“South Africa” is not just a proper noun; A handful of unspoken words hang over it like a humid sweat. Words like “Apartheid”, “Violent Crime”, “Corruption”, “HIV”. These silent, implicit words flavour conversations that I overhear (predominantly white) foreigners and locals having.
At Cape Town International Airport I listened to a woman in the passport queue say, “Ooo, no. I wouldn’t like to travel without a guide. I mean, I could rent a car, but you just never know. What if I drove into a…a bad neighbourhood by accident? Besides, I wouldn’t like to drive as a single woman. Only if a bloke were with me.”
I realized then that despite having just arrived in arguably the country’s most luxurious city, those silent words that cling to South Africa had this woman on edge.
Those very words are what led to my black housemate being stopped by a security guard from a private service one evening in our upmarket neighbourhood. Someone had reported a “suspicious black man with dreads, wearing shorts, and lurking about with a torch.” My housemate was in his jogging outfit, listening to music on his smartphone as he ran.
The wounds of Apartheid are still fresh. Violent crime, high level corruption and HIV are realities, but somehow people are missing the bigger picture. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
There is much for people living in South Africa to be thankful for. I could tell you about the endless skies, the spectacular landscapes, and the wild animals, but you probably already know about those things, and in reality, a lot of this country’s beauty isn’t easily accessible to the large majority of South Africans.
I often find that it is the things people complain about that are the very things we should be grateful for.
1. Constantly being reminded of your “otherness”.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a minority Tsonga speaker from Soweto, an Afrikaaner from Nelspruit, a Cape Coloured fisherman working in Hout Bay, or a 20-something member of the racially diverse “university class”, life in South Africa will confront you with people who look different than you, who speak languages you weren’t raised with, are driven by different beliefs, and live off significantly more or less money than you. This is part of what makes South Africa a complex and flammable place to live, but I believe it is also a gift.
At worst, our otherness divides us, but at best, our differences can be a daily exercise in curiosity, empathy, learning, and a reminder that nothing about ourselves is neutral.
South Africa is experiencing an energy crisis. Mismanagement and poor maintenance have led to Eskom’s power plants being increasingly unable to support the country’s electricity demand.
Rolling blackouts began in 2007, and in 2015, they were a daily occurrence. Some parts of the country were hit worse than others. Cape Town proceeded with a semblance of order. The city was zoned and load-shedding schedules were made available. It goes without saying that the schedule was regularly incorrect.
I didn’t even think to check it before I pitched up at my tattoo appointment in Woodstock, ready to get inked by my other housemate Tanya.
“Can we still do the tattoo?”
“Sure. We’ve got a UPS and a head torch.”
Dusk had already seeped into the tattoo parlour when I lay down on the table and hoicked my t-shirt up. Under Tanya’s head-torch, my ribs were the brightest thing in the room. She fired up the needle and got down to work, and I watched the evening spread over the dark city.
I liked that we were doing the tattoo in the dark. It felt like a special darkness — a darkness that reminds you not to take things for granted.
3. Increasingly democratized spaces.
I travelled from South Africa to Europe for the Christmas holidays. My return flight to Cape Town on the 3rd of January began its decent. The plane circled round to line up with the runway. I looked out over the plane’s wing at the Mountain that I’ve come to associate with home, and ran my eyes along the swathes of bright beaches, bands of white foam, and the blue water of hot days.
No sooner had I put my bags down in my room than I was headed to Cliffton Beach.
While Muizenberg Beach is well known for having warmer waters and attracting lower-income beach-goers, which inevitably means browner beach-goers, my house share, being in the City Bowl, is close to the idyllic Cliffton Beaches, which are overlooked by some of the most expensive real estate in the city. The cliff-hugging villas and mansions look like they belong in some 1970s Californian dream — all glass, UFO shapes, and turquoise swimming pools. There are usually a lot of white people on the Cliffton Beaches, and the water is freezing.
The 34°C heat was the only thing that made the waves bearable. I bobbed, and swam, and watched boys leap from the rocks into the ocean. There were mothers with babies playing in the foam, and teens huddled under umbrellas playing techno on their phones and flirting lazily. There was more diversity on that beach than I’d seen in a long time.
Just down the road from the Cliffton Beaches is Camp’s Bay, one of the most upmarket stretches of beach frontage in Cape Town. When I drove through, the restaurants were filled with elderly white people in their summer whites, tourists from all over the world, and Cape Town’s glamorous. Just over the road on the lawns that roll down towards the beach, there were car loads of black and Cape Coloured families, braaing, playing music on their car radios, wiping the dripping noses of crying toddlers in swimming trunks, and lolling around on camping chairs in their bikinis. I was struck by a sense of delight at how the crisp order of Camps Bay had been undermined by their sprawling, happy chaos. There was something bold in the way all of these people were staking a claim to a public space that usually squeezes them out by way of its latent hostility (especially in light of some of the blatantly racist remarks that kicked off 2016 on this very topic).
That boldness is something to be grateful for.