A Chronicle of Amy and Sean's World Travels

Observations about Race in South Africa

I can’t help but always take note of race; it is a byproduct of being an employment discrimination lawyer, I suppose, where I was paid to analyze issues in racial terms.  (And to my friend Tony – yes, I am mentioning race because it is relevant here).

Shortly before we traveled to South Africa, Karen Waldrond, one of my favorite writers and photographers, who I’ve mentioned recently, wrote that she believes that everyone should spend an extended amount of time outside of their home country, in a place where they are a visible member of the minority class at least once in their lifetime.  I thought of her words while we were in South Africa.  The percentage of blacks and whites in South Africa and the United States are roughly flipped: 79% of the population in South Africa are black, and 9.5% are white.  75% of the population in the United States are white, and 12.4% are black.  (Of course, I realize the issue of race is more complex than black and white, but I am focusing upon the biggest majority group in each country).  Early on in our trip, we walked into a crowded department store off of Long Street, a trendy street in downtown Cape Town, and realized we were the only white people in the store.  This experience repeated itself again and again during our month in the country.

Being in the minority kept race on the forefront of my mind.  Even more than that, the relatively recent fall of apartheid made it impossible to travel throughout South Africa without thinking about race.  Like many of the other countries we have traveled through that have gone through significant historical transformations, it was fascinating to learn about what life was like before and what life was like now.

Pass cards listing one's deemed race that controlled where a person could go during apartheid

Apartheid – literally the state of being separate – was similar to segregation and Jim Crow laws in the United States, but much, much more extreme.  And its official demise was only 16 years ago.  Which means that during our lifetimes, blacks lived without the same rights as whites.  And now blacks live with the same rights as whites, at least legally.

At the District Six Museum in Cape Town, we learned about the forced removal of 60,000 people from a neighborhood during apartheid.  On our trip to Robben Island, the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, we learned a little about what prison was like directly from a former political prisoner.  The most informative experience, by far, was the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.  We’ve been to a lot of museums on this trip, and I felt this museum was the most educational and organized out of any of the ones we have visited.  What I liked best was that you could choose to only read a brief overview of each section, or delve into the details should you so choose.  The museum also packed an emotional impact just by presenting neutral facts.  You are randomly assigned a race as you enter.  I was white.  Sean was “coloured” (a racial category used for people of mixed race that had more rights than blacks but much fewer rights than whites).  This meant we were separated upon entrance and each had different experiences in the beginning of the museum.  When we left the museum, together, we could peek back through a slit to see the entry point, where the races were separate.  A reminder about how far the country has come.

Old sign displayed in the District Six Museum

The seven pillars of South Africa's current constitution displayed outside the Apartheid Museum: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.

Renewing my education about apartheid made me scrutinize race relations much more closely than normal.  I’ve read that the biggest issue today is the drastic differences between the haves and the have nots, and not the relations between the races.

This may be true, but I didn’t see any white people living in the townships and shantytowns on the outskirts of almost every city and town we drove through.  At the beginning of our trip, it seemed like all of the owners, managers and patrons were white in all of the places where we stayed and ate, but the staff was black.  Most of the suburban enclaves we saw were white, with the exception of maids.  The rural, poorer towns we drove through had all black inhabitants.  It wasn’t until East London and further north that we saw more upscale neighborhoods full of black people living and eating there.  Finally, one of the B&Bs where we stayed was owned by a black person.  But in these more upscale neighborhoods, we still didn’t see much integration between blacks and whites.  In Johannesburg, we finally saw much more diversity.  One of the places where we noticed this the most was at a secure suburban mall, where people of every race and color shopped and hung out.

Like crime, race is a sensitive topic in South Africa, so I only have my observations to go on.  I always have the feeling that any observations are incomplete, and can only help facilitate learning more instead of being the final say on any particular topic when I travel.  I’m not sure what all of my observations mean, but my suspicions are that the society has come a long way, but progress is slow.  The fall of apartheid means that both a black and white cop can stand together and demand a bribe from two white people in lieu of a speeding ticket – thank goodness for progress, right? – but the effects of years of discrimination, oppression, and violence can’t be erased overnight or even in 16 years.

5 Responses to “Observations about Race in South Africa”

  1. I love reading all the stories from your travels…but I think your last two posts in particular are amazingly well written and very poignant. Both are topics that have been in the forefront of our mind as we prepare for our upcoming three week trip to SA, and it’s been great having a sneak peek at the country through your eyes before our arrival.

    Race is something of deep interest for both myself and Tim – whether it be anything from a more removed educational viewpoint (the politics of race was a major focus of my undergrad studies) or from a deeply personal viewpoint (our families are a fun mix of black, white, and latino). I imagine much of our time in South Africa will be not only educational, but emotional (and even uncomfortable at times, like at the apartheid museum) as we also immerse ourselves in and observe/try to understand (as best we can as travelers) a country only 16 years after apartheid.

    Anyway, that was a long way of saying: thank you so much for sharing your stories. And keep ‘em coming! :)

  2. Mike & Luci says:

    Amy-Great, Great post! We just returned from SA and many of your points we witnessed for ourselves first hand. We learned so much about tolerance. Wondering if you would let us use this as a guest post on our site?



  3. Mom.Joan says:

    My girls are such good writers! Very well written, Amy. I was never that well versed in history or geography & I am learning so much through your travels ~ so helpful to see the photos with the stories. Thank you to you and Sean for that ~ love you both ~ Mom

  4. Akila says:

    Amy, One of the things that we noticed the most about South Africa was the lack of interracial relationships. I don’t mean just interracial romantic relationships but even finding groups of friends who are of different races. People looked at us very strangely because I am Indian and Patrick is white and we met a black and white couple from England who said that people didn’t understand why they were together. We’re going to be writing a post about the racial tensions in SA as well (though, given how backlogged I am, it probably won’t come out until December) so I’ll link over to your observations, as well.

  5. Amy says:

    I can’t think of any mixed race groups of people that I saw in a whole month. Maybe groups of races present in the same place at the same time, but mixed races together, no. Can’t wait to read about your observations, as always, and appreciate The Road Forks linking to this post! I hear you on backlogged; my goal is to only be 3 countries behind again when we leave Japan. We’ll see!

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