Have you ever been to South Africa? Talked to a South African? White or Black?
In all my traveling about, I have met several South Africans – none of which have been black. Yet, we are talking about an African nation here where 90% of the population is native to the reign.
In traveling to this particular country, I have never felt so uneasy to be white in my life. If not for the knowledge of the history of oppression the white population had imposed on the native population, than for the extremely high crime rate of the nation. According to a UN study conducted in 2005, South Africa ranked as one of the top countries in the world for rape and murder. This fact is compounded by the widespread epidemic of AIDS and extreme inequality of wealth between the top 10% (who are mostly white) and the impoverished 90% (who are mostly black) – which many would argue is the reason for the extreme culture of violence.
Upon landing in Johannesburg, one of the first things I noticed was the bared windows and walled up homes with shards of glass surrounding the living compounds. To say this is unnerving is an understatement. Lucy, a friend I met on my travels, explained that growing up they could not play outside or walk to school because it was too dangerous. Instead, families spend their times on buses or within the walled up compounds of their homes – that is if they are well off enough to have a home.
Picture: Soweto, a shanty town in Johannesburg of roughly .5 million
Regardless of its notorious reputation, I did not experience anything more than uneasiness while walking about Johannesburg or surrounding areas (solo I might add), but I did experience something else that I did not quite expect while making the obligatory trip to the apartheid museum.
Lost and attempting to find my way, I pulled up to a gate guard and naturally asked for directions (locked doors and cracked windows of course). Instead of answering my question he tilted his head and asked where I was from. ‘America’, my response.
He gave me a look I will never forget.
It was a look of inherent respect, one I had never before received for just stating my nationality. He then promptly put his hand my car, keeping his steady gaze and shook my hand. ‘That way,’ he pointed. And away I drove.
This moment is forever branded in my mind and has yet to be replicated. I don’t know if it was the recent election of President Obama (which I think was a large player), or the large respect for the values of the country. Regardless, that one moment will stand out among the others as one I will never forget.