Having been raised on a secluded farm in a rural part of the Bushveld in South Africa, I was ill-exposed to world culture and had very little idea of what went on outside my own town. I traded television for a mountain bike, local newspapers covered only local news, and my only social interaction outside of school was my best friend, a German shepherd named Beverly. With Beverly, of course, being a dog, we spoke very little of global happenings.
I had a great misconception about England and its people when I first arrived there after finishing high school. Australia was no different. Its people and their culture, the land, the wildlife, everything about Australia scared me. Strangely enough, of all the places I have lived and worked, Australia turned out to be the closest I’ve ever felt to having a home. Then there was Asia. Was I wrong about Asia!
On my travels, I, too, have been the subject of misconception. It seems that international media does not always portray the exact truth about South Africa, and I always seem to be met by the same questions when folks learn where I am from.
1. But you are white?
“That is correct, kind Sir. Indeed I am.”
While the white population is by far a minority group in South Africa, making up a shy 8.4% of the country’s residents, they have settled on the content centuries ago, as early as the mid-1600s, by the Dutch. French and German settlers followed in the coming centuries, and finally the British came in the 1800s. South Africa is ever increasingly becoming a multicultural nation. After the fall of Apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined South Africa as the Rainbow Nation, referring to the mix-match of color and race and culture, a diverse group of people living in unity, under one flag.
2. So you can speak African?
“I can’t speak African. Sorry. But no one can. There is no such language as African.”
South Africa is home to a total of eleven official languages, with Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English being most spoken, in that order. Other languages are Northern Sotho, Sesotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, Venda, and Ndebele. Many citizens are bilingual, with English as either a first or second language in most schools.
3. Africa is the continent, South Africa is the country.
“Where in Africa are you from?” I am often asked.
Just as one wouldn’t refer to France as Europe, to Ireland as the entire United Kingdom, to Thailand as the whole of Asia, or to Australia as Oceania, one does not refer to South Africa as Africa. South Africa is merely a country in the continent of Africa, and for South Africans, this is a very important distinction. The exact number is yet debatable, but most sources claim that there are, in fact, 54 individual countries in the African continent.
4. Do lions still eat people?
This question is perhaps not too far-fetched. The last remaining free-roaming lions live in the GMTCA (Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area), a 5909 square kilometre nature reserve, stretching between South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. It is home to not only free-roaming lions, but also to leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, and hyenas. Sure enough, wandering about in this wildlife sanctuary on foot is most certainly asking to get eaten. All other lions in South Africa are kept in captivity, though, and are viewed under controlled circumstances.
It really isn’t the lions you should be worried about. Among all the animals in the African kingdom, it is hippos and crocodiles that are responsible for the most human fatalities each year. Interesting fact: The Afrikaans word for hippo, which is ‘seekoei,’ directly translated into English means ‘sea-cow.’ And the word ‘hippopotamus,’ traced back to its Latin origin, literally translates to ‘river horse.’
5. Do you live in a hut?
As ridiculous as this question might sound, there is some truth to it. South Africa has long since evolved into a well-sophisticated, technologically advanced country, but it has a dark side, too.
Poverty still ravages major parts of the country and many are forced to live in makeshift shelters. There is a clear and distinct divide between class and social rank. The very wealthy become more wealthy. The middle, working class struggles forth endlessly, working harder and harder to maintain a constant, never-growing salary, whilst the poor keep getting poorer.
Despite its struggles and challenges, it remains yet to me the most beautiful country, with the most vibrant people, and the most interesting array of cultures and beliefs. Were I to choose between a mansion in Beverly Hills or a hut on our humble little family farm in the South African Bushveld, I’d choose the hut.