Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The "South" in South Africa

To write about South Africa without mention of oppression would be the equivalent of describing West Hollywood sans commentary on the abundance of donut shops, dry cleaners, and women who have taken an affinity to wearing ugg boots with tank tops. Simply put, there's just no way to talk about Cape Town without going there, at least without doing it any justice, thus I wanted to let my thoughts marinate before attempting to share. Especially since I just read about this.

I first want to take you back to post 9/11 Manhattan -- for a brief moment. It was early 2002. I was walking around the Ground Zero area, taking note of the still ashen building fronts, the dead flowers that hung from the fences like decayed stockings, and the smell of charred catastrophe that would linger in the back of my nose for years to come. I had stopped at a Mr. Frosty truck, hoping to drown my sadness in a Choco Taco when I noticed a street vendor with a selection of 9/11 neck ties that depicted various artistic replications of the burning towers (one even showed people jumping). There were a mass of vendors surrounding the WTC footprint, which sadly came as no surprise after having seen Celine Dion's face all up and down the Via Dolorosa on my first trip to Jerusalem in 1998 (if the path Jesus took with his cross can be filled with watercolor posters and Titanic replicas, I suppose the international line of decency had already been blurred). But these ties said it all -- capitalism at its apex. Ironically, the very essence of our ethnocentric culture the terrorists were attacking.

I felt a similar tremor when I saw this magnet hanging next to a porcelain replica of the South African flag in a tourist shop on the waterfront.

The abhorrence might not be as apparent as the burning bodies on the 9/11-wear, but the idea of a township magnet is equally as distasteful. At least in my opinion. I'm all about the kitschy bric-a-brac when I travel but I certainly wouldn't want the barbed wire of Auschwitz holding up my grocery list, or in this case, a colorful representation of racism and poverty at its worst.

I'm taking the liberty of assuming that most of you know a fair amount about apartheid, so I won't delve into too much of a description. In a nutshell, it was a government passed form of segregation that, beginning in 1948, forced millions of South African non-whites out of their homes and into sections of undesirable land termed "homelands" or "townships." These poor, rural territories were/are home to 70 percent of the population, yet combined only account for less than 13 percent of South Africa's land mass. The townships mostly consist of tin shacks, yes some of them multi colored, and only a portion have such luxuries as running water and power.

You could argue that they are HIV infested shanty-towns where people use buckets for toilets as much as you can argue that they are rich cultural centres that produce some of the world's greatest jazz, and even at their worst provide more shelter for the poor than other parts of the African continent. Either way, sixty years and the rainbow coalition later, whether or not these people want to be forced out of their homes AGAIN into new government housing (which is part of the current government's solution) after having raised families in their current locale is not as important as the question of why they are still living such separate existences? Why are there virtually still no blacks in the prominent areas? Why do hardly any non-whites own cars? Why are there tour companies that drive buses through the townships as if the residents are zoo animals to be gawked at?And more importantly, why is it that so many whites have still never visited nor met their black neighbors, when they drive past them every day? Even if the rest of Africa is statistically worse off, South Africa is exponentially rich in juxtaposition. So compared to other countries with class extremes that I have visited (like India), I was astounded to leave a posh cafe only to drive by a township seconds later. Quite literally, this township was across the highway from a beautiful, sprawling winery that looked like a mini Tara.

To be fair, I think the experience of traveling to the American South around the civil rights era might have been a somewhat similar experience, perhaps minus the sophistication. I had the luxury of experiencing my time in S. Africa through the eyes of my good friend Hans, who recently moved back after living in LA for 13 years. As we traveled around together in his used Toyota Tazz, speaking with his friends and meeting new ones, we both came to the subtle realization that nothing has really changed. Change takes time, of course, so on one hand it is to be expected. But for the colors of the flag that are to symbolize unity, the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the diplomatic words of their national anthem, the social climate is still, to my astonishment, very much "us versus them" -- lock your doors, never pull all the way up to a stoplight, get them off of our freeways. For me, as an American white, it is somewhat simple to detach from a short and rather voyeuristic view, but for Hans, it is a complicated existence. One that he didn't choose, but like it or not, will have to negotiate as he develops his new life there.

The good news is, there is hope -- and lots of it. Desmond Tutu sailed on a recent voyage and has a very close relationship with our program and our students. The older generation, much like ours in America, has battlescars that might not be repaired in this lifetime, but the youth are ready and open to acceptance. I heard a black man comment while on this beautiful beach that though he had lived in S. Africa his entire life, he had only recently seen the coast that was only miles away from where he was born. Even if it took him 50 years, the fact is, he still got there.

1 comment:

john paul said...

well written, Courtney!

Here is a webpage link for that Ubuntu shirt I told you about. All the proceeds will go to Tutu's non profit based in Cape Town.

Sail on!