There are moments walking around the Rosebank neighborhood of Johannesburg when it’s easy to forget that you aren’t in the U.S. any more.
The streets are clean and well-maintained, the traffic no worse than any that you might find in most major U.S. cities. The buildings are modern, the streets bustling with sharply dressed men and women in suits and teens clad in ripped jeans and graphic tees. A walk into any Woolworth’s feels like stepping into Whole Foods. The local Pick and Pay feels like Target’s doppelganger.
A trip to the local Rosebank mall only deepens this overall sensation that I’m visiting some nearby city rather than walking on sidewalks halfway across the world. There’s an Aldo, an H&M, a Forever 21 counterpart called Forever New. It’s midday on a Tuesday but the mall is bustling with shoppers.
The shoppers are largely – a good 90%, at least – white.
The workers, as far as I can tell, are all black.
Our boutique hotel is all staffed by black South Africans. The patrons who dine in the high class restaurant attached to it are mostly white.
A conversation with a white South African yields such phrases as, “I like that the further away from apartheid we get, the less entitled these people are,” and “it’s hard to find people who are actually willing to work hard and be disciplined – that’s why I like to hire from outside South Africa.”
Now, I’m not completely without awareness. I realize that the states aren’t some sort of bastion of equality – that similar racial and income inequalities still exist back home.
Perhaps the reason that it’s so disconcerting to me in South Africa is the fact that it stands out in such stark relief.
Enter my visit to the Apartheid Museum.
Apartheid is at least a cultural literacy point worldwide. But other than the basics of it – that it existed, primarily, and that the world boycotted South Africa because of it in the late 80’s/early 90’s – I know embarrassingly little about it. I honestly have to admit that most of what I learned stems from movies – a Steve Biko biographical film I watched in 10th grade World History, Invictus with Morgan Freeman – and a brief unit on it one of my history classes.
So I was glad to pay a visit to the museum, to perhaps help me understand the context of this beautiful yet disconcerting country.
The entrance into the museum provides you with a ticket that labels you either as white or non-white. So, if you enter with a friend as I did, you’re immediately separated as you enter the museum.
You walk down a corridor, with ID cards surrounding you on either side and signs proclaiming where whites and non-whites could stand suspended above you.
These are real life prints of ID cards that everyone had to carry, which designated you as “white” or “coloured” or “black.” They dictated where you lived, where you could go, what kinds of schools you went to.
I read the history of ‘classifying’ individuals living in South Africa when the law was passed in the last 1940’s. Just a bunch of your local, uneducated whites going around, trying to figure out who what.
The history of apartheid is a disconcerting one. Not because it’s so recent, though it is, but because it seems so eerily familiar.
Not of our past, though that too, but of our current time.
The National Party was a pro-white party that came to power in 1948 with promises of a hard line policy that would benefit whites and disenfranchise non-whites. They won a surprising victory – surprising even to them – with only a minority of the overall vote, bolstered mostly by rural whites who were scared of the non-white population taking their jobs and precedence on the national stage. They very quickly enacted a whole bunch of very stringent executive decisions that eventually hardened into the system of apartheid we’re familiar with.
Other than the closeness to our current events, the other thing I was struck by at the museum was just how recently apartheid ended. While there are photos of legal segregation in the American south and clips of the widespread protests that eventually brought an end to it, they’re all grainy, sometimes black and white things that are sometimes difficult to make out. In contract, there is some footage from the protests of apartheid that are painfully clear, the punches and hits from the police officers presented in such sharply rendered pictures that you flinch each time a blow lands.
By the end of the museum exhibition – a journey through the perilous, violent time post apartheid in which thousands more people died than in all the corresponding years, then the painful, heart wrenching testimonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – I found myself thinking about just how young of a country South Africa really is. It was only 26 years ago that apartheid was officially ended; only 23 years ago that they had their first true democratic election.
The American democratic experiment has been ongoing for two centuries, our own legalized segregation ended half a century ago, and still we have so much strife and inequality. Racial discrimination and unofficial segregation that still keeps a high standard of living and quality education out of the hands of blacks and other minorities.
And despite the scenes of racial and social inequality, it’s not all this surreal, funhouse mirror version of America. Walking through the apartheid museum, it was clear that the scenes that I had witnessed outside of it spoke to progress, despite how jarring and backwards it might’ve all been to me.
For instance, yes, all of our Uber drivers are black. But one of them – Tshebo – tells us of how much better his life is now that he drives for Uber. Uber is run a little differently in South Africa, it seems. Whereas in the states, you’re required to own a car, in South Africa it seems that those with some capital have a fleet of cars (mostly Toyota Corollas, if our many Uber trips are any indication) and they lease them out to Uber drivers. The owner of the cars takes a cut, the driver takes a cut, and Uber takes it cut. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but Tshebo tells us that since driving for Uber, he’s been able to put all three of his kids in a good school. He’s done enough business and saved up enough money to soon buy his own car. He has plans to save up enough to buy five cars and lease them out to others.
See, he moved from Rustenberg, a mining town, to Midrand, a town just outside of Johannesburg. Mining is a hard, dangerous job that he was glad to not have to spend the rest of his life doing.
He works hard for Uber and likes his job, takes pride in taking care of his car. He keeps it clean, services it more regularly than I’ve ever serviced a car I’ve owned, takes his family out on trips during the weekend.
He works hard as a driver, he tells us, so that his children will never have to. They won’t have to do what he does, he says. They love school. They’re all going to go to university and they’re start their own businesses and employ so many other people.
We visited Soweto, a township of Johannesburg which once housed Nelson Mandela. It was also the site of some of the most famous protests against apartheid, including the Soweto Uprising. What had once been a neighborhood filled with of cheap housing and scrapped together aluminum shacks, was now filled with middle class housing and popular, well-maintained restaurants. Because a population of individuals who had grown up there, who had left to pursue education and other avenues, who had the opportunity to do so, had also returned. These individuals came back and chose to build a home and a life in a place their parents and grandparents had been forced to relocate to after leaving their homes and lives behind.
The menu in our restaurant in Soweto had this to say:
We visited a number of college campuses where black South African students were walking, attending in class in a place where just 50 years ago they wouldn’t have even been allowed to come on campus. We spoke with a start-up business in which the majority of the employees were black. The concierge at our hotel had his masters in accountancy, had traveled to over fifty countries, and mostly worked weekends at the hotel between his time in class.
Even that woman I spoke to earlier, the one who spoke about entitled individuals and apartheid, gave her sincerest sorry that our country had voted for Trump. What a vile man he was. She loved Obama, she said, and loved all that he had done for our country and all that he stood for.
She ended our time together speaking with such obvious love for Africa – not just South Africa – but the whole of the continent. How much she believed in it, how great she believed it was. I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of her. If this were a novel, I’d struggle to discern what lesson or point I was supposed to take with my interaction with her. Perhaps the closest thing is that people are complicated and context matters.
And of course, there are other questions to ask.
Is it enough progress? Has the country moved forward at a fast enough clip? At a good enough pace? What’s next?
I don’t know. And I have a feeling that the answer, if there’s one to be found, might be for people smarter than I, more thoughtful than I, with more understanding of history and context and political movements.
At the end of my time in South Africa, I’m left with this: it’s a beautiful country filled with beautiful people, a place with a violent history, a complicated present, and a future that the citizens are optimistic about.
And I hope that I have the opportunity to return some day, to visit Cape Town and to see what other progress gets made.