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.