As a member of the #MeetSouthAfrica team I was exposed to a large cross section of South African history and culture. From their food to their politics, I found this country frustrating and fascinating at the same time. Here I dig a bit deeper into the things that really stayed with me once I left the beautiful and diverse, South Africa
Black South Africans call themselves Colored
Starting in the 14th century, dark skinned peoples of African descent were referred to as colored (or coloured) in the US and UK. After the Civil Rights movement in the US, Colored and Negro have largely been replaced with black. Colored still carries racist connotations in the US and is largely considered offensive to African Americans. So when our driver, who was black and South African, said to me, “We love Bobotie. It’s comfort food for us colored” I was taken aback. Hearing white South Africans referring to blacks as colored didn’t sit well with me at all, and not because they were being offensive in any way, but because I’ve been socially programmed to be offended by the term. It’s a very pejorative term for us to the point where nigga is far more common to hear; this was definitely something I had to get used to during my time in South Africa.
Companies can hire based on Race
South Africa takes a very clear stand on race based hiring. It’s allowed, plain and simple. In the US it’s very controversial, to the point that it sometimes results in Supreme Court cases where race is used as a deciding factor. Coined Positive Discrimination, officially called Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, it basically states that “employers are required to give preference to candidates from ‘previously disadvantaged groups’ when recruiting and promoting staff, where all other factors are equal.”
I’m not going to get into my feelings on Affirmative Action programs but I found it interesting to see a country which just came out of a period rife with one form of discrimination, adopt another, no matter how well meaning they might be. One common theme of my visit was a fascination with South Africa’s adoption of largely controversial and flawed western policies.
President Jacob Zuma thinks showers stop AIDS
South African President Jacob Zuma is of Zulu heritage. He’s a polygamist who has been married six times and has over 20 children which is accepted in Zulu culture. In turn, accepted in South Africa (not without it’s opponents of course). His last marriage was attended by his other three wives. Following a traditional ceremony known as umgcagco, the bridal party participated in a traditional Zulu competitive celebratory dance.
After speaking with a few Zulu brothers I was informed that this was totally acceptable – BUT if a Zulu man was to cheat on his wife/wives he would be torn apart. Infidelity is entirely unacceptable. This struck me as odd given how we view infidelity and polygamy in the US. Polygamy is still illegal yet infidelity is widespread, especially among politicians.
PLEASE Google Jacob Zuma. The stuff this man has said blows my mind; the fact that a world leader could still be in power after the scandals and things he’s said is very interesting. During his trial for rape in 2006, he stated “he knowingly had unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman and had a shower afterwards to stop himself getting AIDS.”
Huge Racial disparity in Cape Town Service Industry
The racial disparity of Cape Town struck me right away. Simply put, blacks serve whites in Cape Town, and it’s a noticeably high percentage. Throughout South Africa I noticed most of the workers were black. I chalked this up to the fact they make up about 80% of the South African population. But in Durban and Johannesburg I noticed a few whites here and there working alongside blacks: not so in Cape Town.
Now I’m sure those with work are more than appreciative. But I found myself feeling a bit uncomfortable and agitated at the black majority “serving” the white minority: it felt all too familiar. I honestly felt like a sell out sitting there. I’m not sure what the solution is but this is definitely something African Americans will notice immediately in Cape Town. Hell, I don’t know if it needs “solving” or if it’s my own inferiority issues. When your people have been forced in to subservient for generations these kinds of things stick with you.
Internet SUCKS and it’s Expensive
My god. How in the world does South Africa stay connected to the world? Internet is EXPENSIVE. Virgin is their top cell provider. For data you’ll prepay about $25 for 3gbs. I personally burn through data between Instagram, Whatsapp, Facebook, and Google Maps when im traveling. Coming from Europe and Asia this may catch you off balance, but what makes it worse is the speed or lack thereof.
Telecom companies are screwing South Africans. With some of the best wifi available I could barely upload a 60mb video, and this wasn’t just in one area. Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban were all the same. Don’t expect hotels to be much better; most charge for wifi at a premium after 500mbs a day.
Western Quality FOOD and Eastern Prices
The food of South Africa blew my mind. African, India, Malay, Western. All of it was of the highest quality meat, fruit, and vegetable I’ve had anywhere in the world. How this isn’t listed with London, France, New Orleans, and NYC as a foodie paradise is beyond me. The beef and seafood were absolute highlights, along with the Indian cuisine in Durban. I was also turned onto Ostrich during this trip. Cooked to a nice medium rare, you’ll get a very lean cut of meat with all the flavor of beef, but what makes it so damn impressive is the cost.
For example, 9th Avenue Bistro is one of Durban’s best restaurants. The average meal cost R160, and a six course tasting menu will run about R340. That’s 13USD and 27USD a person, and this is at a higher end place. I challenge anyone to find the consistent value that South African cuisine provides in the west and I’ll fly in to treat you to dinner.
Ecological Diversity reminds me of South America
Earlier this month South Africa was voted the Worlds Most Beautiful Country. It’s very well deserved. The ecological diversity of South Africa rivals two of my favorites, Argentina and Chile, in regards to diverse and stunning landscapes. South Africa is still fairly “wild”. I can’t tell you how many times we saw baboons and various other animals just running around while we drove the twisting and winding roads. From the stunning coast of Durban and Cape Town to the stunning Cango Caves, you’ll find a bit of everything.
Few places compare to the beauty of Table Mountain in Cape Town. Listed as one of the New Seven World Wonders of Nature, Table Mountain offers almost 360 degree views of the stunning South African landscape surrounding Cape Town. The South African government has gone to great lengths to protects its natural beauty and has resisted the urge to put up ridiculous “safety” gates everywhere. This gives the brave an amazing opportunity to not only climb/hike this amazing mountain but also to see it from above by jumping off nearby Lions Head.
Wild animals will sell you Hard Drugs.
According to my guide I shouldn’t chase the wild animals because they’ll rob me and try to sell me drugs, in that order: especially Baboons and Ostriches. True story. Want Coke? Ask the baboon. It can only end well.
Complicated Tribal Structures and Politics
I thought the US government was complicated. South Africa politics seems to be even more frustrating for South Africans. Given the “recent” fall of Apartheid and current tribal conflicts I can definitely understand. It’s interesting to see how South Africa has navigated the need for equality with the reality that everyone just isn’t equal. Balancing traditional Zulu tribal customs with a Western governmental structure has to be hellish. This came to a head with the recent issues at the Muti Markets in Durban which made national headlines.
Expect a piece from me soon regarding this story but the South African government finds itself in an unenviable position, balancing the needs of a growing modern society with the needs and desires of a culture deeply based in tradition. Some of these traditions aren’t going to be largely accepted or tolerated by modern societies. This is everyday life for South Africans, especially white South Africans who it seemed had to maintain a “tight lipped” position on this subject.
Not everyone in South Africa loved Nelson Mandela
Talk about a curve ball. I sat at dinner with six South Africans: three Indian, two Black, and one White. The conversation on Mandela was largely split which shocked me. For African Americans Nelson Mandela is a saint, a rock star. Mandela came along at a time in US history when we had no real leader. Mandela truly rose to prominence in the US in the late 80’s and early 90’s, a time when we had no real “black” leader and when the LA Riots of 1992 showed how deeply divided the US was along racial lines. An Us vs Them mentality really took hold that you still see today in light of the police violence against young black men. And then there was Mandela.
Maybe it was because we were so far removed from South Africa, but these South African men explained to me that many feel like Mandela actually stifled the fall of Apartheid through his pacifist position, which is a similar critique of Martin Luther King Jr. Many also felt that he basically sold out black South Africans by compromising with whites and those who profited from Apartheid. I recalled reading this before and went back to check and found an old piece that read, “It’s not an exaggeration to say Mandela’s leadership style, characterized by accommodation with the oppressors, will be forgotten, if not rejected within a generation,”. This was written by Andile Mngxitama, a black-consciousness advocate and frequent critic of Nelson Mandela.
Had this come from white South Africans I could have understood it better but from South Africans of color this took me aback a bit. These are POCs who grew up during the Apartheid and by conventional logic benefited from Mandela’s work. It’s very interesting and puts our American hero worship into context a bit. It’s not that Mandela doesn’t deserve the praise he received, just highlights that we tend not to do the proper research when heaping praise on someone. I largely feel the same about him. But definitely understand that I should do a bit more research into the men and women I admire.
Durban has the largest Indian population outside India
This certainly came as a surprise. I would have guessed Malaysia. Many of the current Indians in Durban are descendants of Indentured servants brought to the Cape by the Dutch. Starting with the original 342 in 1860, on board the Truro from Madras, Indians were used to work on Sugar plantations for the South African government. I initially thought this was similar to slavery in the US but I was largely mistaken.
Many of the original servants from India were able to return to India at the end of their “contracts”. Upon return many informed the government of deplorable and abusive conditions which were soon changed thereafter, particularly after the arrival of Mahatma Ghandi in 1893 on a business trip. His arrival and experience with racism would eventually lead to the formation of the Natal Indian Congress and the coming together of the various Indian groups in the country.
As a result, the Indian food in Durban IS OFF THE CHAIN!!!!! You have to eat Bunny Chow. One of the tastiest things I’ve eaten.
South Africans are Diverse and Resilient People
My biggest and most profound take away from my time with #MeetSouthAfrica would be my views of South African people. South Africa has some of the warmest and accommodating people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with. My press trip team was a total of nine people. Six of them were South African. Not only did I have an opportunity to interact with South Africans in the museums, townships, restaurants, and hotels, but also live, eat, and travel with them 24/7.
Prior to this trip I fantasized South Africa would be like Zamunda from Coming to America. Although it clearly wasn’t, I found something better: a country on the edge of excellence. A place still finding its identity while embracing the world. South Africa is full of people who understand the road to equality is long and hard but are willing to do the work. South Africa combines warmth, positivity, and determination to create an experience for guests like no other.
Next year I plan to visit the last 45 countries I have in Africa. This journey will begin in South Africa. South Africa still has quite a ways to go in my mind. From a political standpoint as well as an equality based one. But from those that I met, from poor township residents to High So corporate types, South Africa is trying to go down the right path. I plan to support it in anyway I can.
Special thanks to the #MeetSouthAfrica team. Especially the South Africans who were in my group. You all showed me what your country is all about. The good and the bad and I’ll always be grateful. Dale (Boss Lady. Organized and controlled the chaos) ,Andy (Former Extreme Athlete turned InstaGuru) ,Dane (The heart of South African tourism and Instaguru/Videographer),Kate (Super talented ray of sunshine who I LOVE), and Adam (This cat is a multimedia rock star). Pure talent and class. And my American brother Spencer who sings a mean cover of Sweet Home Alabama in that Southern Drawl I miss. And last but not least, Shivya. One of the worlds best travel bloggers and a woman who kind of almost got me to consider eating less meat. lol
Have you been to South Africa? Do you want to visit? Anything I wrote surprise you? Don’t forget to comment and share.