Although I have travelled outside the United States in the past, there are several things about South African culture that immediately were vastly different than anywhere else that I have been, and these I learned quickly.
Number one: Ethnicity is broken down into three categories: white, colored, and black. People do not identify with their ancestors’ roots. Of those three terms for ethnicity, black is considered offensive due to the country’s history, and these individuals prefer to be referred to as just South African, or by the native language that they speak.
Number two: Accents don’t differ based on where people are from. Instead they are determined by ethnicity.
Number three: Butter is basically a food group. Butter seems to go on everything, and with everything. Furthermore, it seems that meat and carbs are pretty standard for meals, while a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, are not typically served regularly. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the food my South African mama, Wendy, makes is very yummy.
Number four: Indian foods and spices, specifically curry and roti, are very common everyday foods in the country.
Number five: The poverty in some areas of the city is very overt and noticeable.
Number six: Tipping in South Africa is not a thing, and will result in a very happy taxi driver providing you with his number and requesting that you call him personally every time you need a ride.
Number seven: Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Whether or not you are walking across the street, the car will continue to drive.
Number eight: In South Africa the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle, and left hand turns are the wide ones. Furthermore, there is no turning on red, right or left. Do not get on the road if you do not know what you are doing.
Number nine: There is something worse than LA traffic. In South Africa, on top of there being a lot of traffic commuting into the city, you also have to deal with pedestrians, who will weave in between cars, crossing the road in the dark in the middle of traffic.
Number ten: Access to Wi-Fi is incredibly low on the priority list, and is thus nearly impossible to find on a daily basis. In fact, the local Internet café at the nearby mall actually closed down.
Although these random tidbits represent my initial thoughts during my first few days in the city, it quickly became apparent that these silly first impressions are incredibly superficial differences; once you place them in comparison to the unique cultural history that surrounds the country it is very apparent that these differences actually represent the history of the country in the same way that the culture in the US represents our history.
First, the ethnic background of Cape Town is much more complicated than I originally understood, dating back to the aboriginal Khoi San people who originally occupied the area, only becoming more complex leading up to its current situation. This includes the arrivals of the Dutch, the English, the slaves, which they brought from Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, Mozambique, and, as well as Indians and Asians. The apartheid led to the development of eighteen categories of ethnicity, based largely on looks and superficial characteristics. Differentiating between white and colored was based on characteristics including whether a pencil stuck in your hair or fell out, the width of the bridge of your nose, the color of your nails, and the color of the areola surrounding a woman’s nipple. The decided ethnicity was designated on identification papers, which everyone was required to carry with them on a daily basis during the apartheid. This forced categorization, and the limitations that surrounded them clearly justifies and rationalizes the desire of people to not identify as a specific ethnic background, because the oppression during the apartheid was solely based on ethnicity and appearances. Nevertheless, the three most commonly heard ethnicities came about. Black Africans comes from the aboriginals, as well as the Xhosa speaking people, Zulu speaking people, and the Bantu speaking people. Because of the racial oppression during the apartheid, many people in this ethnic group do not like to be referred to as black. Coloureds represent those of mixed origin, specifically from white males and slave females, leading to a mix of the white Europeans, East Africans, and the slaves brought from the East Indies. Because of this mixed origin, as well as the constant conflict between the ethnic groups, and the very biased assignment of ethnicity during the apartheid, it is nearly impossible for people to know fully what their ethnic background is, explaining even more the generalized racial groups that are now used to differentiate between South Africans. These mixed racial groups also explain why a variety of foods from different ethnic groups become a very common part of food in South Africa, including curries and roti, which are traditionally Indian dishes, and Koek Sisters, which are traditionally Muslim dish served at parties and weddings.
It is also important to note that the apartheid led to the development of the townships, which housed the black and coloured South Africans that were evicted from their homes during the apartheid. These areas are segregated based on ethnicity. Individuals living in these townships do not have easy access to electricity, sewage, or clean water. This leads to individuals stealing electricity from power lines, which causes deadly fires. Furthermore, bathrooms are on the edges of the community, forcing some people to walk very long distances to go to the bathroom. As you travel from one township to the next, ethnic differences are incredibly apparent, ranging from the forms of housing available, including formal and informal housing, and the availability of resources to these communities. Although the apartheid is no longer in effect today, these townships serve as a living proof of where the country came from, and they persist as a reminder of the long road ahead, proving that twenty years of democracy cannot immediately undo the tensions and circumstances brought about during the apartheid. While this certainly does not change the fact that these individuals are living in terrible conditions and circumstances, it allows you to understand and identify with how this situation developed over the years, which can significantly change how you view the individuals who continue to reside in these impoverished areas. Furthermore, with poverty and jobs being a significant issue, it is not surprising that people will jump at any opportunity to make any extra money, including that from American tourists who tip because it is customary for them to, even if it may only be an extra twenty rand, which is about two dollars.
Transportation in Cape Town is sometimes difficult. Public taxis follow their own rules, driving unsafely, and piling more people into the small cars than capacity. There is a lot of competition between these companies, and this leads to aggressive and outlandish tactics to maintain business in this market. This is very problematic, because many of the people living in the townships rely on these taxis for transportation to and from work. This unsafe environment may explain why so many people are walking the streets and dodging traffic while crossing the roads in the morning in a hurry to work instead of using public transportation if possible. Also, the strong European cultural influence easily explains the unusual road rules, and driving directions.
Although these things may be vastly different than the society that we are used to, it certainly does not make them inferior, or worse than what we currently experience. Instead they serve as a reminder that until you are fully aware of the history and the background surrounding a subject that is specific or foreign, you really do not have the resources or the authority to develop an educated opinion on the subject. The more that I learn about the city, the more that I realize that living in South Africa really would not be that different than living in the states. Just because their history differs so significantly from ours, and they are considered a third world country, it does not justify developing a sense of superiority towards them, and it pains me to see people act in this way. Just like us, their current situation is very deeply rooted in the rich history that the country has. While their levels of poverty are much higher than we see in the states, and they may face hardships due to lack of resources and lack of education in these areas, we have areas of immense poverty in our backyards. Just as rate of diseases are higher in these areas, in the US we also see increased incidence of disease in areas of lower socioeconomic class, because of lower access to resources, and to affordable healthcare. Furthermore, life in a middle class home in both, where both adults in the family work to make a living; they have access to some luxuries, however they have deep ties into the history, and they understand what it is like to work for what they have. While this is clear now, it is not what is typically thought of when people hear third-world country. Some of the students were asked if they would be staying in shacks while they were here. While some of these comments do exist and arise out of ignorance, part of the problem is just a lack of knowledge about the cultural background, as well as the economic and political condition of the country. Bridging this gap is just the first step to understanding, accepting, and relating to individuals who come from this background.