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4 Myths About Post-Apartheid South Africa That Most Foreigners Get Wrong

South Africa
by Sian Ferguson Jun 27, 2016

South Africa’s mainstream media presents post-Apartheid South Africa in a certain way: usually, as a united, yet diverse nation that has healed from our past of Apartheid and colonization. Most of these representations of South Africa are, unfortunately, an incomplete picture of our reality.
This leads a great number of foreigners — especially those who haven’t travelled to our country — to misunderstand the current social and political situation in South Africa.

Here are some common misconceptions:

1. Once apartheid ended, racial inequality ended too.

Apartheid may have officially ended in the early 1990s, but its legacy lives on.

A great amount of anti-black sentiment still exists in our country. Racism is still alive and well in our schools, universities, and media.

And, of course, economic inequality in South Africa is still very much influenced by the blueprint of Apartheid and colonialism.

In 2011, a national census showed that white households earn, on average, six times what black households earn. Most of South Africa’s most affluent business people are white, while most of our poor are black. Black people are still less likely to be employed than white people.

The media and many South Africans alike might want to represent post-Apartheid South Africa as a country that has fixed economic inequality, but that’s sadly not the case.

2. Most people are happy with how Apartheid ended.

In 1993, Nelson Mandela and former president FW De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.” Afterwards, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an international symbol for peace, led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which aimed to expose the horrors of Apartheid and bring justice and closure to those affected by it.

The end of Apartheid is often represented as the perfect compromise and an inspiring and unified end to a deeply unjust system. It’s easy to watch foreign movies like Invictus and Long Walk to Freedom and to believe that we all healed after the end of Apartheid, and that we all joined in on the triumphant celebrations and felt the unity reflected by post-Apartheid narratives.

But this isn’t true: South African opinions on the end of Apartheid are incredibly varied, complex, and diverse.

Many people are understandably unhappy that white people didn’t have to make any kind of economic reparations after Apartheid. Plenty of people have critiqued the TRC’s approach to justice and reparations, as well as Mandela’s government.

And on the other extreme, you have a lot of folks that genuinely aren’t happy that Apartheid ended at all. A great number of people truly believe that South Africa was better under Apartheid, and their views are a sad indictment of the rampant anti-Black racism that still exists in our country.

Paying attention to our critiques will help you have a better understanding of South Africa before and after Apartheid.

3. Now that apartheid is over, South Africa needs foreigners to come in and save them from HIV/AIDS.

In the early 00s, HIV/AIDS activism in South Africa was at a high after it was found that our HIV/AIDS infection rate was very high. This led to the creation of an AIDS orphan tourism industry, which has been heavily criticized by organizations like the Human Sciences Research Council. In this industry, voluntourism agencies attract affluent foreigners from the so-called Global North to provide care and practical services to orphanages and safe houses in countries like South Africa.

There are a number of problems with voluntourism programs like these. For example, when foreign volunteers work with children, many children feel abandoned when they leave — which is inevitable, since most voluntourists are only there for a few months at a time.

But another worrying effect of the voluntourism industry is that it sells a neo-colonialist fantasy to affluent Western travellers by perpetuating certain stereotypes about HIV/AIDS, children, and impoverished countries. A lot of the advertising around voluntourism appeals to this savior complex of Western travellers, implying that they have the power to do what no locals do: to ‘save’ a community.

This isn’t to say that well-meaning, yet misguided voluntourism harms AIDS orphans only in South Africa. Voluntourism exists in many impoverished areas all over the world — and we all need to critique and carefully consider how we engage with this industry.

4. South African politics can be basically understood by doing some research on Mandela, apartheid, etc.

Like with all countries, our political situation is deeply complex. It’s influenced by our unique history and current policies that have been put into place to redress past atrocities. It’s so complex that no single article (including this one!) can give you a total understanding of how our country works.

If you want to become familiar with our country, remember to consult lots of different sources from a diverse group of writers and researchers. We all naturally have our biases depending on our social positions, and while nobody can be entirely objective when it comes to these issues, everyone’s perspective can tell you something useful about our country and those who live in it.

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