South Africa: land of collisions

(Photo albums: Cape Town, Garden Route, Johannesburg)

As with every country I’ve visited, I can’t claim to deeply understand South Africa. Obviously. But that caveat feels a bit more necessary than usual here. Through local hosts and expat friends, two major cities and 1000 miles of countryside driving, and a dozen meetings in the education and entrepreneurial worlds, I felt that trying to ‘understand’ South Africa was a constant struggle. Not a struggle in the vague sense, but a struggle against itself — reasons for both hope and despair constantly in contradiction. Like the two oceans that meet beneath its cape, massive forces seem to be meeting and clashing on every front in South Africa.

A week into my time in Cape Town I visited a young ed tech company where someone commented “it’s not like the US where everyone knows how to use technology effectively and it’s all over the classroom.” I found this amusing: those on the ground in the US know how nascent effective tech in the classroom still is. But this misconception was common among those viewing from afar, and this disconnect foreshadowed a constant part of my experience in South Africa: dig beneath the surface and you feel oversimplified narratives falling apart in favor of the more complicated realities. South Africa’s contradictions are more obvious than many countries’, and spending time wrestling with those complexities made this the most rewarding leg of this adventure so far.

South Africa’s contradictions hit so many aspects of the country — politics, aesthetics, opportunity and infrastructure — that I’ve broken out each separately below. The one exception: meat. In South Africa there’s always a brai, an ostrich steak, a heaping bag of biltong. And from what I saw, there’s no duality or conflict or hidden class implications there: just a shared love of heart-clogging, barely-cooked, delicious red meat.


POLITICS: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” — Nelson Mandela

Of course, any tale of South Africa must start with Apartheid and its aftermath. Not because it ended so recently, though it did. Not because so many tourist sites focus on it, though they do. Simply because its effects are everywhere, and not in a ‘deep root cause’ way but in a visible, obvious, tangible way.

Officially, apartheid ended in 1994. It was not one sweeping proclamation but a series of actions to demilitarize, release political prisoners, and strike down many of the hundreds of official separation policies that had been enacted over decades of systematic oppression, violence, and political imprisonment. Now free to vote, the black majority (~70%) immediately elected Mandela president and the ANC — the liberating party — has held power in national and local politics ever since. So in some ways, politically, the liberation worked and the democracy is led by those the majority supports. Just in some ways, though.

A week into my visit I went to a meeting in Cape Town and all anyone could talk about was that morning’s news: President Zuma had fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, widely held to be the only man standing between Zuma and complete corruption. The Rand tanked (which did make our dinners cheaper), and that Friday saw country-wide protests demanding that Zuma step down.

In the US we can’t believe our president is ignorant, incompetent, offensive, or tied up with Russian interests the way he is. But he’s not really called openly ‘corrupt’ — that’s too far. Everyone we talked to in South Africa — young and told, townships and rural, white and black, student or retiree — seems to accept that Zuma is blatantly corrupt, out to line his coffers and his friends’ pockets above all else.

We heard many times ‘it’s worse than during apartheid’ in reference to jobs and opportunity and health and crime. I won’t evaluate that claim. But it’s not a celebration of 20 years of growth and prosperity after the liberation from colonial and racist rule. It’s more like apathy and despair — nobody expressed much optimism about getting rid of Zuma, improving living conditions or turning around the economy and job prospects. It seems like a series of unfulfilled promises from the government and not much other route to improvement, leaving millions in the same position they were left in when legally oppressed.

We often get excited by the politics of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, of hope overcoming. And while these emotional and symbolic swings may be necessary, actual improvement happens from good governance, not good campaigning. In life impact comes from effective action, not exciting theory. We sometimes get too passive in the aftermath of a symbolic victory, expecting the rest to fall into place. As Mandela said, it needs to be a constant struggle.


BEAUTY: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” — Nelson Mandela

In “A Long Walk to Freedom” Nelson Mandela talks of his homeland the Transkei — the Wild Coast — and its calming beauty. Of growing up there, driving through there, and being at peace there. If peace and tranquil is your thing, the countryside’s rolling hills stretch and twist and pause only for a red rock canyon or sweeping vineyard. If you prefer daring and dramatic, the cliffs of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head and the Cape of Good Hope bring land to water in perhaps the most stunning coastline in the world. Massive sweeping beaches, well-preserved game parks, expansive sand dunes and a wine-country that puts Napa to shame make South Africa the most diversely gorgeous country I’d ever been to.

And then there’s what we people — and specifically industrial colonizers — did with that masterpiece of natural canvas. The grand views in Cape Town disappear in the townships, ideal for private cars commuting from the suburbs but rarely seen by the informal public transit .Johannesburg is, as its own bus tour says, “a city that should not exist.” Perched at altitude with no water, it’s a sprawling mass of displaced dirt and climbing concrete build to poach minerals from the earth. In cities, high fences and barbed wire and security guards everywhere remind you that crime is, also, everywhere. Soweto, the most famous township, was literally designed to be contained and if-needed bombed.

It’s hard not to see the aesthetic blemishes on such a naturally gorgeous land as a metaphor for the folly of trying to enforce our man-designed will on the indigenous.


OPPORTUNITY: “Money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will.” — Nelson Mandela

Unemployment is ~26% and that may cast the situation too-favorably. Lack of jobs is brought up constantly, alongside lack of adequate housing, as the primary problem faced in South Africa right now. The remnants of Bantu education — which explicitly provided an inferior education to blacks to ‘put them in their place’ — means a huge portion of the population is not prepared with the knowledge or skills for many types of jobs. Conditions in mines may be improving but are still brutal, and an influx of immigrants from Zimbabwe and elsewhere put even more pressure on low-wage, low-skill jobs. In many townships, many men that spend the day in makeshift pubs building alcohol problems for the community. With so much of the population underemployed, housing is often in informal settlements where rent is expected to be free or heavily subsidized. When talking about solutions to such poor housing, the answer rarely turns to improved jobs and wages. More common is the expectation that the government should provide more housing (at no or low cost), and around election time that seems quite likely.

That said, there are some reasons to be ‘relatively’ optimistic. In Johannesburg the term “black diamond” commonly refers to the emerging group of ultra successful black men and women who inspire others and clearly show that mobility and leadership is possible. In many townships, a middle class area of modern, fully-owned homes of nurses, teachers and other professionals actively choosing to stay in the community they grew up in rather than move to new, wealthier areas. And not that the basis for evaluation should be comparison, but the massive influx of immigrants from Zimbabwe and elsewhere is clear evidence that more opportunity exists in South Africa than in neighboring countries. As one of our many Zim taxi drivers put it: “In Africa, Zimbabwe is Mexico and South Africa is America.”

While South Africa in many ways did an admirable job trying to move on from apartheid with forgiveness and reconciliation, it feels like the country and many of its policies are stuck looking backwards rather than forwards. Trying to repair past damage by offering free housing doesn’t necessarily improve the economy long-term. Creating demand for strong education, for new industries that bring jobs, and for sufficient training for professions like teaching — these might lift all. Free housing and election-time stipends may just prolong the current situation.


INVESTMENT AND INFRASTRUCTURE: “In South Africa, to be poor and black was normal, to be poor and white was a tragedy.” — Nelson Mandela

In some ways, South Africa has great basic infrastructure. Tap water is clean, roads are good, most school buildings are in decent condition. Internet and data access is fairly ubiquitous, though too expensive for many to use regularly now. There is mineral wealth, a massive tourist industry and the still-thriving business center of Johannesburg to tax and reinvest. And, regardless of whether this should be the case, South Africa does inhabit the role of ‘entry point for Africa’ for many westerners, bringing in money, talent and global exposure.

But too much of the beneficial infrastructure seems to follow old colonial patterns even in ANC-controlled government. While tap water is drinkable, that water doesn’t make it’s way directly into the millions of township homes. They usually share communal bathrooms and unreliable electricity. 15,000 people in Hout Bay township were displaced by a fire caused by a candle the first week we were there. Education investments in buildings and devices seem misplaced, as lack of teachers is a more fundamental issue. And hope for the future feels grim, with a weak RAND, corrupt politics and generally super conservative culture limiting infusions of cash or risk from both the inside and outside.

I worry South Africa may be playing out the thesis of “Why Nations Fail,” which says that everything comes down to having strong political and economic institutions. With the right institutions, nations course-correct and eventually make the investments that pay off for the masses in the long-term. When there is corruption and extractive politics, investment in the population is short-term and placating, and doesn’t actually ensure their long-term benefit. In SA, investment seems to flow to handouts and a handful of housing developments in the run-up to each election, rather than sustainable improvement for the millions living on the wrong side of the most economically unequal country in the world. In a country with wealth this should be escapable, but requires the country to strengthen its institutions and limit the perceived corruption.


UNITY AND LANGUAGE: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” — Nelson Mandela

Throwing off the required language of Afrikaans at the end of last century, English is now the primary language of business in South Africa. Apart from making it a super easy place to be a tourist, this puts South Africa in a great position to deal with the rest of the world. It also is a basis to unite the people of South Africa, which is far more complex than “colonial” and “native.” Among the many cultures that make up significant portions of South Africa are Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Indian, Malay, and many other tribes and traditions. In the drive for a non-racial society that unites all South Africans, some shared culture is critical.

However, outside urban hubs bringing these groups together under English is more theory than reality. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and even most youths speak their home language as a first language. A company I met created a tech product to bridge these, trying to unify South Africans by making translation easier. But it’s not just a language barrier. Tribal issues have a long history that predates colonialism, and violent clashes between Zulu and Xhosa in particular splatter South African history. While some cultural traditions are fading out, others remain important and serve as important identifiers. Like many African countries, South Africa is trying to maintain a difficult balance between preservation of its historical cultures and unification that makes peace and growth possible.

This struggle is not purely an African one, though it is perhaps much more visible here. The role of tribal culture and affiliation is part of the political debate and landscape in the US right now, even if few label it as such. We naturally form groups and care strongly for them — that’s evolutionary and practical. Some people push for our affiliations to be larger — national, or all humanity — but others who live much more community-based lives (local jobs, less travel, etc.) will relate more readily to those around them. Trying to respect these affiliations while growing and globalizing is difficult — I think it would do the western world well to be explicit about these policies, rather than ignoring the tribal element underneath. African history is full of reminders of the dangers of ignoring these powerful community-based identities.


I was hoping all this contradiction would have consolidated into a clear lesson as I wrote and reflected, but that’s not really the case. Maybe that will come, but I think not — I think my experience in South Africa is almost opposed to such clear takeaways. Instead memories will jump out in vivid contrast as I wrestle with complex questions and conflict in the future, as a reminder that right and wrong usually can’t be so easily separated, that while simple answers are appealing nuance is usually more real, that worthwhile aims are rarely an achievement and usually a constant struggle. South Africa’s recent history with apartheid, world-leading inequality, multitude of cultures, and place between the western world and Africa all contribute. So do its beauty and diversity, its comfort and crime, its noble freedom fighters and the blatantly racist Afrikaner woman selling biltong by the highway. South Africa, more than anywhere I’ve been, forced me to ask questions and confront complexity, and — like the round of golf with a few perfect shots and just as many ugly hacks — that’s what will keep me coming back to it while reflecting on this trip and planning new ones.

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