Having grown up in Europe, I have never – ever – been scared for my life. Somehow, all the violence coming from video games and Hollywood movies has nothing to do with the incredible safety we enjoy there in the Old World. So when I sat foot outside of Europe a couple of months ago I vowed to be careful with myself and my belongings.
I went on a two-and-a-half months journey which took me throughout Southeast Asia. This part of the world, I came to understand, is safe. In fact, it is so safe, that my friend and I were able to pull it through sleeping on benches, bus stations, sidewalks, and parks. We camped, slept on hammocks, walked for hours in search of accommodation and hitchhiked for hundreds of kilometres. I flew to South Africa to make a visa for a new adventure in Mozambique. While at it, I found out a thing or two about races and racism.
Nelson Mandela looking at a city rigged by racial issues, leaving the war he fought so hard yet to be won.
My friend Iulia and I stayed at a host I found on www.couchsurfing.com. My host Martin[i]was a young and well-educated white man who lives with his rich religious parents. The whole family is very polite, and we are welcomed by Margaret, the black housemaid.
With the stage set, we start unveiling some uncomfortable truths about life in South Africa. Our hosts belong to the upper class white Afrikaners – descendants of the Dutch who settled here in the 17 century. Afrikaners speak Afrikaans (I am going to talk about it later) and take pride in their land, unfortunately now overflowing with immigrants. A friend of my host, a woman in her late forties, tells me that South Africans are welcoming by nature because most of them [the white Afrikaner minority a.k.a. the natives] grew up on farms where food was bountiful and life without a care.
Yes. Life was beautiful back in the day. For most of these Africans, it is still quite the run. Families such as my host’s dine out, live in highly protected and fence-surrounded residential areas, and have black servants to care for their needs. And yet something has changed.
One night I sit down with the patriarch of the family – a successful businessman – who tells me about the old South Africa. ‘We used to have state of the art hospitals. […] Now if you go to a government hospital, there is a big chance you will not get out alive.’ What has changed? – I am asking myself and him. It all got bad after 1994[ii]. Hm. His thoughts led him to conclusions that reminded me of another Afrikaner (who happened to be a president), PW Botha, who famously stated that‘Blacks cannot rule themselves. Give them guns and they will kill each other.’
My interlocutor did not dig into the apartheid slang to describe why South Africa is so bad right now. He didn’t have to. But his stance stood loud, nauseating, and clear. South Africa was better when it served the minority. Nowadays, too many people are claiming what once only a few had – and it is just not working. Not under a black president, anyway.
I heard the too many argument from a black girl on a bus station in Johannesburg, who told me: ‘Life is tough, guys. Very tough… See this guy [selling us handcrafts] – he studied HR at university. And he has no job, no job at all.’
Meanwhile, the mother of my host, Debora, could not have a better life, ‘spending [my] husband’s money’ as she says, laughing. In a country where a staggering 26.7% of the population is unemployed (a figure reaching 39% among black people) and one in four South Africans lives under the UN estimated poverty line of US$1.25 per day, laughing over the matter seems to have gone too far.
Debora taught me racism in South Africa is basically non-existent. She spoke of herhouse cleaner as if she was a belonging: ‘mine,’ she would say, ‘she speaks Afrikaans very well. Other blacks send their kids to white schools… well, not white, now they are pretty mixed… anyway, in schools where they can learn Afrikaans so that they could find a job later.’ Odd as it may seem, this statement was very true. Black people need Afrikaans indeed, because they are still serving the white man. Black people are working everywhere nowadays, catering in restaurants, driving the public busses, and preparing fast food. At a later stage, a guy told me this is because of Black Empowerment. For me, it still looks like the white people can simply afford to leave all the hard labor to the less fortunate.
Yes, you have that in Europe, you, an independent eye, would say to me. Nonetheless, it is important to see the difference here. In Europe, people fight and win new political and economic rights and freedoms every day. In South Africa, the black people are faulty of the deficit, of the corruption, of the dysfunction of the state. Ultimately, it seems, the black people are causing the concerns in the white community that could be confused with racism.
Memories of the past – Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
Actually, I managed to speak to many people with various opinions. When I went out of the country and met Europeans I could talk to, I started reflecting upon all of the talks I had. In Mozambique, I met Anders from Denmark, who compared South Africa to a cappuccino – large dark mass with a thin layer of white cream on top and a couple of cinnamon spots on the very top. The resemblance is truly remarkable.
The problem, as usual, comes from way back in history. To find out more, I went to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. A scary and rather depressive place, I went through an incredible journey of artefacts, texts and films with a ticket that randomly categorises visitors as ‘black’ or ‘white’. In the final part of the museum it all transformed to the cheerful place that is South Africa, with people celebrating their diversity and loving each other and connecting on various levels and… a little bit too much. Suitable for the little segregated classes of white or black kids who were on trips that day.
What happened on the way back from the museum defined the racial issue in the country in a completely new horrible light. And what became one of the worst nightmares of my life taught me a great deal about humans.
My friend and I had only made a few steps in central Joburg out of the public bus when a guy checked out my pockets and shouted. Seconds later, I was being chocked while some three men were taking my wallet and my phone. I was so shocked that when released I could only run up to my friend, where another person was trying to take her backpack – and who, luckily, gave up and ran away. What struck me at first was that this happened at three o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of the city, before the eyes of dozens of people. Nobody reacted, nobody came to my rescue. The nightmare continued as a police car that was passing by did not stop to my shouts for help. The local people, who were infuriated, blocked the road for the car. In what now seems like a scene from a horror movie, I was banging on the car window expecting the police officers inside to take me to safety. But they did not. They put their siren on and drove through the crowd. What is arguably the second worst day of my life (the worst only a month away) continued, as I had to send my mother a message from another phone so that she can cancel my debit card and sim card. I can only imagine what my family has been through 8000 km away for the three hours it took me to go home.
Finally, a nice man offered to drive us to the nearest train station, and from then on, I spend the hours trying to get in contact with my host family without having any of their contacts or address.
I have to make a stop here to talk about how I felt then and how it transformed to a chilling realisation.
I remember feeling so hopeless and defenceless there in the middle of the crowd. The locals were pointing in the direction of the thieves as I hopelessly tried to chase them; finally, someone warned me not to run after them if I want to keep my life. Other people were just shaking their heads no when I asked them if the police was actually going to do something about it. I remember feeling angry and not being able to produce a clear thought; rather, I had blood rushing to my head and the extreme fears of not knowing what is going on, not knowing what is going to happen, and often not knowing how Iulia is, as she would disappear in the crowd. I felt sick to my stomach. I was shaking, crying, shouting for help and cursing while praying that we get out of there as soon as possible.
Well, we did, and we ended up waiting for our host to pick us up on the train station stairs. That is when I could see the whole picture for the first time, and it was horrifying.
It is true that this even has caused a great deal of trauma to my friend and to me and possibly, it scarred me for a very long time. But frankly, besides that I would be able to easily issue new papers and buy a new phone. Money comes and goes and I will not starve or be homeless because of this robbery.
The same is not valid for the people of central Johannesburg though. After liberating themselves from decades of political and social oppression, they woke up in a country that starves them, builds fences around them, does not offer them any affordable healthcare or education, has no work for them, has no police able to protect them, and no government able to listen to others but a tight high class. If I go back, I see that the local people did not help me because they actually live where the bad guys are; they meet them every day and they are their everyday victims. I see their faces fed up of witnessing the same thing day after day. I see them having no faith in a police force that is turning a blind eye (if not cooperating) with the thief gangs. I see what it might be raising my children in an environment where I could end up in a ditch one day or they might just.
This entire whirlpool of thoughts rushes to my head and I try to find peace with myself. I am so lucky to live in a place where I am unable to lose everything I own overnight. I am so lucky not to have my life in jeopardy any minute in this world of injustice. Above all, I am so lucky not to be forced out of love and tranquillity in the horrible way that I would have to threaten and take people’s lives so that I could provide a living for me in the mad cruel world we live in.
[i] Some of the names of this article have been changed.
[ii] The year when the last white president F. W. de Klerk lost the elections to Nelson Mandela.
Stoyo – May 2015 Team