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Monica Dispatch

Window into a South African Home

It was Sunday, and Candice, my tentmate from the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru (Check URL of how Candice took care of me on the trail), had invited me to a traditional braai, or barbecue, at her mother's home in Cape Town's southern suburbs. The visit was a luxurious reprieve from the hardships of backpacking and a window into the problems that plague South African society.

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The birds and me enjoying their own feast!
What a feast! Candice's mother and stepfather, Lyn and Harry, live on a golf estate in Somerset West, with a view of the mountains, a small lake in their back yard, and dozens of semi-tame birds who know that the calling of Lyn's voice is a signal for breakfast, lunch, and supper. I was as happy as the crakes, starlings, and geese outside, as the other guests and I tucked in to a delicious meal of braai-ed fish that Harry prepared, as well as Lyn's salad, potatoes and pumpkins, and bread. For dessert we were treated to baked apples and ice cream, with lots of chocolate sauce. Although the "Cape Cuisine" is still developing, braai is probably the most traditional Afrikaner food, along with boerewors ("farmer's sausage," a heavy meat sausage) and melktart ("milk tart," a rich custard). Lyn also pointed out the Malay influence in boboties, curries with fruits and chutney, and the traditional African influence in mieliemeal, a thick maize porridge. Being broadcast live from England on the television was the World Cup playoffs for cricket, with South Africa challenging Australia, so lunch was punctuated by cheers and groans from the crowd.

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Feeding the goose with the leg!
Candice knows the value of certain things when you're travelling away from home. She asked if I wanted to do my laundry at the house, which I didn't, as well as take a bath, which I did. I shriveled up like a prune and fell asleep in the tub: it's been a month and a half since my last bath in Cuzco at the fancy hotel of a friend. Most importantly, she offered to let me play on her piano. As a former music major, she has studied piano since childhood, and since it's been many months since I've been able to put my fingers on a keyboard, it was a real, real pleasure to play Chopin and Debussy pieces with her. She even had the same music books I had growing up, so I felt very much at home!

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The whole gang gathered around for a traditional braii (AKA: delicious feast!).
However, as we talked some more, I realized that Candice's life growing up and my life growing up were very different, and our relationships to our respective countries, South Africa and the United States, were also very different.

This year's elections in South Africa proved similar to those of five years ago. The ANC this past June captured every province except the Western Cape, long considered one of the wealthiest and most-developed areas in all of South Africa, if not the entire African continent. Here, the New National Party and the Democratic Party, which both received less votes than the ANC, have formed a coalition, bitterly contested by the ANC, to share their seats and therefore gain a majority of the political power, while the ANC remains with minimal influence and now, a minority of seats. Trade unions and one teachers' union have already promised to begin striking unless the ANC receives more concessions. On Wednesday, June 16th, Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela's ANC successor to the presidency, celebrates his inauguration in Pretoria and begins the struggle to lead the new South Africa as it confronts its major problems: violence, wealth distribution, and politics.

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Dusk light hits the Hottentot mountains behind Candice's mom's house.

In the last five years, South Africa has seen a large increase in violent crime. When I told Candice that Kevin's backpack disappeared at the Harare, Zimbabwe bus terminal last week, she said, yes, "Johannesburg and Harare: you must be very careful." As an example, here in South Africa, her car radio has been stolen twice, her house has been robbed twice, and multiple thefts and pilfering have occurred to her and her friends, all since 1994. Candice says it's not unusual for people to be robbed at gunpoint. In South Africa, according to some figures, a murder or attempted murder takes place every 12 minutes. Many people carry their own weapons. Anti-theft devices for cars and anti-intruder gates and locks for houses are among the most essential items for homeowners. BMW's right now are the most highly stolen vehicle, and so, on television, BMW is advertising a "flame-thrower" type device where one can press a button and incinerate any threatening people outside of the car.


When Candice was turning 17 and just beginning to become politically aware, South Africa entered a period of change and negotiation. It began in 1989 when Frederik Willem De Klerk, replaced Pieter Willem Botha (see previous dispatch on Apartheid, The State of Being Apart: An Outsider's View) and took swift action to untangle South Africa from the multiple problems it was facing. It was a period of time when sanctions from countries like the United States were crippling the economy. Nelson Mandela was still in jail refusing, for the fifth time, to be pardoned and set free if it meant banishment to the Transkei bantustan (Bantu "homeland").

In February 1990, De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and PAC and released Mandela from prison. Mandela and De Klerk signed an agreement that May to release political prisoners, to put an end to repressive legislation, and to stop the dangerously-escalating cycle of violence in the "ungovernable" townships. The next four years, until the first democratic election on April 27, 1994, were characterized with upswings and downswings in negotiations.

What was Candice doing during this period? Going to school. But, not everyone else was so lucky. During the many strikes and demonstrations, she would practice piano and attend classes at the University of Cape Town lower campus with the other fine arts majors. Meanwhile, at the upper campus, other students who wanted to go to school were hosed down with water inside the buildings. That year, the ANC won every province except the Western Cape, where the National Party dominated, and the KwaZulu-Natal area, where the Inkatha Zulu freedom movement held to the majority.

Money, too, has played a part in the shakiness as the new South Africa rises to its feet. In the early 80's when the beneficiaries of apartheid had a hold on worldwide gold prices and only a few benefited from the economy, one rand bought 70 US cents. Now, when many more millions of people compete for limited jobs and salaries, 70 US cents will buy 4.2 rands. The devaluation has caused many young, educated, predominantly white South Africans to look for work in the UK, Australia, and the United States to earn hard currency.

This trend creates a "brain drain" that takes away opportunities for entrepreneurship and job creation within the country. The South Africans who stay can pay up to 50% on income taxes. "But now," explains Candice, "you can't see where those taxes are going." For instance, on the N2 highway past the airport to Somerset West, if there were potholes or broken streetlights five years ago, they would get fixed immediately. Now when you drive down the N2, streetlights that are burned out stay burned out, and holes in the road don't get repaired. I wonder what Cape Town will look like in the next 20 years: South Africa's history and culture is similar to that of its neighbor Zimbabwe, and some think that South Africa will start to look more and more like Zimbabwe. However, unlike South Africa, Zimbabwe never had apartheid and therefore, there was less of a gap between rich and poor. South Africa reached a much more-developed state than that of Zimbabwe.

1997 Figures

Population: 43 million

Murders: 24,588

Rapes: 52,160

Home burglaries: 249,375

Carjackings: 13,011

Third-highest crime rate: Johannesbug, after Mexico City and Moscow

Average monthly salary of black worker: $65

Average monthly salary of white worker: $1085

Percent of South Africa's blacks living below the poverty line: 61

Percent of South Africa's whites living below the poverty line: 1

Unemployment rate of blacks: 42%

Unemployment rate of whites: 4%

Taken from Mark Mathabane's editorial, International Herald Tribune, 5-6 June 1999.

The problems of violence and money form a triptych with that of politics. Because so many white, voting-age South Africans are working outside of the country, their lack of political voice influences the vote. In this past election, any South Africans who weren't physically here in the country did not have the opportunity to vote. This created some hullabaloo with the South African Cricket team, which is playing at the World Cup in England and thus would not be able to show their civic pride by voting. At the last minute, an amendment was passed that said if you had registered in the country for this year's election, you could vote absentee. Thus, the cricket team was satisfied, but thousands of expatriates working in other countries were disenfranchised. Pro-New National Party and Democratic Party billboards around Cape Town have adopted the slogan from public garbage cans: "Keep the Cape in Shape," adding their own slogan, "Five More Years!" with the hope that preventing the ANC from taking power in the Western Cape will help keep violence down and money flowing for positive works rather than into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

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Candice with her stepfather and mother.

"It's very complicated, and I don't think it has to do with race, it has to do with culture," Candice explains. "People like to read about racism in South Africa, but it's not just the color of your skin that matters." The histories of the Afrikaners, the British, the native San and Khoikhoi, the Bantu-speaking people, the Malays, and the Coloreds in South Africa contrast markedly with each other, and all have differing claims to the land and the people.

Perhaps one insight into the difficulties here is a simple one that the new South Africa continues to struggle with: Which language shall we speak? The Xhosa spoken here existed long before white men set foot on shore. After the 1652 formation of the Dutch East India Company's route through Cape Town, the Dutch dialect of Afrikaans began to reign. With the British occupation of the Cape in 1795 onwards, English speakers also arrived. But now, in the new South Africa, there are eleven official languages: in alphabetical order, Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, SiSwati, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Xitshinga, and Zulu. On the local radio stations you can hear a variety of programs in the different languages, and official documents are usually released in Afrikaans, English, and Xhosa here in Cape Town. But how can the country reconcile itself?

Common Phrases in Four Languages
Thank YouDankieEnkosiNgiyabonga
How are you?Hoegaandit?Usaphila?Unjani?

One ray of hope for the country lies in its constitution, adopted in May 1996, and known as one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. The constitution declares it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, gender, pregnancy, ethnic or social origin, sexual orientation, disability, religion, belief, culture or language. The freedoms of religion, belief, movement, association, expression, and artistic creativity are protected. When one looks at the rainbow-colored flag, one can only hope that the future of South Africa truly is one of a "rainbow nation," where these rights will be exercised for the good of all people.


Kavitha - Back to School
Shawn - A Tale of Two Schools
Abeja - White Woman in the Rainbow Nation

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