Arriving in Cape Town International Airport, after a thirty-seven hour voyage was something I couldn’t have prepared for. Aside from my swollen feet, being over-exhausted, jet-lagged, desperate for a nap, and being in dire need of a hot shower—I was in a foreign place. I stood out where most residents mainly fit into one of the three tick boxes: black, white, or coloured? Yep, as a Southern American—that one caught me completely off guard, and with our history, sent me straight down memory lane and all the way to 5th grade Black History Month—the only time that specific jargon is relevant, but berated.
Then I encountered my first South African in South Africa. Granted it was the lady at the visa checkpoint asking me why I was even in South Africa, and while we didn’t go into song-and-dance about my visiting her home country—I was absolutely floored by her especially unique look, and naturally had to inquire about her ethnic background. Probably not the wisest move in this day and age, but when I say this woman was “uniquely” stunning, I’m not exaggerating. She was so incredibly different from anything I had ever seen. Her eyes were piercing blue with green hues, and her skin was the shade of brown that girls, literally, burn for. Let’s not even begin to try to describe the perfection that was her hair color. For kicks, we’ll attempt to simply call it ‘golden.’ The only way I knew to describe her unique look is that her features were closest to that of someone whom I would recognize, and would probably widely be considered in my hometown in the States, as “mixed” race.
(Sheepishly, I learned the term “mixed” is not only inappropriate, but also highly offensive to describe “coloured” people in South Africa.) It was put so sweetly to kindly educate this one foreigner, “You mix a cake, and colour the world.” I appreciated the profound quip this older, wiser, South African ‘Mama’ was offering me, and I took it.
Ironically, the populous of South Africa mostly fall under “Black,” and what most Americans view as derogatory: Coloured.
It took me some time to be able to adopt this new vocabulary as a rule, but I quickly realized that while the vocabulary may have been difficult to adjust to, the division between the color classes was even more frightening. To understand how and why these color distinctions are so prominent in the social interactions, and overall dynamic, of South African culture—presented the real challenge.
I lived in an area where the divide was so mindboggling, that to be able to grasp an idea of just how much of a gap was present, one had to turn to the dehumanizing fact that the elite’s pets had more proof of existence than the children living in townships. In certain places, like Hout Bay, people who put their dogs in doggy daycare, had “Repawt” cards, and other daily check-ins, while many adults and children in townships didn’t have birth certificates, and many of them are still unaccounted for.
The plot thickened, as I couldn’t help the sad realization that washed over me while I sat there, on my American pedestal—this country was reflecting my own in many ways. In shocking disbelief, I realized the parallels between South Africa and the American South, are way too close for comfort. I wondered how something of the past so prominently haunted and dictated the future. How could the Rainbow nation with such a colorful background, fighting segregation, apartheid, with Madiba—still be so divided? The worst part: The Mother City was a mirroring parallel to the place I dearly call home—Atlanta, Georgia.
What was even more daunting was the fact that, the country I call home is one of the most powerfully lucrative in the world, and yet, evidently not powerful enough to fight racism or poverty. At that moment, I couldn’t help but to think how many thousands of times, over, both, Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had tossed in their eternal beds. I am still shook by the thought, and this revelation.
As less than a handful of Americans in Cape Town at the time, I was, shockingly, one of the few Americans who recognized this disturbing connection. As if I wasn’t traumatized enough, and now to add my own ethno-Southern roots– most of the other Americans were from more liberal areas of the United States, which, I noticed, strangely enough, actually seemed impartial to what was going on. Not to say that they didn’t care, or that liberals, democrats should care more, but they do tend to vocalize it more—so where was that initiation? Why was it absent in a place it was needed most? Why are there as many people starving in the world today, as there are people who claim to care about them?
Have we desensitized even some of the most sensitive in the world? This is not to imply blame, but more to admit confusion on what direction we have gone in the world. What is our direction? Have human lives become so worthless that we can sit back and watch while our fellow humans starve in the cycle in which they were born, chained to the shackles of the situations they can’t get out of because there is no way out provided?
Working and volunteering in the legal systems, human rights commissions, and battered women and children’s shelters in Cape Town, one thing was absolutely apparent to me:
That many people are not failing the system; the system is failing them. That many people are not flawed; the system is flawed.
The 16 year old–going to jail, tainting his future with a past, because he can’t afford the cheese and bread he shoplifted, desperately, to feed himself and his family, and now must pay a legal fine that is triple the amount of money he couldn’t afford to begin with– is not to blame. The woman who stands up to her abusive, alcoholic husband, and gets beaten in front her children, the woman who can’t get a job, to get out of the horrible situation, because she looks “too rough”– is not to blame. The children who are brought up in that environment, picking up only what they know, what they see, and what they are shown, and reflect it—are not to blame. These are those cycles that one must honestly ask oneself, “What would I do in that situation?”
What is an even more grim reality is the fact that the physical divide between people, is more based on race than proximity. In layman’s terms: the proof is in the pudding—a black man from the American South, eerily, understands to some varying degree, the hardships of a black man in South Africa, without ever setting foot in the other’s country. This is not coincidence. It is systemic.
We must do better. We must learn to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, towards each other, in hopes of meeting halfway, to find a balance that would remedy the casual indifference we live in today. Not just for South Africa, not just for the United States, but also for the entire world, and future generations.
Let’s “colour “ the world, properly—staying within the lines—of dignity and respect.
This article is dedicated to all the incredible individuals I had the pleasure of meeting in Kaapstad. You have touched my heart, forever. Dankie, Dankie, Dankie.