Preparing to embark on a holiday to South Africa, I found myself bombarded with the advice and commentary of many friends and acquaintances. Beware the racist white South Africans. Beware the divisions in a country with such a toxic recent history – prepare to be disgusted by the segregation between the moneyed whites and the near 90% of the country’s population, the African and so-called “coloured” communities.
Prepared and bewared I set off for a two-week stretch hoping to see friends in Cape Town, soak up its history and multiple cultures, and head up the N2 towards the eastern cape. Cape Town made up the majority of my trip: complex, confrontational and spectacular goes someway towards describing how I feel about it.
Driving from Cape Town International towards the city centre you notice the townships running alongside the route – here is the division all had warned me about. For it is here on the Cape Flats that much of the city resides – the answer to the questions posed by the Group Areas Act of 1950, passed to enforce urban segregation by race. Apartheid was dismantled by 1994, but how does a nation end decades of racial division – entrenched into social economics and bricks and mortar, or more likely shacks fashioned out of corrugated metal panels? How does a government go about rehousing those in the townships? And should they? Apartheid’s campaigns of demolition and forced removals – famously so in the case of District 6 – have rendered such an idea highly divisive. The townships themselves display class structures and communities within their shifting boundaries.
The scale of the issues facing the nation can be read through the prism of race, but they can also be read through class: those who are black are most likely poor and those who are white stood to gain – often inadvertently – from apartheid’s strangle on society. Poverty, maleducation, political corruption and racial tension underly South Africa’s slow emergence as a global player and form an unsettling mix with the vibrant culture and fantastic landscape of its iconic coastal city. The past 20 years have seen 90 per cent of the population added to many of the services society depends upon; perhaps it’s unsurprising that change is slow. I spoke to an academic in Kirstenbosch, the city’s botanical gardens, who likened South Africa’s divisions to that of post-slavery North America. The green shoots of change are there but are slow to emerge.
Those who I met from the “born free” generation – born since the end of apartheid – remark on the excitement there is about the place, the optimism for the future of the rainbow nation. It’s perhaps easy for the enlightened in London to look down at a country dealing with the effects of extreme racial segregation – while tending to forget the social and racial divisions of their own city. Class may still be a byword for race in South Africa, but that will change with time.
Aled John is a producer for Monocle 24.