The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent the views of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

South Africa II: Race in the Post-Apartheid Era

We did a lot of other fun things in South Africa, like wine tasting, dancing, shopping, eating great meals, and visiting Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned). I will write another post about all of those things, but now I want to talk about my experience with race while in South Africa.

Last post, I wrote about Susan, Charlie, Sadi and my trip up the western coast of the Cape. Although black South Africans are the vast majority, most of those quaint little towns were full of white people. Occasionally we saw a black person walking around, but rarely were they driving. Other places we often saw them were as service personnel, working in restaurants, gas stations, etc. I know that I grew up in a mostly white town in the US. The only people of color we had in Charlestown were the native Americans. Even so, driving through these towns in South Africa felt like a step out of reality and into Pleasantville.

I have become more conscious of race during my time in Africa, and South Africa expanded that exponentially. As long as I can remember, I have believed strongly in racial equality and have known that racism still exists worldwide, but my activism as a young person always centered around women's rights. What I am coming to understand is that you cannot fight for one without the other.

Although I am well aware of my identity as a white American woman, I don't feel that way while in Shoshong. Because everyone around me is black, I don't see myself as any different. I just see my peers. I am not claiming that I do not see race. I absolutely do. And I have become much more aware of that after traveling to South Africa. But when I work with patients at the clinic or students at the school, I am not helping black people or Batswana--I am just helping friends, my peers.

I cannot give an accurate history of apartheid in South Africa in this post. This will be an over-simplification, but I want to give some context for my story. In South African apartheid history, there are generally three classes of race: white, black and colored. Colored people are mixed between black and white. The political prisoners at Robben Island were even given different rations of food depending on whether they were black or colored. In the post-apartheid era, most of the politicians are black, so power has shifted politically. However, most of the economic power and money in the country still rests in the hands of the whites. Blacks are still living mostly outside of cities, in informal settlements in the townships. Just driving through the townships versus the affluent towns shows the stark difference. The status of the colored people is also precarious, as they are somehow still stuck in the middle.

I knew that this post-colonial racial situation in South Africa still existed, but I didn't know that I would feel it so acutely. On January 2nd, Sadi and I decided to venture out and have a late lunch. Many restaurants were closed. There was a huge parade shutting down many of the main streets around our hostel. We ended up finding a little square in Cape Town that had two restaurants on it. We went to the first--a gourmet pizza place of some kind. It was pretty busy, but there were open tables both outside and inside. We walked in and the waiter said that he wasn't sure if he would be able to serve us. We were confused because we did see open tables. The manager came over, telling us the same thing. She also said that the restaurant was closed "until further notice."

As we left, a white woman was ordering drinks with a waiter outside. As we walked across the square to try our luck at the other restaurant, Sadi and I looked at each other and said, "Was that racism?" because it didn't really feel right. But I like to believe the best in people, so I thought that perhaps the restaurant really was closing because it was so busy. So, from our table across the square (where we had a beautiful meal, by the way), I watched to see if others were turned away. From what I could tell, many groups of people sat down, were brought menus and served. All of the patrons were white and all of the wait staff was either black or colored.

I decided not to confront the management, mostly because we had a lovely lunch and I didn't want to ruin it by getting into an argument. But looking back, I am sorry that I didn't say something. It was pretty obvious to Sadi and me that we weren't served because she is black. The color of my skin didn't matter. I was with a black person, so I wasn't served either. It was a terrible feeling--not because I was discriminated against, but because I began to understand how people of color feel all over the world. I got a little taste of the feeling of being treated as lesser because of the color of your skin. And it's awful.

When Sadi and I were talking about it a couple days ago, she said that it was okay that I didn't go back and confront the manager. She said it wasn't my fight. I disagreed, saying that ending injustice is everyone's fight. I don't think I would ever be comfortable living in an all-white town, or being served in a place where all of the customers are white and all of the servers are black. I notice race more than ever before. Rather than being upset that I had that experience, I am so thankful for it. There are a lot of freedoms to fight for in this world. Women's equality is surely one of them, but I can no longer ignore that racial equality IS my fight.

Nobody's free till everybody's free.

And it only takes one voice to change an opinion, to open up a mind, to begin to raise awareness. We all have that power inside of us. And it's not an option--it is a responsibility.

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