Will the Real South Africa, Please Stand Up?

Is the Garden Route real South Africa? What is real South Africa? And am I living in it?

A couple of days after I got home from the Garden Route, I received an email from a friend who was concerned about whether I lived in “real Africa” or “touristy Africa”. Granted the Garden Route was pretty touristy (see my previous blog post), but it’s become clear to me that a lot of people–both Americans and non-Americans–have a misperception on what South African life is really like. Which is totally fine, how can we understand any country we haven’t lived in? Some of the questions I’ve been asked have been, is South Africa safe? How is it different from North Africa? What’s the HIV situation like? Is Apartheid still going on? So here’s what’s up:

The problems in North Africa are horrific, as everyone talks about. I have a lot of friends here who have worked in Kenya or Tanzania–in much smaller towns in Africa where it’s not westernized–and it’s been an extremely unsafe experience for them. Just being white can cause attacks, kidnappings and other extreme acts. Last September there was a bombing at a mall in Kenya where many people died, including some of the president’s family members.


Green Market Square

Since I am currently in Cape Town, South Africa, it is definitely easier because I’m in a city that’s very influenced by Western culture. But everything is about 50 years behind to America’s schedule. Apartheid (which was basically South Africa’s Jim Crow Laws, separating whites, Africans and colored people) ended in 1994, so now there is no more legal segregation.

On my first weekend in Cape Town, we went to Langa, which is a small township that was designated for Black Africans before the apartheid era. It’s still thriving and it’s filled with people but it’s a very poor community. We went to see where they lived and learn about the history. We saw that in one hostel, three families of five live in one room, and there’s a lot of poverty. But they seem very happy, our tour guide was 26 and still lives in Langa despite having a full-time job. The kids were playing outside and were very friendly. It’s mostly about tradition and being close to family. It’s hard going to these types of tours because you realize that while you’re learning and you’re experiencing how other people live for your own benefit of understanding different cultures, this is still someone’s life and someone’s struggle rather paying to see. It’s awkward taking pictures of someone’s painful daily life. But it’s also important that we see it for ourselves and share it with our families so that people know what’s going on.

However, it’s still very much apart of the South African culture. It’s obvious that certain jobs are for certain people, due to a lack of education. There’s also just an overall lack of sensitivity present in the conversations South Africans have when talking about race, something that most Americans are not use to hearing. HIV is widespread in South Africa, 1 in 10 people have it according to my three friends who are currently working in either hospitals or research facilities, and work with HIV-positive or TB-positive patients. They have to support these patients who are in serious denial about their condition and this all takes place in Cape Town.

Certainly there are areas made just for tourists. Green Market Square is filled with merchants selling products made in North Africa. All the items, from “authentic” drums, masks, scarves, bottle openers, jewelry, and more, are all the same, in every stand. All the merchants say that their paintings are an original. After living in Cape Town for 3 months, it’s obvious that these stands are for tourists. You’ll see it everywhere: Hout Bay Market, Old Biscuit Mill, even in Stellenbosch or Franschoek (towns outside of Cape Town). It’s a consistent idea that tourists come to South Africa and they expect to buy African artifacts, whether it’s a painting of an African tribe or clay bowls. Travelers come here expecting these gifts to bring home to their families, to show them what they got from “real Africa.” We buy it and then we go to other markets and see the same things over and over again. You realize that none of it is original, and the sellers are banking on our perception of South Africa to make money.

The Waterfront is another interesting aspect to what tourists . Though gorgeous and incredibly fun, the Waterfront is a combination of Hershey Park and your local mall. Except it’s better. It’s located by the harbor and its a tourist heaven. There’s the aquarium, the port that boats leave to go to Robben’s Island, a ferris wheel, opportunities to go sea-kayaking or rent a boat. The Victoria Wharf is a huge mall that’s very expensive. There’s also the best seafood restaurants, live music, a 7-day market and other daily attractions. You can have it all at the Waterfront. But it’s not authentic. It’s not the townships, it’s literally filled with people from Europe, America and other countries. It’s important as a traveler, and someone living temporarily to realize the differences. The Waterfront is not an ideal place to go to all the time for South Africans. In these two cases, my friend is somewhat right.

A little bit of the Waterfront

A little bit of the Waterfront

But outside the Waterfront, and Cape Town altogether, the country is divided by Western Cape and Eastern Cape. I live in Western Cape, which is the close to the city and the ocean. It’s still filled with a diverse crowd of South Africans from all parts of the country. Cape Town is the ‘Mother City’, so they see it as a place like New York City, a place to go after you graduate. In the city, everyone is much more integrated but when you get outside to the Eastern Cape where there’s the Afrikaans community, farms and safari areas, there is more of a separation. I actually just finished the book¬†Disgrace, by JM Coetzee, and I recommend anyone read it if you want a better understanding on racial complexities in South Africa and the differences between the East and the West.

Company Gardens

Company Gardens

The story is about a professor from University of Cape Town, who’s divorced and lonely and doesn’t have motivation with his current job. He has an affair with a student in one of his classes, and when people find out, he chooses to leave the school and Cape Town altogether. He decides to move to a village in the Eastern Cape, where his adult daughter lives and runs a farm. There’s animals including many dogs who have been abused and are taken in for safety by his daughter. It’s in the middle of the country, where people are a little less civilized, and the idea of a woman running her own farm is a bit preposterous. The professor decides to help around the farm, even though he’s not supportive of it; he would much rather see his daughter come home and get married.

The story’s main themes mirror my own life in a strange way: A man leaves the comfort of his job, home and city-life for the life of somewhere completely new and a completely different culture. It challenges him because he lives by his intellect, he strives through his studies, his music and these things don’t matter in the Eastern Cape. It matters if you can run the farm and get your hands dirty, and he struggles with these concepts. I’ve found that being in Cape Town aka being in a new place has been challenging for me because it’s having to accept and work with people who may not do the type of things you would do, or understand why you would do them. It tests your patience in new situations, which I could definitely learn from.

The point of this post is that Cape Town, though not Botswana or Zimbabwe, is still real Africa. It’s real because the people living here are dealing with their own issues in the country: lack of education, racism, diseases, homelessness, theft.¬†Cape Town, if anything, is in the beginning stages of post-civil rights America. They’re aren’t lions and elephants walking around Cape Town, but it doesn’t make the city or my experience any less African.

Camps Bay

Camps Bay

I messaged my friend a similar response and she was very happy to know what I told her. I hope this clears anything up. Thanks for reading! More later.

Until next time,