Carla McKenzie, South Africa (University of Cape Town)
Being a white, English speaking South African is a strange thing. Despite never having been one who is big on national identities or patriotism; I do experience a strange swelling feeling in my chest when I think about what an incredible, crazy, diverse country South Africa is. I do feel a strange swelling feeling in my throat when I’m away from home and hear some Lady Smith Black Mambazo choral music. And I do feel an angry swelling feeling in my stomach when people talk about leaving because of “the state the country’s in these days.”
Pale natives. White Africans.
There is a lovely Afrikaans (a South African, Dutch derived language) term for this: “soutie” which means a person who is “salty:” one foot in Britain and the other in South Africa with everything in between left to get salty in the sea… Someone recently asked me if I viewed myself as an African and I couldn’t really answer him. Partly because I felt so deeply that I was, that I am. I know that my culture and upbringing probably more closely resemble that of the British than any African culture but yet, there is a distinct, inexplicable African-ness to how I view myself. This soil is in my veins. This continent is in my blood and my head and my heart.
Having said all that, South Africa is an incredibly divided country (many thanks to the apartheid government on this one-note the sarcasm…) and a place of devastating inequality. A drive along our beautiful eastern coast line will reveal to you some of the poorest people in the world as well as families holidaying in their second homes, riding their speed boats and driving their four wheelers/quad bikes.
For the past 3 months, I have been living along this eastern coast line of South Africa in an area known as the former Transkei. This is one of the poorest parts of the country. This stretch of country used to be a “homeland” area. The “homelands” policy was an apartheid-era policy basically sectioning off black South Africans into specific, set aside portions of the country called “homelands” in the interests of “separate development” (the idea that people of different skin colours were just too different and had needs too divergent to co-habitate and so should develop seperately). People in the “homelands” were allowed traditional governance structures, such as leadership by traditional chiefs, and were encouraged to become separate political entities from the rest of (white) South Africa. In reality, all this was essentially just euphemistic talk and these areas, lacking infrastructure, resources and basic services, were exploited as concentrated sources of cheap labour for the mines in north eastern South Africa.
In many ways, despite the democratisation of South Africa in 1994, it seems as though little has changed. No-one, save the trading-store owners, has electricity in my area of the Transkei. No-one has running water and few have rain water tanks and despite the presence of schools and children in school uniform the quality of education is abysmal. HIV and malnutrition are rampant. People are poor, and they are poor in a country that could in parts be considered “First World.”
The area I live in is about 99% inhabited by the Xhosa people. Their language is from the Bantu group of languages that are thought to have stemmed from West to Central Africa way back when. It has clicks and it has confusing grammar- trust me, I’m trying to learn it whilst teaching the basic s to some of the English-speaking medical staff at the nearby hospital. Most people still have a very similar way of life to that of their forefathers. Most live in round, mud huts with thatched roofs. Most people are subsistence farmers and receive their only income from perhaps a man in the family who is a migrant worker on the mines. Many more rely solely on government child, disability or pension grants or else receive no income at all. The unemployment rate is shockingly high. Having said all that, there is a beach nearby and there are family units. There are children playing soccer and women chatting as they work in the fields or collect water from the river. One thing I am constantly reminded of is the old cliché that (above a certain basic level) money can’t buy you happiness.
So we come back to my inexplicable sense of African-ness: I may not look or act especially like your stereotypical African and I obviously I stick out like a bit of a sore thumb in my village here at Zithulele but there is still this feeling I have of an invisible thread to this continent and especially this country with its diverse bunch of inhabitants. What I have mostly found (despite being quite the novelty in the village, attracting especial attention on the few occasions I’ve been to the river to collect water or in the fields to carry piles of thatching grass), is that people appreciate the gesture of one getting to know their language and their culture. People warm to you and open up to you when you enter their space.
South Africa is a country of gaps, no, chasms, and few bridges. We have eleven official languages but for my whole life I have only spoken one. Perhaps now I will be able to bridge some of those chasms for myself and to feel a little less like a “soutie.”
– United Words –