live here.

South Africans live behind walls, security systems, electric fences, and razor wire. In the cities, nearly all middle class communities are gated and guarded, and almost everyone has been (or knows someone who has been) robbed, assaulted, or car-jacked – likely multiple times. At night, you don’t walk anywhere that isn’t within a guarded area. In some places, it’s totally acceptable to run red lights, if you feel your safety is in question. At first, I was appalled to hear that people live in such circumstances, but South Africans look at it as an everyday challenge that needs to be dealt with. And to their credit, they’ve created a very comfortable and modern lifestyle that avoids these threats. Thriving JoBurg suburbs like Sandton have beautiful malls with enclosed courtyards and parks that people flock to for social gatherings. Housing neighborhoods feel like ones at home, just with big walls surrounding them. A security industry that must lead the country’s economy ensures that your office, home, school, car, etc are looked after while you’re out. In short, South Africans have figured out how to live well in a dangerous place.

Police vehicle in downtown JoBurg - used for regular patrol

In reality, most of the country is not very dangerous at all – it’s mainly the big cities. Living and traveling safely here is simply a matter of being a bit more vigilant in your actions and precautions. We found ourselves being particularly conscious of leaving nothing visible in our cars, planning our routes around safe areas, avoiding walking at night (in most places), and minimizing the valuables we had on us at any point in time. The result – no problems, and a killer visit to this amazing country.

South Africa, despite its challenges, is an fabulous place that we highly recommend you check out. From the incredible game of Kruger National Park, to the flat-topped Drakensburg Mountains, to the wetlands of St. Lucia, to the beaches of the Wild and Garden Coasts, to the vibrancy of Cape Town, and more – this country has it all. It may be years before the dark cloud of Apartheid finally disappears, but in the meantime, do what the South Africans do: work around the security challenges – the rewards are well worth the effort.

Apartheid Was Yesterday

Ok, so apartheid didn’t end yesterday, but it ended in 1994, less than one generation ago, and that is damn recent. Without a doubt, the country has come a long way in those 17 years, thanks to the amazing work of leaders like Nelson Mandela, but the deep wounds created by those years of hate and segregation are far from healed. You can still feel the racial tension in the air – not everywhere, and not all the time, but there is an undertone of animosity.

To our surprise, the anger, mistrust, and hate is not just a black-white problem. Within the white population, people of British decent and the Afrikaners of Dutch decent are fond of jabbing at one another, sometimes playfully, and other times not. Within the black population, there is inter-tribe tension, as well as serious xenophobia against immigrants from other African nations. But certainly the biggest scar was cut by the black-white laws of apartheid.

Police riot vehicle from apartheid era - Apartheid Museum

A number of white South Africans I spoke with think their country is going downhill, fast. Some of the more racist whites flat out blame the black population, but the more educated ones just realize that it’s crime and government corruption fueling the problems they cite. Many whites are unsure of their future in their home country, and have back-up plans to move to Australia, the UK, or somewhere else.

From the perspective of a traveler, most of this tension is below the radar. Only after spending a month there and asking uncomfortable questions of locals was I able to draw out the picture I have laid out above. Having dug into this territory though, I found myself wanting to be recognized as an outsider – a rather ironic position to be in. See, for the first time since we left, I didn’t feel like a tourist that stuck out every where we went. While not always a bad thing to be the tourist that sticks out in Latin America, I generally do what I can to keep a low profile. But in South Africa, I looked just like every other white South African. At first, I thought it would be nice to blend in finally, but after a short while, I wished that I had a big sign on me that said “touro”. Not because I wanted to stick out as a good target for pick-pocketing, but because I wanted to separate myself from the group of people that most black South Africans still hold bitter feelings towards – the white population. I wanted to say, “Listen, I was not one of the people oppressing you during apartheid, I’m just a visitor that wants to see your beautiful country.”

Apartheid Museum - Johannesburg

Unfortunately, there are still many problems that are intertwined with the apartheid recovery process, namely crime and security (another post in itself). Fortunately, things are improving rather quickly, and a lot of progress has been made in a relatively short period of time. If we look in the mirror, we’re hardly ones to lecture – 50 years beyond the Civil Rights Movement in the US and nearly 150 years since slavery was abolished, and we’re still battling with race issues today.

All things considered, South Africa has made some impressive strides forward in an uphill battle, one that they are committed to overcoming. The good news is, as a tourist to the country, you are helping them to fight this battle (the tourism industry is crucial to their continued economic development), and you likely won’t feel more than hint of the underlying tensions.

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