Friday, August 13, 2010

Last day in Pretoria

Today I leave the “work” part of South Africa. I will spend a few days in Cape Town for my “vacation” time, and then fly back to the states.

As I am packing up the studio, I am feeling a little choked up and teary for sure. And needing to record, for the final time, some of my thoughts about South Africa (I expect that when I get to cape town, it is going to be a very different experience than it is here).

South Africa is a country of great contrasts. It is a country of great diversity, but that diversity seems polarized. Half the country is living in wealth, in areas that you would not be able to tell are NOT in the United States, and half lives in abject poverty. You can drive just a few kilometers and go from seeing gorgeous, mansion-like houses, to viewing the “townships” – basically squatter camps where people live in shacks with corrugated tin roofs, without running water or electricity.

In addition to the divide between rich and poor, there is the divide between modern and traditional. Parts of South Africa have very modernized medicine, yet many patients still mix this with traditional medicine men/women. There is an advanced system of roads and freeways, yet you often find to get to the poorer people you are suddenly on dirt roads. Many of the people in South Africa have cars, but the majority of the people in the lower socioeconomic class still walks to work (or rides in packed vans/backs of trucks). And as you are driving down the freeway, you may, in the same line of vision, see a brand new, luxurious BMW driving, as you see a woman walking, in traditional African dress, balancing her load on her head.

I love that there are still glimpses of the traditional culture here- the way women wrap their heads, the way they carry their babies, the way they carry their loads balanced on their heads, and I hope that these things are not lost if the economic divide begins to shrink (IF it does, I am being a tad optimistic here).

The country is one of the conquerors and the conquered, and you see evidence of that everywhere. First, there were the native blacks. Then the Dutch, who colonized cape point (and somewhat drove out the blacks) when they were looking to create a stopping point for the ship lines of the Dutch India Tea Company. Later, the British colonized this point, and drove the Dutch further inland. Isolated, and second class citizens, their dutch developed into its own dialect, “Afrikaans,” and they developed their own isolated culture. In their own minds (and probably in the structure of society at the time), they were inferior to the british, yet superior towards the blacks. So everyone lived in their own, enclosed communities, with their own rank in mind, and their own structure of society.

Then, in more recent years, with the ending of apartheid, the black culture is being again recognized. Town names are reverting from their Afrikaans names to African names (which honestly, is a bit confusing when you are driving somewhere, and trying to keep your directions straight. They don’t label their freeways north/south/east/west here, it is labeled by which city you are going towards). These constant changes continue to give one the impression that the power structure is constantly shifting – the conquerors and the conquered.

It seems that little has changed in this segregation. The neighborhood in Pretoria where the UCSD studio is located, is largely Afrikaans. Gorgeous homes, yet each is enclosed by automatic gates, topped with an electric fence. Security guards patrol the streets. And in between the locked fortresses, black people roam – going from job to job, selling brooms, etc. And I wonder – how must that feel to be a black person wandering the streets, distanced from homes by electric fences – is the implication that the Afrikaaners are trying to keep them out? Yet they are let in for short periods of time to clean or garden. It is so striking to see, and so disturbing. One of my co-workers said something to the effect of “the racial tension is so dense and near the surface, you feel like it is going to break out at any second.” Although I feel that is a tad dramatic, I know what she means. People are civil to each other, but live in their own isolated bubbles, with visible structures to keep it that way.

I don’t mean to over-generalize and say that there is no mixing between cultures, or that every black is pushed down by the man into a lower socioeconomic status. There are plenty of black African physicians, some of whom work in I-TECH, but even in that, I sense a cultural divide within the company. Not even necessarily a hateful or prejudiced one, but definitely people coming from completely different racial/cultural worlds, and sometimes not knowing how to interact or communicate effectively with each other.

There is also the “coloured” race here- further evidence of mixing. Here, “coloured” is not a derogatory term, as it may be in the United States. It is a description of a “new race” – people who are half white and half black. Almost as the “mestizo” or Mexican people group developed.

But yes, certainly a mix of things, certainly a country of contrasts. Makes you feel a tad schizophrenic while you are here, not being able to reconcile the 2 worlds you are seeing.

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