Reflections on South Africa: Race Relations

I’ve been attempting to write a post on race relations for, well, since I got here. I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished it though. It is such a loaded and difficult topic, yet part of my everyday life.

I am the only white person living in my village, and besides the previous PCV, probably the only white person to ever have lived there.

Living as a white person in a “black” village in post-Apartheid South Africa is kind of like living life on a tightrope. Everything I do and say could easily be attributed to my race or even being racist. Because I’ve lived in my village for nine months, it’s getting easier and fewer people address me in Afrikaans or assume I’m just another white South African. However, when I tell people I wash my own clothes, cook for myself, clean my room, and spend weekends in my village, they are often surprised. They literally do not think a white person can do these things. They were stunned when I started working in the garden, digging, planting, etc, because they literally did not think a white woman can do these things.

When I say “Dumela” to people who do not know me, they are delighted and surprised. White South Africans do not learn African languages in general. If a white person happens to drive through my village or stop at my school, they give a double-glance and I know they are wondering what the heck I am doing in this “black” village. I am learning Afrikaans because it is spoken by most people in my village and much of the language is blended into the Tswana here, and it will help improve my Setswana. People here, white or black, tend to greet me in Afrikaans if I do not greet first, and are stunned when I tell them I speak Setswana better.

My race tells people a lot about me, supposedly. I am constantly judged because of it. Some people repeatedly do not greet me in my village, and I believe it is because I am white. Some people are more timid around me because I am white. But it is changing. My presence in the village is changing how people think about white people, and as time goes on, people are getting used to it. I rarely hear “lekgoa” anymore, unless I am joking around with people. I more often hear my African name, Keamogetswe, which makes me happy.

Still, when I get out of my village, typical race relations in SA prevail. When I go to restaurants, I never seen mixed-race tables, and when Rethabile (a black PCV) joins us at a table, it’s a surprise to the people in the restaurant. When we were stuck in the sand up in Bray and a truck of Afrikaner women stopped to help, our black counterparts pushed Lorato and I forward and were literally afraid to talk to these women. I’ve had conversations with Afrikaners that had strong racist undertones, if not outright racist. Other white South Africans have no clue what rural black village life is like, and are stunned when I begin telling them of a South Africa they have never known.

Apartheid ended 18 years ago, but many of the opinions, stereotype, and ideas of Apartheid are still alive. Segregation is illegal, but still exists in practicality. I live in a black village. There is one wealthy coloured family that owns a shop here, but you can bet no white people will ever live here. Private schools often translate to white schools, because only white families can afford them. My principal told me about a private school in Vryburg where white kids can beat up black kids without punishment, but the black kids will get in major trouble if they touch a white kid. Black schools are in ridiculously poor conditions, and the government doesn’t invest in them. But white urban schools have flush toilets, textbooks for every learner, fields, lights, computers, windows and doors that work, clean and painted walls, and a sense of pride.

Being a white person in a black village in South Africa can be extremely trying and saddening at times. Black people are still scared of white people, and white people still have horrible opinions of black people. In some places, especially urban areas, are changing and race relations are improving. But I still battle Apartheid legacies.

By the way, black, white, and coloured are socially acceptable terms in SA and people take pride in their race. Don’t judge me as racist for using these terms, please. Remember, the language and culture are different here, and this is the appropriate language to describe race here.
-Jen

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About Jen Daugherty

Christ follower. Writer. Permaculturist. RPCV. Photographer. Real Food Eater. Daughter of God.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on South Africa: Race Relations

  1. Great piece of writing Jen. Very insightful. Its for sure worthy of being published. Does the Peace Corps do an online magazine or newsletter? If so you would get my vote for this particular entry.

    • They have a printed magazine, but it’s like elite. 🙂 But thanks! I feel honoured that you think so highly of it. It took a long time to write, or even verbalize, because it’s such a difficult topic.

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