South Africa is a unique Peace Corps country in part because there are 11 official languages, and many different cultural groups and subgroups. It’s easy to think of things in a black/white racial dichotomy, but it’s so much deeper than that. For example, amongst the white people, you have British, Afrikaner, white South African, ex-pats, and likely other cultural groups I don’t know about. And amongst the black South Africans, you have the sotho-based groups (Tswana, Pedi, Sotho), the Nguni (Ndebele, Zulu, Swati, Xhosa), the Venda, Shangaan, Zimbabweans, Shoni, Khoisan, ex-pats, and likely other tiny groups I’ve never heard of. Then you have the Indian population and the coloured population (NOT an offensive term here, fyi), and I honestly have no clue what subgroups exist within through racial/cultural groups.
So while America can be considered a melting pot, South Africa is more of a bag of trail mix: each cultural group vibrantly holds onto its own cultural traditions, but they all come together to offer something to the nation as a whole. Of course, there is some blending of cultures, but a Venda person is a Venda first, and South African second. It’s rather cool!
But….that means that a lot of South Africans are clueless about the other cultural groups in their country. This comes back mainly to racial lines, meaning that white South Africans often have no clue what village (“black”) South African life is like, and many black South Africans have outdated ideas of white South Africans, which all comes back to Apartheid.
As a PCV (read as white person), I live in a “black” village. I travel on “black” transport, speak a “black” language, eat “black” food, live with a “black” family, and frequent “black” businesses. (Please, don’t be offended by me referring to these things as “black” because this is how some things are referred to in my village, and by other South Africans…not always in a good way, but I’m attempting to make a point.) Black South Africans are always surprised to see me at a taxi rank, let alone getting on a taxi. Sometimes they ask me about it, or greet me in Afrikaans-which I respond to in Setswana, to gales of laughter. Sometimes I’m ignored.
One PCV wrote that because of this reality in SA, we have the chance to add a fourth goal to PC’s Three Goals. The three goals go as follows:
Goal 1: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Goal 2: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Goal 3: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
In South Africa, we could easily include another goal:
Goal 4: Helping promote a better understanding of South Africans on the part of other South Africans.
For the first year of my service, I rarely encountered white people and did not form relationships with any. Honestly, I tried not to think they were all horrible racist pigs because I saw the affects of Apartheid so clearly in my village. I knew it was 20 years ago, and that many white South Africans were kind people, but I didn’t interact with any and struggled not to form stereotypes. Then I met and became friends with two women who introduced me into the culture of white South Africa. I met more white South Africans and began to talk to them about my (“black”) South African and their South Africa. I chatted with a young lady at a bus stop who was astounded to hear that corporal punishment is still common in rural areas, despite being illegal. I stunned a group of young men by telling them about my adventures and mishaps on the bush taxis, which white people generally avoid like the plague. I described my school to other educators in more urban areas. I explained what living in a village with a black host family is like to countless white South Africans.
And I saw eyes open, minds expanding, and opinions starting to change. I saw stereotypes being question and attitudes changing. No, I didn’t radically change anybody’s mind, but I was able to share a different South Africa with them.
One of the most poignant moments of my service was when a young white man turned to me after talking for an hour or so, and said “I can’t believe that you, an American, know more about the culture in my own country than I do.” That is the moment when barriers start to break down.
In my village, I’ve seen huge changes. When I first came, everyone was terrified to talk to me. Kids would flash a terrified face and run away if I greeted them. Now, they run up to me and greet, in English or Setswana, walk alongside me, and reach out to grab my hand. The flock to work with me and warm my heart with their acceptance. Older women smile and chatter to me in Setswana, where once silence was the rule. People glance up when I walk by, greet, then go back to their tasks, rather than staring in shock. And I only hear shouts of “lekgoa (white person)” from the smallest of children, rather than from everyone. With the teachers at my school, I’ve been able to have frank discussions about racial stereotypes, and I can see opinions are changing.
I feel so blessed to see these small changes. South Africa is unique because simply by living in a “black” village, I am able to shift opinions and shatter stereotypes. In a very small way, I am able to counter the impact of Apartheid and show my village that white people can work, live, eat, and thrive alongside a black person. Maybe I can send the message that race doesn’t really matter.
Though I’m not South African, I traverse some of the various cultures in this country. In doing so, I am able to help realize the unofficial Goal 4: Helping promote a better understanding of South Africans on the part of other South Africans.