Friday, March 22, 2013

South African Culture

[Note:  The crowd photos included in this blog entry are only loosely related to the commentary, and are meant to break up the reading.]

The history and culture of South Africa have been significantly shaped by race relations. As such, we would be remiss if we completed our travel blog without mentioning this topic. It is an important part of the story.

We decided to wait until near the end of our blogging to write extensively about it, for a couple of reasons.  We wanted to continue to learn from our cultural interactions to gain a richer understanding of Cape Town, and we needed a little time to reflect on what we experienced.

We were in South Africa for only 6 weeks.  We know that hardly qualifies us to be experts. Our volunteer work did give us an opportunity to live and work in some communities to which we would have otherwise had much less exposure.  We are both naturally curious, and benefited from conversations with locals who opened up to us about their own views on the culture in Cape Town and the rest of South Africa.  We did not have to bring up the topic ourselves.

We have done a fair amount of reading on the topic of Cape Town and South African culture, and our own observations are generally corroborated by what we have read.  The thoughts expressed here are based primarily on our own experiences.  They may not all be statistically significant, and one's perspective always depends somewhat on the individuals one happens to meet.  But we hope you will find them to be interesting.

In the U.S., discussing race relations openly is usually challenging.  This may be related to our own national history, prior to the civil rights era.  In an ideal world, skin color (or any other way of categorizing people) doesn't need to be discussed.  Being color blind means you don't even notice.

In South Africa, at least in Cape Town, things are different. Many people of all races talk pretty openly about skin color, and broadly categorize themselves as coloured, black or white.  At first, this seemed to us to be purely an unfortunate aftermath of apartheid.  We thought that since people had been oppressed, they perhaps weren't sure how to un-label themselves once the ANC took over and a new social order was established.  It's been twenty years since apartheid ended.  For some individuals, this perspective may be accurate.  But it can run deeper than that.

For many others, for example Rodney the shop owner from Mitchell's Plain, they identify themselves foremost as coloured or black as a matter of great pride.  The isolation imposed by the apartheid system likely strengthened bonds beyond those normally seen among oppressed groups in other countries, since groups of people were not allowed by law to leave the boundaries of their own communities.

A sense of pride is particularly evident among many members of the coloured community, among whom we lived and worked.  The word "coloured" encompasses a myriad of ethnicities in itself, based on the history of South Africa dating back to the 1600's.  The ancestry and related cultural influences include Europe, West Indies, Madagascar, Mozambique, other African nations, India, Indonesia, China, Malaysia and The Philippines. It still seems strange and uncomfortable for us to use a term like "coloured," but it's a matter-of-fact thing for the members of that community such as our host family.

The demographics of Cape Town are quite different from South Africa as a whole. Population statistics for Cape Town show a breakdown of 48% Coloured, 31% Black, 19% White, and 2% Asian.  For all of South Africa, the breakdown is 79% Black, 9% Coloured, 9% White and 3% Asian.  The demographic differences manifest themselves somewhat in voting patterns in Cape Town.  The diverse population also blurs the line between majority and minority, and allows for a particularly vibrant, eclectic culture.

We had an overwhelmingly positive cultural experience in South Africa.  We felt very welcome in the vast majority of situations.  The only negative feelings directed at us came from a small sub-set of the white population, most of whom were middle aged males. It was pretty obvious, and happened several times.  We can only guess that these are people who knew we were Americans, and as such are citizens of a country whose government helped put pressure to end apartheid.

Otherwise, anti-American sentiment was less evident in South Africa than in other countries we have visited.  Capetonians seem able to get to know most Westerners as individuals, independent of their nationality or any other classification.  The only exceptions may be the nationalities that they perceive to be directly involved with instituting apartheid or historically supporting any sort of ethnic cleansing.

Despite the open-mindedness towards many foreigners, there are some tensions between ethnic groups in Cape Town.  These are often expressed openly.  Some residents of coloured townships resent that the South African government built formal settlements for the black townships, with more permanent structures in addition to the tin shanties common in many townships.  Some members of the black community still resent the fact that under apartheid, coloured people were by law given preference for employment opportunities.

Within the black townships, there is some animosity toward immigrants from other African countries. They are viewed as competition for scarce resources.  And there are undoubtedly still some older whites who maintain the attitudes prevalent under apartheid, but are forced to keep their opinions more to themselves than in the past.

Our host family explained that in their view, any judgments across various groups are not endemic to South African society.  They are the direct result of the apartheid system that began after the National Party was elected in 1948.  The policies were formalized by legislation such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, the Population Registration Act of 1950 and the Group Areas Act of 1950.

From what we heard, prior to apartheid, most people in Cape Town were pretty color blind. They intermarried and they enjoyed the rich community relationships that are the result of many different people sharing their lives with each other.  District Six was a good example of this, as was our host family's original neighborhood.

Once the ruling white party introduced segregation, color became an issue.  The government told the various groups that they should and must focus on color.  The consequences can still be felt today. When our host family was younger, their church included members of all races.  Today, long after apartheid ended, the congregation in their current church is much less diverse, as a perhaps unavoidable outcome of forced separation.

The cultural dynamics are complex, and South Africa only recently emerged from the ideological system that created the current degree of race consciousness.  For all the hardship endured, Capetonians are incredibly resilient.  In just a short 20 years, many people set aside their personal feelings of losing their homes, their jobs and their communities.

Cape Town is a fascinating place that we absolutely loved visiting.  We met wonderful people throughout the trip, and we would not trade this cultural experience for anything. In fact, we would like to stay involved in some small way in the ongoing positive changes that we know will continue in Cape Town.

The blog is not quite done yet!  We have one more blog entry.  We want to show some individual photos of some other great people we met, reflect on our building project and mention one or two other things.

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