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My Journey in South Africa

“So what are you?” She asks as she stares at me intently while admiring the volume of my tightly coiled hair. I confidently respond, “Black” but she looks at me bewildered as if I am making a poorly versed sarcastic comment.

It has been over a month since I have arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, which many people lovingly refer to as the Mother City. There is something remarkably different about Cape Town. This city holds a piercingly beautiful spirit. For one, the brilliance of the landscapes still has me in awe each and every day. From the time my plane landed I have been imbued with a desire to travel to see more of the miracles the natural world has to offer. As amazing as it is, I have come to appreciate more than the beautiful view.  Cape Town’s population is motley crew. Within that diversity, so many individuals I have met seem to hold both a spirit of overcoming strife but also a love for living. How do two seemingly opposite characteristics blend so seamlessly? One simple three-syllable word gives some insight to that question. Apartheid. South Africa has a remarkable story of overcoming a system of extreme repression in pursuit of freedom. Since it has only been twenty years since the coming of democracy, their journey to a more perfect union continues to be chronicled by the country’s people.

Similarly to the way that slavery’s lingering legacy affects people of color in the United States, there are visible de facto remnants of apartheid. Apartheid was a system of racial oppression that affected all areas of life, so it is unsurprising the ways that race in particular remains a dividing factor in society.

To provide an extremely simplistic description of apartheid the white minority (only about 5% of the national population) dominated society, while Coloreds (10 % of the population) and Blacks (80% of the population) were subjugated to oppression. Coloureds, however, were given a relatively higher degree of freedom than Blacks. This is the system persisted for decades. So while apartheid is formally eradicated today, elements of the racial hierarchy remain. While I was aware of South Africa’s racial constructions prior to my arrival, I have been sensitive to the ways racial stratification has affected me personally.

The university I am attending this semester is composed primarily of people of color, or in South African terms Blacks/Africans and Coloureds. During my first couple weeks as a student here, I was relatively unaware of the racial dynamics that exist on campus. After all, I was too focused on finding the location of my next lecture hall or seminar room. As I’ve settled in, however, I become more cognizant of everyday interactions that are laden with racial implications. While I am obviously and immediately regarded as a black person in America, here my facial features, skin tone, hair texture, and even hair length are a cause for confusion. More often than not, I have been informally classified as a Coloured person.  Subsequently, I have had one too many conversations with students on campus trying to convince them of my racial identity. It usually takes me showing whomever I’m speaking to pictures of my family to convince her of this truth. I assumed that I would likely be considered Colored while in South Africa, but I did not realize there was a substantial differentiation between the two racial groups.

On campus, however, you can see the separation between the Blacks and Coloreds. It is visible while sitting in the student center or in lecture halls; there is a pattern of in-group association. This tendency is not a foreign concept. After all, a desire to be around people similar to ones self is a pattern that is seen throughout all identity groups. What shocked me, however, is that separate realms even exists amongst these two populations. Since both racial groups were subjugated to the same oppressive government, I had assumed that there would be much greater solidarity.  Apartheid was a strong and calculated process that made a conscious effort to weaken solidarity by separating Blacks and Coloreds. South Africa has moved into its politically democratic state, the social implications of the authoritarian regime persist.  It is obvious that decades of physical and mental separation cannot be erased with the change of political regime alone. This process takes continuous social interaction, economic development, along with the improvement of sociopolitical structures. Black or Colored, I have the privilege of being privy to this world for a few short months. Let the learning begin.


by former IMPACT intern Colleen Roberts

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