Friday, April 30, 2010

An Epilogue: South Africa Revisited


After spending only a few minutes in South Africa, a few things become apparent very quickly. The first thing you notice is how absolutely stunning the country is. I hope that in reading our recent Kruger and Cape Peninsula posts we made it evident that South Africa must be one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. However, the next immediate thing you are likely to notice is that there is still something not quite right with the place, and we wanted to take a moment to address this so that there are no misconceptions about what to expect.

First of all, very clearly, South Africa holds a tremendous amount of promise for the future and it has come a very long way in the years since the fall of Apartheid. On the other hand, the country has a massive amount of work to complete before coming close to achieving this promise. From what I could see, three overarching challenges face country; crime, race relations, and demographic pressures. A pervasive problem of violent crime, gang warfare and rape, continued racial segregation and inequality, catastrophic levels of unemployment and the AIDS epidemic threaten the fabric of what had been fought for so hard over the last half century. This is why we are devoting a post to the topic; because we believe too much in the potential of this country to not discuss the issues that could hold it back. Beyond all the other experiences we had here, I am convinced mostly of one thing for certain; that South Africa could be a political and economic model for all of Africa. Over the last twenty years or so there has been talk of initially Zimbabwe, then for a while Kenya, achieving this status, but in recent history each of these have succumbed to and regressed as a result of the same pressures which South Africa faces today.

From my perspective, each of these challenges is rooted in years of racial segregation, an engineered and institutionalized policy of forced poverty and exclusion from the formal economy; the aftermath of which is only truly realized now as the country attempts to join the modern and developed world. Therefore this is what must be addressed foremost before focusing on the specific details of crime rates and other statistical indicators which are only symptoms of a much larger problem.



Driving out of the airport in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, you will undoubtedly notice the massive “townships”, or slums, that dot the landscape. What is most disturbing about these settlements when compared against their counterparts in Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai is that they are not “informal”, that is they are not initiated as a result of housing scarcity and affordability. These are the areas that were reserved for “non-whites” during the Apartheid years and if you were “coloured” (i.e. mixed race) or “black African” you were forced to relocate from “white” areas and reside. According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, South Africa ranked second in assault and murder per capita and first in rape per capita. Further to these numbers, in 2008 alone, Cape Town had a murder rate of approximately 62 per 100,000 people. This ranks among the top 5 highest homicide cities in the world. Much of this violence occurs in the townships and there is speculation that the actual numbers are much higher due to the difficulty in tracking reliable numbers in these settlements. According to the study conducted by Foreign Policy magazine in 2009, “The city's homicides usually take place in suburban townships rather than in the more upscale urban areas where tourists visit." With an unemployment rate of 43 percent, it is not surprising that other crimes such as burglary, car jackings, and muggings are frequent and often aimed at tourists in the nicer parts of town.



In regards to the crime and its impact on your travel experience, do not let it overshadow your trip. It would be easy to allow paranoia to get in the way, but if you use common sense and maintain a good situational awareness, the odds are that you are likely going to be fine. The trouble begins when you let your guard down and wander about without a solid plan. My suggestion is that, in the evenings, use a pre-arranged taxi. Or if you are just going nearby, go from point A to point B. Try not to roam and just be aware of what is going on around you.

When I speak to my South African (“saffa”) friends here in the UK, they are pretty transparent about the fact that in South Africa the reality and threat of crime is something you just coexist with. Any visitor to Cape Town would notice the beautiful estates behind barbed wire and electric fencing, as well as the private armed security kiosks scattered throughout the town. Furthermore, if you bothered with watching local television, you would likely be enthralled by the hour long infomercials selling life insurance, home insurance and car insurance.

In my mind, this paranoia is yet another byproduct of the overall problem. To be entirely honest, as beautiful as Cape Town is, it is still highly segregated and that left a negative impression on us. This segregation is apparent in the restaurants, cafes, shops, and pubs. It is noticeable in delineation between who has which jobs. Although segregation and exclusion is no longer official policy and the African National Congress (“ANC”) is now in power, it is going to take years, if not decades, to re-integrate the majority “black African” population which makes up approximately 80 percent of South Africa. Although only 9 percent of the total population, the “white” South Africans still appear to be very much in control of the formal economy.

The main purpose in highlighting this is not to berate the nation for facing challenges that so many others face, but rather to encourage with potential visitors the idea that things must continue to improve along the right path before its full potential can be truly realized. It would be misleading to look at the beautiful photos from our trip and ignore the fact that there is another South Africa not captured there. In the run-up to the 2010 World Cup it will be interesting to see how the nation copes with these challenges. With the recent murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, the racist leader of the white supremacist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (“AWB”) and the subsequent racial tensions caused by rhetoric on both sides, along with the continued high rates of crime and poverty, South Africa certainly has a lot of work to do before hosting one of the largest international events on the world stage. The most important legacy however is what happens after the games are hosted on African soil for the first time. How South Africa manages these challenges beyond the games could be a blueprint, as well as an inspiration, for other African nations down the road. With the world’s most progressive constitution, the indicators are positive that South Africa will realize these dreams, but only time will tell.

-K.V.

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