South Africa: Not So Black and White
Misconceptions and Contradictions in the Rainbow Nation
“I’m not a racist,” the shop owner leaned in and added in a thick Afrikaans accent: “I just fucking hate black people.” I was stunned. Fortunately, I found him to be in the minority (no pun intended) but the experience of coming across a shocking inconsistency in South Africa was not. His statement was only the first of many surprising incongruities that I would encounter.
South Africa is a country of extreme contradictions: the ugliness of apartheid juxtaposed to the astounding progress since; the ravage of HIV/AIDS outdone only by the fortitude of those fighting it; and even with the highest GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, the country suffers a 25% unemployment rate.
In October 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu accused the African National Congress (ANC) of conduct “worse than the apartheid government.” Although this is debatable and South Africa has come a long way since the end of apartheid in 1994, it still faces significant challenges. Attempts to level the post-apartheid playing field have birthed policies such as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, which have ethical founding principles, but arguably harmful consequences that some fear undermine a meritocracy, for black and white citizens alike.
Many younger white South Africans—who opposed the apartheid regime—now feel that they are persecuted for race rather than rewarded on merit, as it is now increasingly difficult for a white male to gain employment. (It is possible that they are not experiencing the presence of discrimination, but rather the absence of preferential treatment.) Further, the older generation is bitter because South Africa was previously top tier in fields such as science and medicine (the first successful heart transplant was performed by a South African surgeon in the 1950s) and now competes at a subpar level. So while many fought against apartheid, they now lament the conditions in its wake. Far worse are the unintended consequences of new labor laws. The man who was “not a racist” also said that because he was not legally permitted to fire his black workers, he simply forced them to work outside in the heat with scorching machinery for days on end, causing them to eventually quit.
It’s commonly believed that South Africa is simply experiencing growing pains as it re-identifies itself and shifts into a democracy. But it is a misconception that most of the current problems are rooted in the transition. Many of today’s issues existed before 1994 and will remain long after. For example, internal conflicts are not simply a matter of race, as is easily assumed. Some of the bitterest tensions have historically been between the native Zulu and Xhosa, both black, and between the Anglos and the Boers (present-day English South Africans and Afrikaners, both white.) I particularly recall my South African friend telling me about the multiple reconstructive surgeries he’s had on his jaw, which was badly damaged after a bar brawl. When I pressed him to tell me what started the fight, he insisted that the group of Afrikaans guys beat him up just because he was English.
Anger towards the government is another example of a pre-1994 problem that has persisted. During apartheid, citizens fought against discriminatory laws. Today, that anger has transformed into frustration with widespread corruption and the slow pace of change. Ending apartheid was an important step in the right direction, but it was also a reminder that simply shifting from one form of government to another does not solve a country’s problems. A healthy country must have—among many things—a strong rule of law, commerce and business, education, health, fair taxation, efficient and democratic governance, and basic security—all of which remain challenges for South Africa.
One of the most troubling concerns is crime. In the words of The Onion’s Our Dumb World, “The citizens of South Africa fall victim to a serious crime every 17 seconds, a statistic that is nearly impossible to verify, as everyone in the country has his or her watch stolen every 12 seconds.” While The Onion may be slightly exaggerating, the point is loud and clear. How did it get so bad?
My colleague explained that before the end of apartheid, many black South Africans felt that it was only fair to steal from white South Africans because they were taking back something that was rightfully theirs. He hypothesized that the “culture of crime” as a means for survival—which was highly prevalent during apartheid— simply persisted.
But again, the answer is not so simple, and is complicated by misconceptions and confusing contradictions. For example, it is common for misinformed people to assume that the increase of crime after apartheid was solely black on white, and increased in the absence of apartheid laws that made it illegal for blacks to be in white areas. But today, crime is also black on black, as it was during apartheid as well. (It should also be noted that higher rates of crime could be attributed to higher reportage.) In fact, a successful black doctor told my colleague that sometimes when a black South African robs a house that he expects to have white inhabitants and sees that the well-off individuals are black, the crime may actually become more violent than originally intended.
In 2009, The Economist explained: “It is not only whites who complain. Almost everyone is afraid. In one poll, 62% of South Africans said they would feel ‘very unsafe’ walking alone after dark.” Further, richer people can afford protection. The poor black majority cannot. Race is no longer a sole indicator of economic status (I recall seeing many white beggars) nor is it a sole determinant of who will fall victim to crime or harm. I witnessed this myself one day when I was walking to work and saw security guards clubbing a black homeless man. I also recall when my colleague—a young woman from Malawi—was held at knifepoint on her walk from the office to the bus.
It doesn’t help that cops in South Africa are widely corrupt, and known to accept bribes (almost all of my South African friends reluctantly admitted they had offered a bribe at some point—a favorite among cops is biltong and a coke.) The good news is that President Zuma just fired former police commissioner Bheki Cele based on charges of corruption. The bad news is that his dismissal reaffirms the stereotypes about black cops. But out of the three times that I was stopped by police in South Africa, two of the times were by white cops who wanted my number.
When I came to South Africa, it was not the rate of crime that disturbed me. I was prepared for that, and did what I had to. I quickly became accustomed to sliding through red lights in bad areas, or not keeping my purse in the front seat to avoid a “smash and grab.” And I gladly parked where I was told to, especially after a friend parked on the wrong side of the office building and ended up surrounded by four men, with a machete to his throat. Yes, I found it depressing that you could hardly see any houses or buildings on the streets because of high security walls and electric barbed wire. And yes, I found it odd that when I was home, I locked myself into my own house—both with a gate and with a door (my sister was particularly upset about this when she visited.)
But I was ready for all of that. The thing I could never quite come around to was the fact that crime often occurs in populated areas in broad daylight, with bystanders failing to intervene. I compared this to an incident I witnessed in Ghana, where a man stole something from a woman’s stand at a market and in no less than five seconds, there was a mob of furious Ghanaians chasing him down the street, beating him once they caught up. I immediately judged South Africans for their jadedness and immoral indifference. I struggled to reconcile the fact that the people proudly wearing the jerseys of the national rugby and football teams were the same people watching their fellow South Africans suffer without intervening.
But with further comparison of the two countries, I realized that access to guns in South Africa is particularly high. I remember a staff meeting in which the topic came up and a handful of people casually mentioned that they owned guns. One said she kept a handgun in her car “just in case,” as if it were a GPS, and one even had his right there in the belt of his pants. The high access to guns is just one explanation, but it means that petty crimes in South Africa can quickly become violent. South Africans do care about their fellow citizens, but they are protective of their personal safety and—knowing the likelihood that a dangerous weapon is present—fear that interference could worsen the situation. Plus, people in Ghana know that if a robber were lucky enough to score a gun, he would be robbing a bank, not a banana stand. Either way, my belief that South Africans did not care about each other was sharply called into question.
A few years ago, a horrific thing happened to one of my colleagues. It’s a story I will always remember. She was seven months pregnant with her first baby. Just a few moments after her husband told her that he could not wait to hold their unborn daughter, he was shot and killed by intruders. Those were his last words. The couple lived in what was supposed to be one of the safest gated communities in Pretoria, but the intruders had gained access to the estate by digging a hole under the perimeter wall. In the news story about the incident, she said: “It is clear that your life is never safe no matter where you live. There is no such thing as a safe place in South Africa. The proof is that I am a widow at the age of 29 and that my child is fatherless because of crime.” She will never be able to feel the same way about her country again, but she has not left, despite the opportunity to. She said that leaving the country would be giving into the intimidation. She is still a proud South African, a proud Afrikaner, and to her, South Africa will always be home.
Which brings me to my next point: of all the unexpected contradictions I encountered, the one that intrigued me the most is that the acknowledgement of South Africa’s problems by its citizens is almost always accompanied by “but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else” or “but it is still the greatest country in the world.” I wondered how this country—with a brutal history, one of the highest rates of crime and prevalence of HIV/AIDS (18%) in the world—maintains the unwavering pride and loyalty of its people.
At first, I was confused by this inconsistency. I questioned how South Africans could love their country so fiercely despite suffering endlessly from its problems. But later I realized that it was unfair to enter at one particular moment in time without considering the long history from which that moment was a product. South Africans have seen much worse in the past and prefer to focus on how far the country has come versus how far it still has to go. As a young American, I had trouble understanding this point of view. To draw a rough comparison, my parents barely remember segregation in the U.S.; in South Africa, people my age remember apartheid. With my lack of perspective, I was more likely to criticize South Africa for its shortcomings rather than applaud it for its progress.
Still, I was blown away by the patriotism, especially during the World Cup. Every passerby on the street was donned in Springbok gear; every waiter and waitress was equally decked out. Proud banners lined the streets and you could hear cheering at bars from blocks away. It didn’t matter if you were Afrikaans, English, Indian, Xhosa, Zulu, Venda, Twsana, Tsonga, Sotho, or Swazi. The country transformed into a sea of green jerseys—and black, white, rich, poor—nothing else mattered. Everyone was a South African, and everyone wanted to see South Africa win. I was jealous. Not only does the U.S. not have a national team, but even the midnight turnout for the Super Bowl (at the only bar in town that was playing it) was disappointing.
I do not know if patriotism is a right or if it must be earned. Regardless, it serves a purpose. It creates cohesion that is fundamental to growth, especially in a country with eleven official languages. During the World Cup, crimes rates went down, only in part because of increased security.
While I support questioning one’s government, I have to admit that it wouldn’t hurt me to emulate South Africa’s positive and forward thinking, and attempt to appreciate the progress that the United States, too, has made. I’ve only scratched the surface of the complexities in South Africa. My judgments about it made me consider the contradictions in the United States as well, especially as a country that shares the history of segregation. Now I think often about the fact that in the U.S., things are not so black and white, either.