Six Weeks in South Africa, Six To Go: Fun Facts & Reflections
Some fun facts I’ve learned so far about South Africa (and South Africans subsequently):
- There are 11 official languages. In an effort to not leave anyone out in the transition to a ‘New SA’, all these languages were selected.
- The new SA, although strikingly youthful compared to the USA (also a relatively young country), has many many similarities to the USA. Regarding race and notions of exceptionalism, the two countries are strangely alike and dissimilar. A 20-something SA woman put it to me like this: “South Africans are the Americans of Africa”…
- Most people speak more than one language. Here where Johannesburg is located, in Gauteng province, it’s hard to bump into a black person who doesn’t speak Zulu plus two to three or four other distinctive languages including English. There is a demeanor people put on when they communicate in these native languages. Zulu is the language of solidarity in JHB, the tongue that ties together black people in a nation where a minority of white people have taken so so much away from them for hundreds of years.
- Gauteng is pronounced ‘how-ten’. The ‘how’ sound has a funky effect if you wanna be fancy. It translates to ‘place of gold’. JHB and its surrounding areas came to be established when gold was discovered here in 1886. When people ask me how I’m finding it, I say it feels just like NYC. Lots of people from all over the country and beyond find themselves here chasing all kinds of dreams and hopes. The biggest difference is that people here sleep and they don’t walk anywhere.
- Narratives about safety, security, and crime are pervasive. The physical and social manifestations of fear are to be found in the way beggars beg, the bars people live behind at every turn in their homes, cautions about what neighborhoods are dodgy, and the risk you take every time you park your car anywhere. As an American, these narratives are beyond alarming. The more time I spend here I’m beginning to understand how much they shape people’s daily lives, identities, and the physical architecture of the city. While vigilance is important, ideas about crime and safety (for different people) take on a kind of magnitude that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
- Public transportation is the saddest form of nonexistent here. Given the history of apartheid spatial planning, it is most unfortunate that the apartheid regimes didn’t invest in the movement of people. I have a hunch why they didn’t, but like the missed opportunity to invest in transit during the gilded age of America, one can only lament the lack of investment in transit infrastructure when the economy could have afforded it. The provincial government has dreams of implementing new transportation infrastructure to correct for some of this, but like most urban African contexts, the transit sector is so dominated by the ‘informal’ taxi (minibus) regime(s), it is ever difficult to transition to a system that is both affordable and regulated — that does not alienate those whose livelihoods are already wrapped up in the current way of business.
- There are lots of different white people here. Afrikaners are the bad white people. Ok, they aren’t all bad. Just don’t call them Dutch. Even though it seems they are the descendants of Dutch settlers; and that their language sounds a lot like a Dutch-German-English creole depending on who’s speaking, don’t call them Dutch. The most stereotypical and extreme characterization would suggest that they resemble far-right conservative country white people from the South…or as my classmate would say ‘backcountry hicks’.
- Stereotypes are dangerous, but I run into them all the time here. At comedy shows, Afrikaners are characterized in a range of ways, both funny and obviously true. BUT of course these are generalizations and not all of them are like that!! [I have to constantly remind myself]
- Stereotypes aside, it’s mindfuckery of the highest order to wrap one’s head around how white people can make up such small slither of the population (~9%) and own all the land, all the economy, all the industry.
- Apartheid is not an event in the history books. It is the present. Its legacy is the subtext for the emergent black middle class, young people going to college to study things like film and art, and widening wealth inequality between those with land deeds and those waiting, hoping for the day when they get land of their own. People talk about race every single day of their lives here, everywhere, anytime, all the time.
- Indoor heating isn’t a thing. Don’t ever say that no one told you this one key fact.
Dassit for now.
[Inquire: Have you been to SA? Have you visited JHB? What things have you heard about the country/city? What did you witness to be true if you’ve visited yourself? I’m curious to hear what others have heard and/or experienced.]
A wanderlusting intellectual millennial on a journey to let my curiosity get the best of me everywhere I go. I enjoy traveling and being immersed in the unfamiliar. I love cultural anthropology, urban planning, and pretending to know other languages. A dancer by training and a social scientist by dreaming; born in Washington DC, raised in Maryland, eight years a New Yorker, and a serial hobbyist. My current obsession is hoola hooping. I even do gigs and take my hoop when I travel. Fo'reals.