This is the post where I write something profound about race and class and poverty… writing from the gated, affluent, resort in wine country where we have a two bedroom, 2.5 bath villa (seriously, a freaking villa) with a view of alps-like mountains for under $150 a night.
Perhaps with a little luck the profound and articulate thoughts will come to me after another half glass of wine.
We visited a township yesterday with a guide who, without exaggeration, is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. We spent a solid 11 hours with this white man raised by racists who made a fortune a few times over but chooses to spend his retirement taking tourists to visit a black township.
I say “black” township, because it’s worth noting that there’s a very distinct difference in SA between “black” people (dark skinned, fully African) and colored people (mixed race, Indian, Asian or other). There is a deep historical animosity between these groups that dates back centuries and relates to who sided with the Dutch and who with the British. No one drives a race wedge like colonists. I’m told that to call a black person “colored” in SA is worse than calling an African American the n word in the states.
The townships are black only. We came across two girls playing together, one with slightly lighter skin, and Selwyn (our guide) stopped the car to to get their story because in 15 years he’d never seen a colored child playing with a black child in the township before. Turns out they’re best friends from school, and apparently its a great sign of progress. Selwyn runs several programs in the townships including two we participated in: dance classes that keep kids off the streets and sends a handful to competitions to win school scholarships, and a very simple deal he runs every time he comes to the township where he hands out plastic bags to kids and then half an hour later returns and gives an apple for every bag of trash they pick up. I’ve never seen kids work so hard for an apple. It cleans the streets and gives the kids something healthy to eat, but mostly Selwyn does it to teach kids to earn rather than beg.
The township is several thousand people living in shacks and simple homes in very close quarters. Most have electricity but must walk to the shared water faucets and toilets. This one is within 15 minutes of a fairly affluent wine country / university town and has a million dollar view of the prettiest mountains you’ve ever seen. Many of the residents work in town at hotels and restaurants and factories and then return to their shacks at night. Pretty much every town we’ve driven through has had a township.
We spoke to several people in the township we visited, Kayamandi, and every conversation was fascinating and worth a book about their life… but while we had conversations, Audrey made friends. She disappeared several times (safely, I swear, grandmoms) for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, going to see the library or see a friend’s home or play hide and seek. She was struck by their poverty, of course, but maybe not as much as we were, because in the end she noticed mostly that they were happy and not unlike her… Even if they had no running water and shared a communal toilet with 60 other people.
One of the most remarkable things about apartheid is/was that, unlike American slavery, it’s a system of minority rule and oppression over a majority. South Africa is only 10% white, maybe 20% in the Cape where we’ve mostly been. And yet every restaurant and hotel and store we’ve been to has had 98% white costumers and maybe 75% back or colored (rarely both) staff, with occasional white working class or students waiting tables. In some ways I think SA’s racial history with native blacks is closer to colonial America’s treatment of Native Americans (the forced assimilation
and reservations, etc) than our treatment of blacks. In fact, just as America was bringing in non-native (black) slaves while it was annihilating our native population, SA (the Dutch and later the British) were bringing in slaves from Asia (Indonesia, etc) while they were trying to decimate the native population.
Ironically, the biggest chain restaurant in South Africa, with the possible exception of KFC (seriously everywhere), is a Native American themed restaurant called Spur. It’s in every town we’ve been to, and is about as insensitive to Native Americans as the little black sambo restaurants were to African Americans back in the day. Of course they probably don’t see it as racist, because they either don’t know native Americans still exist or think they still roam the plains in full headdresses. Again, no one drives a race wedge like colonists.
Hmmm… Wine gone, and no profound conclusions, I guess I’ll leave them for you to make on your own. In the end, I guess what is important is the experiences we’re having and the people we’re meeting. We’re truly lucky.