Wednesday, 19 March 2014

In retrospect

It's a week since we flew back from South Africa and many people have asked what it was like.

Equally, several people have not asked what it was like for us but have taken the opportunity to tell us what Africa is or was like for them. Thanks for the news. 

So what are the dominant memories? There is no getting away from the fact that South Africa is a relatively poor and very corrupt third world country in which an overwhelmingly white and very small minority lives the life of Riley behind high fences, guard dogs and armed guards. If that can really be called the life of Riley. Looks more like hell to me. But there are clearly advantages to it in what still seems to me a rather soulless way. 

Yet the black majority seem pretty happy considering, at least in the towns we visited. I find that amazing. Or do they just tolerate what they cannot change?

I certainly hadn't realised just how separately blacks and whites live. A town has a name, e.g. Ladybrand or Ficksburg. But that's the name of the (overwhelmingly) white town. The blacks don't live there: they (and they are 85% or more of the population) live in the township. That has a separate name: for Ladybrand it is Manyatseng. For Ficksburg it is Meqheleng. And so on. And the townships vary from municipality to municipality. Some look spick and span and well ordered and relatively well built. Others can look pretty dreadful, at least in parts and even by township standards.

So the only blacks a white person sees are those who have jobs that cause the races to interact. Given that 35% are unemployed anyway, that rather limits the interaction. I can see that a tourist who follows well trodden trails along the Garden Route, around Cape Town or the vineyards, or in the many national parks, will be kept well clear of the poverty and exploitation that underpins the social and economic fabric of the country. 

In the Free State a typical white home occupies as much land as perhaps six to eight of the houses on The Green here in Charlbury. You might pick one up at the moment for something in the region of £50-70k, the exchange rate having collapsed recently in our favour. A 'shack' in a township resembles one of the garages on The Green, though our garages generally have better roofs and certainly have water and electricity laid on. The shack will house a family of 4-6 where we'd keep one or two cars.  Then again, we give our cars concrete floors, and the blacks in South Africa may live on dry mud. Even in the rainy seasons, and when winter temperatures drop to -10ยบ or below.

Beyond the township open country extends for maybe 40-60 miles to the next town, a series of gigantic farms in white hands, punctuated by rows of hovels built for farm workers as remote as hell from the next town or habitation. 

It's the product of British and Dutch colonialism and there is absolutely no point trying to ignore the fact. I've been told that while it was bad of the colonial settlers to go round murdering people and stealing their land, black tribes were already doing that to each other anyway, and there were some beneficial spinoffs to what 'we' did. According to that viewpoint I should be feeling quite good about what I saw. Really? Two wrongs make a right? Let's be clear: 'we' took all their land and all their mineral resources. I don't think anyone ever chose to live in South Africa as it is today, but for the fact that it is a fait accompli and you can't see how a government can go back on it. Especially now that a small black elite is getting very rich on the proceeds, and they rule the country… Some things Mandela never began to address… 

I don't want to oversimplify what I saw, and my experience was very limited. But it was very, very considerably less limited than that of the typical tourist, and we got to talk to a small but surprising variety of people.

South Africa is a very beautiful country, and full of warm-hearted and lovely people. But don't ignore the terrible truths.


I'm sorry there have been no South African photos to accompany the relevant posts on this blog. That's because I couldn't get the photos off my camera while I was away. I'm gradually transferring them now to Flickr. You can see the Ladybrand 'set' at though some of the photos are restricted to family only because they are private for one reason or another. Each photo has a caption that gives further background information where appropriate. There are more to go on over the next week or so.

I am also aware that I have touched several times on the long history and sudden demise of the San people. I am going to research this further, and hope to redress the balance by pulling together some of what is known about the San. That will gradually become the subject of a separate page here, and maybe one day a separate website. 

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