As these issues resurface in our own country, I hope we continue to seek understanding and justice. Here is my story. Let each of us be willing to listen and share our own.
The Road to a Rainbow Nation
On February 11, 1990, the political landscape of South Africa shook as Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after twenty-seven years of political confinement. Being the ultimate political symbol of opposition to the policy of apartheid, this African National Congress leader drew nationwide demonstrations from all sections of the South African population. The release of Mandela stirred emotions of excitement, fear, and ultimately optimism in Africans, coloreds, Indians, and whites for a continued pattern of change away from a system of almost complete white domination and racial segregation. Apartheid was a radical extension of a system of segregation originating with colonial conquest and rooted in South Africa until 1994. There is no simple answer as to why apartheid ended in South Africa but a large factor was the determination among the majority of groups not only to end apartheid but also to create a new system based on greater unity. The post-apartheid era has experienced great changes in political structure, legislation, and vision but it is the extent of this determination that will continue to ascertain the future of South Africa.
The legacy of apartheid has left South Africa with overwhelming social and economic challenges. In 1994, the per capita income of $2,800 a year in South Africa ranked it among the upper middle income of developing countries but social conditions measured by the human development index put the country behind Thailand, Botswana, Cuba and Albania. Whites earned on average, 9.5 times more than blacks and reserved 87 percent of land for themselves. Crime and unemployment rates currently remain as prominent issues today but the biggest underlying challenge for South Africa in the process of dismantling apartheid is still the legacy of division. Socioeconomic gaps within the country continue to be widely disparate, thus creating a viscous perpetual cycle of inequalities.
In 2006, over a decade after the apartheid ended, I came to South Africa to study at the University of Cape Town. Although the University of Cape Town was a well-established and diverse university, I quickly discovered that Cape Town in itself represented a microcosm of South Africa’s progressive infrastructure, as well as its deeply divided economic and social conditions. Beyond the borders of the university stood a city operating under contradictory forces such as violence and compassion, retribution and forgiveness, and political suppression and creative freedom. The complexities of this country and its history subtly revealed themselves through my academic and cultural experiences within Cape Town. As I gained a greater intercultural awareness of my new surroundings, I found myself asking more questions than finding answers. However, the personal changes I endured as I assimilated into the society guided my perceptions of what really drove the path to Mandela’s vision of a rainbow nation. The history of South Africa and apartheid’s legacy did not stay confined to the borders of my academic courses but rather became a daily reminder during my time there. Academics taught me the facts and figures of apartheid and South African history but experience taught me an even more important lesson: what is was like to live in a society healing from a deeply divided racial and cultural nation. My classroom extended to the world I lived in and my teachers became everyone from my cleaning lady, a black woman who suffered through the apartheid era, to the children I worked with in underdeveloped communities. Although South Africa continues to face many challenges in recovering from a long history of segregation, I found that cultural and communal ties bring hope and determination to overcome them.
My initial realizations of the socioeconomic gaps in South Africa arose when I first visited Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha was established as a “black neighborhood” in 1985, being created as the government’s solution to accommodate the influx of black South Africans moving into urban areas during apartheid. Over twenty years later, Khayelitsha continues to remain an informal settlement today and is home to approximately one million black South Africans and coloreds.
As we rode into the outskirts of Cape Town, the metropolitan city where our tour had began suddenly turned into an unfamiliar image of a third world country. I was no longer staring at elegant beachfront homes overlooking Cape Town’s pristine Camps Bay but rather endless miles of shacks constructed from wood, tin, and cardboard. A stagnant river littered with garbage outlined the thousands of colorful shacks along the highway.
The bus turned onto the paved roads of Khayelitsha and proceeded into a bustling area full of food markets, thrift shops, and cell phone booths.
Since Khayelitsha has become an increasingly popular tourist attraction in Cape Town, coach buses are far from a novel sight. With that thought in mind I sat uncomfortably in my seat as we passed through the crowded streets, feeling as if I was being shown a spectacle through the windows. Even though I was in the heart of Khayelitsha I still felt isolated from this poverty-stricken environment. I was being treated to the amenities of a luxurious air-conditioned coach bus as I watched the residents of the informal settlement around me walk under the hot sun.
Beyond the small town was a neighborhood of shacks surrounded by barbed wire and cement fences. Graffiti adorned the cement fences with images of the AIDS ribbon, reminding me of the growing health issues that the community battles. The homes were built less than a few feet apart barely allowing room to even hang a clothesline outside. The elementary school, one of the few permanent structures in the area, was merely a set of run down cement buildings. Upon the bus’ arrival at the school, chaotic excitement developed among the schoolchildren and as we stepped outside they enthusiastically ran over to the playground to meet us. The barbed wire fence that separated our tour group from them did not stop some of them from reaching their fingers through the wire to touch my hands and hair. I found out later, children in these black communities view Caucasians with awe and curiosity because it is uncommon for them to be spotted walking around the townships.
The children’s energy was contagious and I could not help but smile back at their grinning faces. They seemed completely indifferent and immune to the impoverished conditions surrounding them.
The disparity between metro Cape Town and Khayelitsha was blatant but incomprehensible to me. How could two such different worlds coincide only a few miles apart? Apartheid had ended over a decade ago but history was still inevitably making its footprint on the nation. I left Khayelitsha that day knowing it would not be my last visit. I saw not only an opportunity to give back to the community through volunteering in this township but also an opportunity to experience a taste of life in South Africa from two vastly disparate cultural, social, and economic worlds. As my role in society changed from an outside foreigner to a person more assimilated to the country, I began to see how the people of Khayelitsha interacted to create a community amongst their given resources.
Khayelitsha is a Xhosa word meaning “Our New Home”. Being far away from home myself during my semester abroad, the idea of what defined a home and a belonging to a community became a common notion for me. Looking back on my first impressions of Khayelitsha, I found myself quickly passing judgment towards the township based on my Caucasian and middle-class status. The developed area of Cape Town is what I had originally identified the concept of home with because the setting was familiar to my own upbringing. When I observed Khayelitsha, I struggled with the idea of how the people created a home in this township. A community that lacked some of the most basic necessities such as running water and electricity seemed far from a home to me. These people had not chosen to move to Khayelitsha to create a “new home” but were rather forced into a neighborhood with an inferior label by the oppressive apartheid regime. I questioned how the people of Khayelitsha continued to sustain the identity of a home and community given its political and social implications. My experiences throughout the semester though taught me that the people do not wish to be judged or compared by the standards of living in the United States. They simply wish to be acknowledged and recognized instead.
I soon realized I had initially seen a community for only its material worth and had not recognized its true value given by those who lived in it. As I began to visit Khayelitsha more often and interacted with the Xhosa people, I saw the other side of life in the townships, one filled with the human warmth and richness of spirit within the Xhosa community.
To more fully experience life in Khayelitsha through its people, I volunteered there every week through the Students Health and Welfare Organization at the University of Cape Town. My time there involved aiding in an extracurricular art program for elementary age children and special events at the school. My first experience volunteering left me with a very different impression of Khayelitsha in comparison the bus tour I had previously taken of it. When I arrived at the elementary school, I was greeted by almost fifty eager children. Barriers did not exist in terms of personal space and I found myself immediately being surrounded by a group of children touching my hands and playing with my hair. Although I had never met these children before, I was instantly accepted as a companion to them, someone who they felt comfortable approaching. One child proceeded to burst into the lyrics of a Xhosa song and the others chimed in, belting the words with pride as we walked to one of the classrooms. The song brought chaos and noise to the desolate schoolyard and I leaned over to ask my volunteering partner if we should try to quiet them down. “No”, she responded, “just let them sing”, and proceeded to join in with the group herself. Never had I experienced such liveliness, which is typically suppressed in the classrooms of an elementary school in the United States. Singing, as I learned, was one of the ways that kept these children banded together. When a Xhosa melody began, every voice rang in unison with strength and volume throughout the stark cement school buildings.
As we walked in the classroom, I could not help but wonder how my volunteering partner and I would be able to lead a successful art project. The classroom stood bare with a few broken windows and battered wooden tables. The unheated room felt frigid on this winter day as the cold winds lashed the broken door back and forth. My partner and I started to set up that day’s project, struggling to mix powdered face paints using the little amount of water we could find from one of our water bottles. Despite the crude materials we had to offer, the children fully engaged themselves with delight in the face-painting project. While I worked with a group of children I found that many could only speak their native language of Xhosa, making it a challenge for me to communicate to them through words. Body language is universal though, and I learned that no matter what country you come from, a hug or a smile is understood by everyone. Some of the children that I became closest with during my time volunteering never spoke a word of English but our understanding of friendship broke past the barriers of language.
I became continually inspired and encouraged by the attitude of the children at Khayelitsha. The sense of community was inevitable among them. Their expression of the human spirit and compassion towards each other shined through their projects throughout the semester. Through the use of art, song, and dance, the children were able to express their joys but also their sorrows and confusion about the world around them. To my surprise, the material worth of the resources we gave the children seemed insignificant to the development of their work. The materials were rather given worth through their collaborative creativity and imagination.
As I watched the children enthusiastically transform a valuable project out of a few mere tangible objects, I realized how the heart of this township was created. The thousands of shacks that stood around this school may have only been created from scraps of raw materials but they were built with pride and given the value of a home by those who constructed them. The passion and energy of the children in Khayelitsha was living proof that the Xhosa community was founded on the acceptance that this place, no matter how dire the resources, was their home rather than an inferior neighborhood. They were able to withstand outsiders’ judgments and labels, therefore creating their own freedom to give worth to the surroundings. Given this mindset I saw how self-worth, confidence, and ethnic pride were all characteristics that drove the Xhosas towards their fight for equality.
Being a foreigner in a different country allowed me to view South Africa from a unique perspective. Changes in my intercultural sensitivity and awareness came unconsciously and unexpectedly throughout my semester abroad. I first entered South Africa with a sense of curiosity and excitement. The differences I initially observed were treated in awe and only seen from an outsider point of view. My first impulse was to compare the differences to my own values and upbringing, labeling them as right or wrong. As I began to immerse myself in the culture though, these differences become not just mere observations but things that personally affected me. The realization that I had to assimilate to the society’s differences became frustrating, as I had to change my familiar lifestyle and preconceived notions to survive in another society. With time though, the differences I once observed disappeared and were hardly noticed as differences at all. My intercultural competency developed as I changed from looking at aspects of a new society as right or wrong to simply accepting conditions as they are.
Mandela’s vision of a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” lives not only in the spirit Xhosas but South Africans from all ethnic groups and it is this faith that brings the country along the road to recovery from its past. Economic and social welfare are important factors in the continuation of peaceful change in South Africa but a shared vision among South Africans that transcends their differences will be the key to making such a new progressive nation be successful. Khayelitsha serves as evidence of the strength and resilience that lies within a nation struggling to break down the barriers of social divisions.