So many of the South Africans I’ve spoken to have voiced some curiosity regarding the perception others have of South Africa. Now, I won’t pretend that I have the authority to speak on behalf of the rest of America, but I can speak from my own experience.
All too often, when I shared my imminent travel plans with others, the typical reaction was, “Oh, South Africa? Where in South Africa? Johannesburg?! Be careful, it’s dangerous.” This was accompanied by a grimace and furrowed eyebrows, a look that betrayed their concern for my future well-being. The warning was then followed by some suggestion about what I should do to ensure my safety during my daring visit. According to my skeptical listeners, I should carry mace, and maybe even a gun, one suggested (and unfortunately I’m not sure if he was joking). Ironically, my self-appointed advisers had never traveled to the country, and few had even ventured to Africa. What they knew about South Africa came from Oprah show episodes (focusing on the ills within South African society) and the occasional PBS special, which they only half-listened to while they multi-tasked.
I wrote off their concern as a bunch of hokum. And after having spent about a month in the country, here’s my great epiphany: South Africa really is not all that different (profound, no?). Yes, there’s poverty—stark poverty. Yes, this country has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, making it one of the most unequal societies in the world. And yes, this phenomenon, where wealth is directly juxtaposed with poverty, breeds crime and violence. I don’t mean to discount any of this. But if we took a closer look at our own society, in America, how difficult would it be to find people living in similar states of poverty, or pockets within cities where crime rates are equally high?
Many South Africans refute the perception of South Africa that’s portrayed around the world. Yes, there are differences between the U.S. and South Africa: Most South Africans proficiently speak an average of five different languages. Jazz and blues are to South Africa what pop music is to the U.S. And people, on the whole, are much better dancers. HIV/AIDS and race are real issues that continue to plague the country, but doesn’t the U.S. have its own set of issues to contend with (i.e. Sarah Palin) (kidding)?
The aforementioned race issue, stated simplistically, is complex. There is a dichotomy in regards to race in the country, and it largely depends on where you are. In cosmopolitan Johannesburg, I’ve seen whites, blacks and coloureds intermingling at restaurants, in coffee shops—perhaps to a greater extent than I’ve seen in the U.S. (although this may be just because I’m more conscious of it). However, on Day Two of my internship at City Press I accompanied fellow reporters to Ventersdorp, the scene of Eugene Terre’blanche’s death. The white supremacist was allegedly murdered by two of his black farm workers, and we joined the battalion of reporters who flocked to the scene of the crime in the days after his death.
In Ventersdorp, men loitered on street corners, with nowhere to go, no job to report to due to soaring unemployment rates. Cars slowly paced up and down sandy roads. I sat inside the local Wimpy, where blacks and whites sat at adjacent tables. But never once did I witness any interaction between them—in the restaurant, at the petrol station or on the streets. This was entirely contradictory to what I’d seen in Joburg, but some say this is characteristic of many small towns in South Africa. And as I reflect on the trip to Ventersdorp, I most readily recall the silence, the lack of the cacophonous sounds that bring a town to life. The racial tensions were palpable, in a way I’d never experienced before.
Still, there’s a side of South Africa that doesn’t make headlines. It hasn’t been exoticized or glamourized, essentially because there’s virtually nothing different about it. By no means do I intend to discount the importance of the issues that do make headlines: corruption within government, shady officials, the rates of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. But there’s the side of South Africa that doesn’t make headlines in the U.S., simply because there’s nothing utterly unfamiliar about it.