South Africa: Beyond the Beauty
Updated: Jan 8
I wasn’t ready to write about South Africa. It was May of 2015, and I had just returned home from an educational trip with fifteen fellow graduate students and our aloof professor. Time was ticking as I struggled to articulate what I had experienced. In late April, we had departed Pittsburgh International Airport, bound for the mammoth African continent as part of a travel writing credit toward our Creative Writing Master’s Degrees. It was two weeks of a full itinerary that included stops in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Soweto, Kruger National Park, Golden Gate, Kimberly, Karoo, and Cape Town. We rode a bus cross-country and experienced some of the most breathtaking views—Victoria Falls, Blyde River Canyon, Table Mountain, the penguin colonies at Boulders Beach, to name a few. I had a notebook full of lavish descriptions of these profound landscapes—the South African landscape is a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, yadda yadda—yet something pervaded our entire experience that I couldn’t put into words—until now.
“Go back where you came from!” Insults sounded as soon as we departed our bus the morning of our meeting with Ahmed Kathrada, a veteran of the South African liberation struggle and close friend to Nelson Mandela. “You’re not wanted here!” a few locals shouted as we made our way through the expansive parking lot to the crosswalk.
In most of my travels, I was used to locals gazing upon us as if we were a rare oddity. In countries like Bolivia, Costa Rica, and even Haiti, locals gaped mostly at my travel companions—my dark hair and olive complexion often passed me off as a native—but my fair-skinned and blonde-haired friends stood out. Locals treated them like celebrities, gawking, snapping pictures while curious children grasped at their blond hair, but not in South Africa. We quickly learned that we looked like the Afrikaners, the white ruling class that controlled South Africa until 1994.
While the insults were uncomfortable, I immediately began to draw connections to the United States’ racist past. There were undoubtedly differences; South Africa had a different political system until the end of the Apartheid, whereas the United States was a democracy long before segregation laws were abolished. As such, the United States experienced its civil rights movement in the 60s, while tensions in South Africa remained heightened until the early 90s. However, despite these societal and political differences, what was undeniably similar at the time of my visit was that both countries had already dismantled most of their racist institutions, yet, the scars of racism remained bright and inflamed.
I admittedly did not know much about the Apartheid before our trip aside from the awareness that South Africa’s previous government was oppressive and that Nelson Mandela had been the face of the reform. As we hiked to scenic overviews, pedaled bikes through a village of sheet metal homes, and shared meals with South African natives—South Africa’s history lingered in every discussion, reflected in every wayward gaze, and resurfaced with every jolt as our bus traversed the space between mountains.
Our native guides talked freely about their nation’s history, as did new acquaintances, primarily South African writers that we met through Chatham University’s connections. We saw remnants of a different South Africa from city to city. We toured buildings that sought to remember their former atrocities through wall murals, preserved video footage, and informational placards. Places like the Apartheid Museum and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation filled in the gaps as South Africa’s history began to frightening resemble our own.
Our meeting with Ahmed Kathrada was a poignant moment. I shook his hand as I entered the white-walled conference room, not yet knowing how great a historical player he was in ending the Apartheid. He had white hair, glasses, and a genuine smile. I imagined that his grandkids if he had any, were lavished with attention. It was deeply humbling to hear Kathrada’s stories of life during and after the Apartheid. He explained that the Apartheid movement had persecuted people of color by forcing them to live “apart” from white society. They had also written segregation into law, and there were severe consequences for associating with individuals of a different race. Kathrada himself spent 26 years in prison for resisting and disobeying Apartheid laws.
“Freedom did not fall from heaven. Freedom was fought for. Freedom was sacrificed for,” he told us as he shared about his time in prison. I would wrestle with his words during our trip and for years after. It put my privilege on full display as I recognized that I have never had to sacrifice much at all—I have never gone without basic rights. I think what’s scary about privilege is that another’s suffering and sacrifice are nearly ungraspable when the only comparison you can make is to your own poverty and disappointments.
We live in a strange world, one where the majority will draw awareness to suicide and the rights of the unborn—all invisible issues—yet the same majority will assert that racial issues are no longer a problem because they don’t see proof of ongoing racial injustice. Personal friends in the psychology field have affirmed that most people equate “hearing” with “listening” and that a counselor's work, especially in marriage counseling, helps their clients learn the difference and develop better communication strategies. Often times our listening is reactionary—we listen to respond rather than to understand and empathize. This is a time to listen.
After we met with Kathrada, I understood why the locals looked at us with disdain because while we didn’t speak Afrikaans, we were copies of the people who persecuted them for more than a hundred years.
While the undercurrent of South Africa’s painful past followed us everywhere, from the awe-inspiring view of Blyde River Canyon to our sunrise safari ride at Kruger National Park, I admired that South Africans openly talked about their past. They’ve created foundations, re-structured their political system, and put all evidence of the Apartheid movement in glass cases within museum walls to ensure that their history is never repeated. I came to South Africa with the assumption that America was ahead in the effort for racial reconciliation; I left wondering if it was the opposite.
I’m not suggesting that South Africa doesn’t still need extensive healing; they do, but so does the United States. The obvious lesson I learned in Africa’s southmost nation is that racism lingers. Just because many of our worst atrocities are behind us does not mean that they’re not still felt. From Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements to the incident on January 6th at the Capitol—today’s current events are evidence that our nation has not healed and will not heal until we learn to listen to those whose stories differ from our own. Just as ignoring a health issue does not take it away, our refusal to acknowledge our damaging history will only prolong our healing. South Africa looked up to the United States on the cusp of its political reform. Perhaps it’s time that we did the same?
Kathrada Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.kathradafoundation.org/about-us/
Nelson Mandela Foundation. (2020, December 08). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.nelsonmandela.org/
The End of Apartheid. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/pcw/98678.htm