A day in Pretoria: Feeling like one of the exotic zoo animals

Even tough it won’t last more than half an hour, I am happy that I finally got to make a train trip in South Africa and enjoy some vast, warm-coloured African scenery.

I have planned to visit Pretoria, one of the three capital cities of the country housing many government offices for one day to enjoy some more colonial architecture after Cape Town and Stellenbosch. I was hoping to play the flâneuse * looking around the building details and picnic at the gardens of the Union Buildings where the president’s office located.

Maybe because my aura was unpleasant that very day or that Pretoria is not a very touristy city, for the first time in South Africa I felt kind of uncomfortable. I have always felt fine about having a super white skin and blonde hair but for the first time in my life in the couple of blocks I walked on the streets of Pretoria I realized what it means to feel uncomfortable in your own skin. Not that I was subject to hatred or anything I was just drawing attention among the black crowd on the streets. The funnier edge of the issue was that even tough I was subjected to any hate it would only because of my European-looking white skin and I would have no chance to clarify I am Turkish and in fact have no direct relation to the South African history.**

Made me thinking, how a gay person feels walking in a conservative neighborhood of my hometown Istanbul? How a black person feels entering into a luxury restaurant one that he/she was banned to enter just some 20 years ago under the Apartheid rule? How a girl with a masculine look feels in her first day of high school? Funny that I have always defended people to keep on manifesting their true selves no matter what, but have never actually understood.

My day continued in the Pretoria Zoo, a decision made out of discomfort -and partly for the flamingoes. I knew it was not the best decision but I thought I would be free to walk as I like and have some chill time there. Ironic I was searching for some space in an institution built on defining freedom on its own terms. Beautiful small red birds under a wire cloth and a tired looking elephant in a large field (only for humans) had already proved my decision to be very unpleasant so I decided to seek solace in the amenity of the American and Chilean flamingoes.

On my way, I was stopped for enough times to start hiding when I see a student group coming. High school students, elementary students and even the teachers stopped me to take pictures. They didn’t even ask me where I was from. They just asked how I am or complimented me, took the picture and left me standing there with a puzzled psychology. I wondered, how would the people in freak shows felt? Yes, there is an odd part of the history that European colonizers took black people with distinctive physical features to Europe and displayed them on freak shows. ***

I was no doubt as exotic as one of those flamingoes in the eyes of these people. At least I got the chance to catch a memory of this exhausting day full of personal eureka moments.

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* Women version of the term flâneur. It is a word of French origin, very basically indicating a person wandering the city with no specific aim in mind, just observing and hanging around. An enjoyable read on the history of the term would be the first paragraphs of this.

** I must say that I have never witnessed or heard of any hatred towards white population by the black population or vice a versa, in neither of my two visits to the country. The crime problem is mostly due to economic injustices, a legacy of Apartheid’s discriminatory politics.

*** This was not specific to black people though, white people with any physical difference compared to the majority were also included.