Apartheid and Townships – A Deeper Look at South Africa

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Learning so much more than I ever expected

My time in South Africa is full of new lessons about a past I now realize I didn’t learn much about in school. Raised in America and spending most of my time and travels there and in Europe I’ve always felt on the outside of racial tension. In New York and America strangers don’t talk openly about race. If they do, from my perspective, it seems like a conversation full of guarded tension and anger. I feel confronted with a saying I grew up with, “It’s a black thing you wouldn’t understand.” I want to, but in America, I’ve never understood how. Books and newspapers don’t give us the true experience the way a person can. The more I travel, the more that is instilled in me, about everything.

Nelson Mandela.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

During my time here I’ve been intrigued by the openness with which people talk about race, apartheid and life. I’ve spoken to many Uber drivers in Cape Town (most from Zimbabwe, which they call “Zim.”) One of those drivers said to me, “We cannot change the past. We must work together to create a better future.” He looked around 28 years old. Another explains to me that the black government in South Africa is notoriously corrupt, spending tax payer’s money as if it was their own, rather than to improve the country. (I’m told the new president might improve things, or, that’s the hope anyway.) He gives me the impression that he feels his government’s corrupt behavior is the large reason there are so many poor people that aren’t getting the help they need. He is not the first to explain to me that corruption is the large reason there is so much poverty. 

“Africa is so much more than safaris and tribes. It’s about history and a complicated and difficult present.”

I will never comprehend how it was possible or accepted that people were forced out of their homes and placed into dilapidated structures during apartheid. Worse yet, the racial divide was made bigger than black and white, they distinguish between colored, Asian and Indian, among others. That’s not human behavior, in my opinion. Though I am sure I don’t fully understand all the events I’m saddened as my travels from South America through to Africa have in common that people from the North conquered and stole from so many places I’ve been. I wonder if the balance of wealth and social standing in the world would be different had these events not happened.

Inside the District 6 museum.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

As a very naive, short and general summary of my conversations with friends and strangers and museum visits; the settlers in Africa took land from the native tribes. Over time, diamond and crystal mines have been found making the land more valuable. Apartheid was a way to ensure labor was readily available to mine the diamonds and minerals, and to guarantee that land that had been taken would remain that way. People were classified by skin color; white, black, colored, Asian, Indian…all with a hierarchy and a humiliating pencil test if it was unclear whether you were white.

I’ve had a South African friend for eight years. Only in coming here did I learn he is colored, not black. Neither matter to me, but in Africa they do. Only now have I realized that means his identity is unclear because his ancestors, at some point, were Dutch mixing with locals. Only now do I realize he lived during apartheid and deals with the after effects every day.

Twenty years after the end of apartheid it sometimes seems like it’s not over. Much of the labor force live in townships and travel long distances to and from work. They live in housing that, by the average American or European standards, is not acceptable, but they aren’t paid enough to have a better home. The government is supposed to provide them with better housing, and some of them have gotten it. But, it’s a long wait, and bribes get some people higher up on the list for a better house. Because cities were too slow to develop transportation services for the townships, a white van service took root and now services the entire country. It takes them from their township to their work and back. I’m told to never board one of them because they aren’t regulated and can do what they want and go where they want. People remain uncompensated for land that was stolen. Some, understandably want to have the decision of whether to have their land back or accept compensation for it. It’s infuriating to them to be told to forget the past and move forward. Others see this as the only way forward. I’ve been stunned to hear from a few people that they preferred apartheid because there was more order and less crime. There is still so much work to do to undo it.  

I have always been in the majority as a white person. This is the first time I experience life as a minority. It’s such a bizarre experience to notice that I’m different because I’m white. Children wave to me, especially outside of South Africa. I’ve met white farmers who are afraid their land will be taken from them. Though it may be subject to debate whether that land belongs to them, in truth, they’ve had it long enough that they feel it does, and don’t want to be treated the way black and colored people were treated in the past. Zimbabwe has already taken away farming land from whites who, in large part, have left the country. Those that remain don’t have the skillset or management experience to run the farms, so the country has fallen into turmoil. 

I spend part of my time staying in the Greenmarket area of Cape Town, and part of my time in the Bantry Bay area. The interesting tradeoff is that in Greenmarket, it’s more dangerous and dirty, but the sense of community is beautful. I make friends with the hotel staff, a nearby restaurant owner, the biltong store guys, and a woman I did a free walking tour with. Bantry Bay feels cleaner and safer, but lacks that sense of community with the neighborhood, in my esteem.
While in Cape Town I visit the Khayelitsha township and then a squatter’s camp with a local church group. (More on this in my next post.) I had no idea that a township is an actual town. My guide and I ate lunch in the township, and I was amazed that there is wealthy and middle-class housing as well as the corrugated-siding houses with outhouses in the street. I feel like we are passing through a government experiment as we drive through the streets. We get out in one of the poorest sections. I meet some of the women that live there. I get photos with some of the children. I plant spinach in one of the women’s backyards. (If you want to have a real township experience, as opposed to a quick drivethrough, sign up for Juma’s Art Tours and book the township experience.) I am amazed that people living here, even in the poorest section, where their toilets are outside their house as is the running water, seem happy. They want a nicer house the way you may want a new refrigerator. Completely different scales of wanting, and yet still humans, wanting more.

The squatter camp, however, leaves me shocked and more upset. We feed the most delightful children. They are sweet. They are innocent. They are happy and playful and interact with us, even give us hugs. When I am escorted into the squatter camp, itself, the woman taking us through says, “I cannot explain it to you. I can only show you.” Those were exactly the right words because I still can’t believe the conditions I saw. Worse yet, I learn that those sweet and innocent children will most likely be abused by the time they’re 10. 

As an outside observer, I find it difficult to understand exactly what’s going on. A South-African gentleman I met who is an economist that provides statistics to the government disputed all that I had thought I learned with facts and figures and implied that his opinion was more valid since people paid for it. He became defensive when I questioned who paid for it and countered that they hadn’t paid for his college. I pointed out that we’re all the output of an education system that’s been planned and designed to spit us all out as workers and so forth. I’m left feeling that there are so many different experiences of life and circumstances in South Africa that it’s nearly impossible to put them all together into a full understanding. But then, that’s the point of apartheid; to separate and segragate and turn people against one another. 

But this is also where I see the shining spirit of South Africans. Despite all the hardship, despite uncertain and unstable circumstances, despite talk of a possible civil war, they still, in large part, talk to one another. In fact, surprisingly, there are a lot of jokes about life here. I’ve found most people I’ve met over my three months in Africa to be kind, intelligent, welcoming and light-hearted. The younger generations are learning to see past color and race. I hope one day talking about race so openly and with such compassion for each other becomes a trend around the globe.

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