SOUTH AFRICA – Then and now: observations and impressions

It don’t shouldn’t matter if you’re black or white…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Going to South Africa, I was unsure exactly what to expect, and even now, ask me to sum it up for you and I’d struggle. In fact, pre and post writing this particular blog, I debated whether I really should. In the search to understand a bit more, I read many articles debating the current state of South Africa and how it relates to the past, which both helped and confused the matter! Some of you reading may know a lot more about this topic than I do, or have even lived it. So who am I to throw in my tuppence worth? Well, I decided that there are probably others that, like me before this trip, know very little beyond the ol’ Mandela story. I hope this goes some way towards painting a broader picture. I couldn’t shake the feeling that a country this fascinating – politically, historically and geographically – needs to be talked about.

South Africa's beauty is hard to beat!

Diversity and division

Black South Africans here make up 79% of the population; there are Zulus, Xhosas, Tswanas, Vendas and 10s of other groups of which I still don’t know the names! Of the white population, who are a minority in numbers, roughly equal amounts are made up of Afrikaners (Dutch origin) and those of English origin. The other minority are classified as “coloured.” This term refers to anyone Indian, Malaysian or “mixed” (aren’t we all?) race and is not considered derogatory. It’s easy to see why this is still a country of diversity and division.

A Xhosa girl sits outside a traditional house, known as a "rondaval."

The obligatory historical bit

The Dutch arrived in Cape Town in 1652, South Africa being a tactical stop off on trade routes. With their superior weaponry, they slowly took more and more land and resources, including livestock, from the black groups – Zulus, Xhosas etc..These people had come from other parts of Africa thousands of years before. That’s not to say that the people already living here were doing so peacefully – apparently there was a fair amount of discord between the groups. The Dutch used this to their own advantage and began what was to turn into centuries of black oppression.

Those of the Dutch arriving without land or wealth slowly moved to other parts of South Africa, and lost touch with the colonialism of their rich counterparts in Cape Town and Europe. They were called “trekkers”. Eking out a subsistence existance for themselves, they stole farm land and killed native adults, often keeping the children as slaves.

The English took control in 1795 and in the 1820s, a substantial amount of English people were moved here as part of a plan to relieve poverty at home. Apparently we were just as brutal to native South Africans, but humanitarian pressure led to legislation that called for the release of slaves in The Cape Colony by 1838. The Dutch speaking colonists weren’t happy about this and resentment grew towards the English. This led to the Dutch forging a new distinct national and cultural identity and a new language (Afrikaans). They set out to recreate the subordination of nonwhites as labourers for whites that had previously existed in The Cape. This was already well established by the time diamonds and gold were discovered in the country. The systematic oppression of the nonwhites continued, as they slaved away for peanuts to make the Afrikaners rich. 

Elvin, a Xhosa man, told us stories of his time being a platinum miner

Meanwhile, the English, far from having the nonwhites’ best interests at heart, consolidated their power over most of the colonies of South Africa after the Anglo-Zulu war. Although they succeeded in the end, it’s worth watching the 1964 film, “Zulu” to see how the English, with their superior weaponry, got annihilated in one battle with the Zulus!

Not to be confused with the modern film of the same name!

The conflicts between the English and the Afrikaners continued, and after many revolts, culminated in the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Brits took back all the power at this point, but Afrikaner national identity was strengthened further. The National Party, who were Afrikaner and right-wing, came into power in 1948. Building on the foundations of white superiority and black oppression that had already been established, they introduced the apartheid (literally meaning “division” in Afrikaans) system, whereby blacks and whites were completely separate.

What did this mean in practice?  It meant that there were different shops for blacks and whites; different buses; black children were schooled in how to be servants or work the fields, while white children had academic schooling; black people could get beaten for talking to white people were they not invited to do so. It also facilitated the abuse, torture and rape of some blacks by some whites.

A work of at at the Nelson Mandela capture site

Post Apartheid…

So, what of “The Rainbow Nation” first coined by Desmond Tutu and referred to by Mandela? You might be excused for thinking that since the end of apartheid in 1991, everyone is living in equality and harmony, but with such a rich and complex history, the status-quo is ever in a state of flux. Nick and I had the privilege of travelling through the country in a short space of time, observing a wealth of different situations, talking to whites, blacks, coloured, all levels of wealth and background.

Is it coz I is black?

Racial tension is bound to exist between groups that are culturally distinct. Even the English and the Afrikaners are meant not to like each other, though the Afrikaners we met were all super friendly to us. Generally I found out-and-out racism (by that I mean hatred for another based solely on skin colour) to be scarce. However, what we definitively felt was the level of fear and distrust between cultures. Racial stereotypes of black people as thieving, violent and/or lazy prevail, harming the black people that are none of those things. Unfortunately, “This is Africa,” as people kept telling us. Almost all the white people we knew had been robbed or been victims of violence, serving to compound, rather than subvert, stereotyping. Also at the table are the voices of those blacks that dislike whites because of the colour of their skin and what they think that represents. “You white people are all the same.”: a comment made to Nick’s uncle when he asked the neighbours to turn their music down. History cannot be erased, and though Mandela would have had people forgive, resentment dies hard.

When something has a sign, you know it's a thing!
Violence is a part of life here, and targets can be any race.

“It’s for putting a fire out.”

The ANC (Mandela’s party) are now in power. They are a black party, but unfortunately they have forgotten who they are fighting for and are more interested in lining their own pockets with government funds. The president, Zuma, is detested by everyone we spoke to, and all the stories in every paper are about how corrupt he us. The most recent story detailed how he spent the equivalent of 11.3 million pounds of public money on upgrades to his house in the name of national security. Because everyone knows that the best way to protect yourself from a fire is by having a swimming pool installed. Duh. Oh, and did I mention that he publicly announced he minimised his risk of contracting H.I.V. by showering after sex? In a country with the largest prevalence of the virus IN THE WORLD. Yes, the mind does boggle.

“South Africa is a Cappuccino”

The white population are, on the whole, substantially richer. I don’t blame those whites born into a system that favoured them – the mistakes of our ancestors are not ours to seek penance for, they are something we must learn from. David Cameron’s father avoiding tax caused uproar in the U.K. recently, and while I don’t think he should be held accountable for his father’s actions, to suggest that he didn’t benefit from them is preposterous.  In a similar way, it is impossible not to acknowledge that white wealth in South Africa could not have become what it is without the apartheid regime. The blacks are the under classes, the whites are on top, and the few black people now in the middle classes are but a sprinkling of chocolate on top. This is the way I saw it described in a South African newspaper. This is the South African cappuccino.

In the Transkei, work is practically non-existant, so many turn their hands to crafts to try and earn something.
Townships are where huge numbers of poor South Africans live, and are a blatant reminder of the blacks losing their land, and their livestock.

‘Positive Discrimination’

The majority of the jobs issued by government now go to black people. This is important for readdressing the balance, but in a weird twist of fate, young white men are now severely disadvantaged because legislation doesn’t see them as an oppressed group. If you are a white woman, you might still be ok.  We heard some debate about this, one argument being that a well-trained employee shouldn’t be replaced by someone that doesn’t know the job just because they fit a statistic, especially at a time when the country’s economy is in such a terrible state.

Lolly pop lady with some good socks!


In present day South Africa, treatment of blacks may be good (it was were we were anyway) but that white families still have black maids, and in restaurants, the people serving are predominately black and the people dining are predominantly white, are of note. These are divisions based on class and education, but they are inextricably linked to colour.  Picking up on this, I was told that black people are just happy to have more jobs available now. However, things still have a long way to go, and that will take time…and a president that isn’t a half-wit. The government has a duty to provide good levels of education for everyone so that equal opportunities in the workplace can really start to exist. Perhaps, just perhaps, we will then start to see a more united South Africa where it really don’t matter if you’re black or white.

A protest in Cape Town. Black student nurses wanting bursaries for all or none.
This amazing woman is Eunice, and she remembered Nick from when he was 6! The first thing she said to me was, "Have a baby and I'll look after it."

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