My trip to South Africa fulfilled a long-held dream of mine to visit the home of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steven Biko and other heroes of humanity I had read and heard about since I was a child. This is a personal reflection.
My first stop in the country was to breathtaking Cape Town, with its awe-inspiring mountain and ocean views. For nearly a month, I volunteered with an education startup, while soaking up the special parts of this city that I highlight in this video.
But I want to share now some of the moments of discomfort that I experienced. There is a dark side to the city that you won’t find in promotional material and that I was not ready for and could hardly have imagined.
The ugly truth about Cape Town is that as a black woman, the legacy of apartheid hangs heavy over the city, and affected my everyday experiences. Here are 3 uncomfortable truths that I discovered about post-apartheid South Africa, specifically Cape Town that rocked my sensibilities:
The spatial segregation of races forced upon South Africans during the apartheid era is largely still intact. As a digital nomad, I visited different areas of the city everyday as I explored cute cafes, cozy restaurants, and interesting bars, from which to work. In many cases, I was the sole black patron in the establishment. No exaggeration. A few times, I received long, uncomfortable looks, especially on the waterfront and in some of the suburbs. To further highlight the gross disparities, in these spaces, every server, visible cook, and cleaner, were black. This sad, stark composition repeated itself daily.
Though it certainly exists everywhere, this is inequality on an unimaginable scale. On several occasions, I witnessed people kneeling on the sidewalk and in the middle of the street asking for change. On a couple of occasions, the less fortunate intensely followed me asking for anything I could spare. Taking an uber or buying a pair of cheap sunglasses from a street vendor are things that millions of South Africans can only dream of doing. In fact, 25% of people living in the townships of Khayelitsha and Langa (two of the biggest with millions living there) don’t have electricity, and up to 10 families can share a single outdoor toilet – many of these people are the city’s servers, bartenders, cleaners and uber drivers. I met them everyday and heard their stories.
Generally, the idea that people are still learning how to live with and treat each other as equals, and be seen as equals, is everywhere. I’d always wondered what it was like for my ancestors shortly after being emancipated from slavery. How was it to live side-by-side with the people that once kept you captive? South Africa provided a glimpse and I’m stunned that I hadn’t anticipated it. After all, SA is only 23 years out of its own slavery. If I had been born there, I would have had to sit on the “black” bench, to face every kind of dehumanization simply because I was black and couldn’t pass the pencil test. Even now, men take advantage of this power imbalance, as I learned on my trip to the Old Biscuit Mill Market. Talk of reconciliation, establishing equality, revolution, are still things on the tip of everyone’s tongue – rightfully so.