Monday, October 22, 2007

After-Thoughts on South Africa

It's official, I have completed the transformation into a full-fledged writer. There are nights (such as this), where I lie awake, thinking of the injustices of the world, and anxious to get up, so that I might write my thoughts down on paper (or computer) before they disappear.

Most often, I think of South Africa, the country that continues to haunt me, long after our departure. Usually, it's incredible images of the land and its people that dance through my head, but on this particular night, it's the country's strangeness.

As much as I'd like to avoid talking about black vs. white, the many remnants of segregation present in the country (and especially in its Afrikaans-speaking "Garden Route"), make it nearly impossible, and fear and intolerance is both widespread and (in many circles) socially acceptable.

Life in a township is undoubtedly incredibly hard. I hope someday to spend at least 24-hours with friends there, to get a 1st-hand impression of what they face on a daily basis.

Yes, poverty is a major problem, and yet, many people in South Africa believe that the white population, which is far wealthier as a whole, is truly happy. After all, they have no financial troubles.

But they live in fear. Let me paint their "happy" picture for you. If you are in a certain (predominantly white) socio-economic class in South Africa:

1. You build as large a wall around your house as you can afford, to protect your family.

2. Your next major investment is a high-tech security system with a panic button, and a security company which you pay monthly, to respond to any "emergencies", keeping you, in turn, secure.

3. If your house is large, you might close your bedrooms off with a locked door or security gate, so that your family is safe in the event of a break-in.

4. You have plenty of "help" in the house (in the form of house keepers, gardeners, etc), but because labor is so cheap and your helpers struggle financially, you have to monitor your valuables, perfumes, clothing, food, etc, as things will disappear (especially if you use an agency or have a high turn-over rate).

5. If you are a woman, people may tell you not to leave your windows open during the day, and not to walk around outside by yourself (no matter how "safe" the neighborhood). In other words, if you're not driving, stay inside with the windows and doors locked. Unless, that is, you have infrared motion alarms on your back porch, in which case you can activate them and leave your back door open.

6. If you have a dog (which most people do, for "protection"), be sure to keep tabs on him at all times. It's not uncommon for dogs to disappear from their yards, as there is money to be earned by converting a normal canine companion into a fighting dog, and if that doesn't work out, the thief can always bring the dog to the pound in exchange for a small cash reward.

7. You worry about a potential mass-massacre. There are stories of a "retaliation", should Nelson Mandela die, in which black people will attack white and a huge blood bath will occur, putting yourself and your family at risk. You have a weapon in your house, in the event of such a massacre.

8. Every day you see people that are struggling... in the worse way. You try to avert your eyes, because you work hard for your money, and you know that you could never possibly help them all, but sometimes there's no avoiding it. A man stumbles across the road, one shoe on, foam coming from his toothless mouth, looking as though he will collapse any second, and people just drive around him, honking, too afraid to stop. Danger lurks in many corners of this beautiful country, and people that help sometimes end up as victims of crime and violence.

Additional oddities:
-Your house help may have the highly contagious, deadly form of tuberculosis, but if they tell you they have it, they may lose their job and livelihood. And, furthermore, getting the diagnosis means repeated visits and hours of waiting at the "provincial" (or non-white) hospital, plus doctors' fees.

-As a result of the poverty, there are plenty of people that will due absolutely anything for money. So, if you are a business man (or woman), and things are not running smoothly, you always have the option of hiring a hit-man/arm breaker to collect money for you. The same holds true for cheating spouses!

Here's the catch, if you've never known anything else, this is "normal", and you believe yourself to be truly happy. (I for one am losing sleep over it, and I'm thousands of miles away.) But people are hopeful. Black, white, and biracial, everyone wants a better life for their children. They love their country - and the diversity of the land and its people. It is unquestionably striking with its rolling hills, mountains, cliffs, lagoons, and wildlife, and this, my friends, is what keeps them going.

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