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A White American Chick in the Rainbow Nation

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South Africa
Sibongile Khumalo

When I was in high school (Ten years ago! Jeez, I'm getting old!), South Africa was on the evening news daily, showing riots and oppression, strikes and marches. Nelson Mandela--who is just leaving the presidency on Wednesday, June 16--was still in prison for his role in the African National Congress. I wore a big "Free Nelson Mandela" button on my blue jean jacket and my Amnesty International chapter wrote letters of protest to the South African President demanding his release. To me, South Africa was this far-off place, ruled by evil racist policies. Most of the world refused to trade with them, and the radio played hit songs condemning them like "Sun City" and "Biko".
Cape Town, Kwazulu Natal region of South Africa (Africa - Lonely Planet, page 578), Durban, Pietermaritzburg (578)

So, even though apartheid has ended and free elections have twice given the presidency to the African National Congress, I came here to South Africa with a lot of apprehension and prejudice against a white population who benefited from the apartheid system. Since I arrived, I've struggled to feel comfortable here, where the division between races is still so clearly defined. But I've also gotten to know many white South Africans as human beings and as friends, and I can no longer see them as the "bad" people they seemed to be from the evening news.

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Shawn and I are now in Durban, a modern city on the Indian Ocean known for its nice weather and beautiful beaches (talk about lucky!). We're being hosted by the local Interact and Roteract clubs, which are service groups of high school (Interact) and college (Rotaract) students and graduates who work with Rotary International. Joanne and Wayne, who are studying computers at the local college, have been showing us around and helping us understand what it was like to live here under apartheid as young whites.

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Palling around with Joanne and Wayne, seeing the town and what it's like to live here.
"It was just normal. We didn't know any different," Joanne explained. "Seeing white children all the time was normal. The only time you'd see blacks were if they worked for you. All the adverts on TV had only white people."

"Did you know what was going on, with the oppression and violence?" I asked.

"Not really," Wayne admitted. "We knew that there was violence in the townships, but we weren't aware of the extent of military involvement in the violence. All we saw was the violence, we weren't aware that there was more behind the scenes."

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Loading up on Garam Masal and spices at the Indian market
Under the apartheid system, blacks were not allowed to live in the cities, so they still don't give an accurate representation of the racial mix of this country. Nonetheless, I have been amazed at the racial diversity I've seen. Here in the province of Kwazulu-Natal, the majority is pure blooded African (mostly from the Zulu tribe). Most still live in the townships outside of town and the traditional "homelands" where they were moved by the apartheid government. (The movie "Shaka Zulu" was filmed about twenty minutes from here.) Because of the social structure of the country and the language barrier between us and the mostly Zulu-speaking Africans, I have found it hard to get to know blacks here in Durban. It's odd how there are so many different worlds interposed, one upon another, but there seems to be little interaction between them.

The new South African flag
The second largest population in Kwazulu-Natal is Indians who were brought here by the British to work on the sugar cane plantations. Under apartheid, the Indians were kept separate from other races, and not given the rights of the white ruling class, either. It was here that Ghandi came, as a young lawyer, and began speaking out against British colonial repression. He witnessed the inequality here, and was kicked out of the first class section of the train he was traveling on in Pietermaritzburg, not far from here. Today, the Durban area is home to the largest Indian population outside of India. There is a lively Indian market downtown, infused with the smell of Indian spices and the bustle of women in saris. I'm buying some Garam Masala and curry spices so that Kavitha can cook some of her mom's specialties for me when we meet up in Zimbabwe!

The white population is divided between the Afrikaans, who are descendents of the Dutch and speak the Afrikaner language, and the English Speakers who are mostly descendents of the British colonists. The Afrikaans tend to be the more conservative group. Henrik Verwoerd--an Afrikaan of the Conservative National Party--was the designer of the apartheid system, and they were the most resistant to its end. "The change has been easier for the English speaking people than the Afrikaans people. They have more of a sense of their heritage being challenged," explained Wayne.

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Little Angela shows us her big smile and her handiwork!
"When apartheid ended, the flag and national anthem changed, and the emphasis changed to multi-ethnicity and reconciliation. Now on the TV, it's all about the "rainbow nation." It's almost contrived. All the adverts show gatherings of mixed races of people, even though that almost never happens. There are still huge cultural differences to overcome," Joanne told us.

Obviously, equality and integration can't come overnight. The United States provides an example of the problems in overcoming generations of inequality, where African-Americans still struggle with economic and educational disadvantages. The differences here seem to me to be even greater than they were in the US in the 1950's (see Shawn's Article on schools). Still, I've been really impressed by the attitudes I've found here. Everyone I've met seems dedicated to creating a peaceful, "rainbow nation," and willing to acknowledge the problems of the past. I know my impression of South Africa has changed radically from what it was ten years ago. With the second round of fair, democratic elections, there seems to be great hope for a peaceful future here in the "rainbow nation."


Kavitha - Back to School
Shawn - A Tale of Two Schools
Monica - Window into a South African Home

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