A while back, in the Klein Karoo town of Oudtshoorn, Cindy and I went into an information center which was manned by two female representatives. On the left sat the black rep, on the right sat the white rep. We were greeted by both as we entered but since the person on the left was closer and more oriented towards the entrance, Cindy and I immediately made eye contact and quickly engaged by directing our questions right to her. As she started to answer us, the other rep interrupted her to take over the Q and A. We got our questions answered and left, and would not have thought much about what had just happened except it was not the first time we queried a black person only to have a white person over-hear and intercede in getting our questions answered, the black person always deferring to the white. As we’ve learned more about the South African history and legacy of race relations, it seems many circumstances have a racial component to them, though, class and social hierarchy appear to have a role as well.
Before and during the system of apartheid was in place there were four race and/or class distinctions. Whites were considered first, followed by Indians since they were ‘brought here and given the opportunities’ by whites. Next in line were “coloured” people who are mixed race, lighter than native Africans but darker than whites, and at the bottom of the hierarchy were native Africans or blacks. In the U.S. we don’t call non-whites ‘colored’ any more since white skin can also be considered colored. Yes, there’s political correctness involved, too, but the fact is, white skin is colored skin. Though, any time I tried to explain that to anyone here, it didn’t seem to make any sense. To whatever extent I can only imagine, it seems those race and class distinctions still exist.
This system of race distinction was explained to us by our tour-guide, a local resident named Chippa, while taking a tour of the township of Langa. Townships were originally set up by whites when they were in power to segregate and disempower the native non-white populations, though, they still serve as the cultural and identifying centers of the native African/black communities. One of the first things Chippa told us was that no question was ‘off topic’ or not worth discussing.
There are low, middle and high income residents of the townships, though, the vast majority of its 80,000 residents live in extreme poverty. These are primarily the descendents of the KhoiKhoi people who lived here for thousands of years. The San bushmen, hunter/gatherers, were the other peoples indigenous to the area around Cape Town. Chippa taught us how to make the three different ‘clicking’ sounds, though, I heard them spoken to a much greater extent east and north of Cape Town where we came into contact with people of the Xhosa tribe.
Just after passing through the gates, we entered an area where there was trash strewn everywhere, and at one cross-road there were unopened packages of prophylactics among the rest of the trash on the ground.
We went into a few of the residents’ houses to say hello and take a look around. The poorest lived in dark shacks and had no electric service, open fires burning in the middle of the shacks. When Chippa took us into a local pub, we were genuinely welcomed in and invited to join them. Chippa broke out in call and response chant and the older guys who were hanging out heartily followed along.
I wiped off the beer-mustache before leaving.
These folks were living in the container “house” behind them in a room about 5 feet square…
Sheep’s heads are considered a delicacy here. We saw the process of them from raw, newly severed heads with the jugulars still red and lying around in groupings of 3 or 4, through them getting cooked over a fire, then filed down to the final product of fine, pink flesh with bucked-teeth sticking out.
The ‘middle income’ domiciles were commonly occupied by 3 families sharing tiny kitchens, bedrooms with bunk beds, and perhaps 6 or 8 sleeping in one room.
A short distance from the corrugated tin and wood slatted shacks were houses of people who had relatively high incomes. We asked Chippa if there was any animosity between the ‘halves’ and ‘have-nots’. He said ‘no’ but added that they didn’t associate with each other much.
Anyone who has the financial means will send their children to private school as class sizes in local public schools can range up to 140 kids. Corruption of public officials is notoriously rampant and there are a number of public policies that were created to get the vote of an uneducated population. For example, any woman who has a baby is automatically given the equivalent of $30 per month until the child is 18.
The township tours serve to educate visitors as well as expose them to another side of South Africa they won’t see, except by glances from the highway at high speeds. Before the tour, we were wondering about what was behind the wood and corrugated tin shacks as we sped by. We felt like we got more than a passing glimpse after doing the tour. It really made us ponder the fate of South Africa and its peoples.
Chippa drove us to the other end of the township which used to have a tightly controlled border. Just across the road was another township, this one for people of mixed race or ‘coloured’ people, as they are still called by many.
On the way back, Chippa asked if anything stood out for us. Cindy and I both said that we felt the residents were warm and welcoming. He replied that that was a general characteristic of South Africans. We agreed and found that to be the true across the country.
Chippa couldn’t help but have an optimistic attitude about the future. At the same time he thought it could take generations for significant improvement.
I recall first learning about apartheid in grade school and feeling totally dumbfounded about how something like that could happen. South Africa is rarely on the radar screen in the US but I remember there being a lot of violence in the ’80’s, and of course, the watershed moment of the end of apartheid in 1994. I couldn’t help but feel some levity as I thought about a song from the play, “Avenue Q”…….