Race in South Africa

My first week in South Africa I met Tessa, the strong-willed director of the Blue Roof Clinic.  She invited me into her office, and thanks to the other students’ warnings, I was prepared for her quizzing on South Africa, HIV, and healthcare.  What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the statement she made just five minutes into our conversation: “Apartheid, you know, wasn’t so bad.”

It was all I could do to keep my jaw shut, as I racked my brain for anything good I had ever learned about the oppressive racist system and came up with nothing.

Tessa is colored, and although that term has a derogatory history in the US, it is a completely valid identity classification in South Africa, used to describe the group of people of mixed (white and black) descent1.  During apartheid, the white minority was given the highest forms of privilege; below them, the colored, followed by the Indian population, and finally the black Africans.  Tessa elaborated on her claim about the racist system, saying “It kept people like each other together, and they lived in the same communities and knew each other and protected each other.”  As she continued, I tried my best to understand where she was coming from.  Through not entirely free by any means under the apartheid government, the coloreds enjoyed more freedom than the blacks and the Indians.  The ingrained racism of the system no doubt led to the colored’s own ingrained interpretations, becoming more suspicious of blacks as it allowed them a certain degree of superiority.  And since the end of apartheid, crime has risen dramatically.  Though there are some very good sociological explanations of this, such as poverty and lack of social mobility opportunities, it is possible to understand how South Africans might just make the simple link between freedom and more crime and feel that one directly caused the other.

It turned out that Tessa wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  Roy, who drove me back and forth to the hospital and clinics everyday, felt similarly.  “Now you get blacks marrying Indians, and coloreds marrying whites, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” he told me.  Roy had a cadre of advice that always centered on race, such the warning that black men, because they were free, might think that they could approach me on the street and “be fresh”.  He actually prided himself on being able to tell people’s countries of origins, a system he developed based on stereotypes that allowed him to further segregate, pushing immigrants from Zimbabwe and Malawi to the very bottom of the social ladder.  As the weeks went by, I came to dread these car rides and the inevitable tide of stories and warnings about people identified only by their race. 

When I met some friendly young Zulu guys working at Moses Mabhida that were interested in discussing politics, I asked them about the apartheid-wasn’t-all-bad-statement. They laughed.  “Who told you that? Some whites? It was bad, man, it was bad.”  It was clear they didn’t share Tessa’s and Roy’s sentiments, but it was also clear that they still found race to be a dividing factor.  I asked the guys about President Zuma, who Tess and Roy had told me was corrupt.  “They don’t like him ‘cause he’s Zulu,” they told me. “Our last two presidents were Xhosa.  But everyone hates the Zulus.”  When I changed the subject to sports, they chattered happily about AmaZulu, Durban’s soccer team, but in reference to the Shark’s, Durban’s rubgy team, they told me “Rugby is mostly for whites.”

Leaving the stadium, I was approached by a haggard young white man who offered me a cross made of palm and asked for a donation to help keep him off the streets.  I obliged and told him the cross was beautiful, a compliment he evidently took as an invitation to friendship.  As he walked with me along the path, he shared a bit of his story, explaining that he was trying to make money to take care of himself and his girlfriend while saving up bus fare to go home, but times were tough.  “You know,” he said, “there aren’t a lot of jobs.  And ever since freedom came here, blacks are taking jobs, and there aren’t enough for the white people.” I simmered, knowing the unemployment rate of black Africans in South Africa was multiple times higher than that of whites, but said nothing2 as my companion continued chatting.  “Some people say there might be a war here, and the blacks would win because they outnumber us.  But you know what? I know we’d win, because we’ve got brains.  They can’t beat that.”

It was not these abhorrent outright statements, however, that bothered me the most. I found myself collectively more flabbergasted by the subtle racist undertones of everyday conversation, and the constant references to color, made by almost everyone I met. “Oh, you’re at King Edward? Lots of blacks there.” In four months, I saw one interracial couple.  They sat on the same side of the table at a rotating restaurant, and it could have been my imagination, but the Indian wait staff seemed somewhat less friendly towards them than they did towards me.   As I traveled through the areas around Durban, I came to realize that each was closely associated with race – Chatsworth was full of Hindu temples and people of Indian descent.  Umhlanga Ridge, the high-class beach town that boasted Land Rover and BMW dealerships, was almost entirely white.  The townships were still reserved almost exclusively for blacks, and a large population of colored people lived in Bluff.  Anywhere I went, the crowd around me was invariably monochrome.

Nelson Mandela called South Africa “the rainbow nation” and unfortunately he couldn’t have picked a more accurate metaphor.  Like a rainbow, the people of South Africa segregate by color, aligning themselves in proximity to each other, but with little to no mixing of races. I imagine Mandela’s vision for South Africa was not this rigid rainbow, but more of a mosaic, a mixing and blending of races to create a stronger nation.  I can’t pretend that my own surroundings and social circles always resemble such a mosaic.  After all, my undergraduate college was largely white, as is the neighborhood I grew up in.  But never before have I found myself in such a stringently divided environment, surrounded by people so pre-occupied with race.  When I went to an area dominated by whites, people gave me little notice.  When I went to an area dominated by Africans, however, I got stares and some even stopped me, wanting to take my picture on their cell phones.

The memory of apartheid is still very fresh in the minds of many South Africans, and I’ve reminded myself of the long transformation the US has taken, from abolition to civil rights to affirmative action, and still we struggle with equality.  And there are, of course, exceptions to the divisions I witnessed in the hospital.  At Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, linked to King Edward Hospital, I saw white students from Germany studying with Zulus and Indians alike, seemingly united in the quest of intellectualism.  Hopefully it will be this youthful generation who begins to break the rainbow, working toward a mosaic nation.


1. As a fun aside – A book I read about HIV in South Africa explained the development of the colored race like this; “In the early 1600s white settlers joined the black Africans, and a generation later there were colored people.”


2. I don’t usually condone this, and believe it’s good to speak up when you can.  However, I was a woman, alone by myself, being followed by this somewhat desperate man.  For the sake of safety, I kept my mouth shut until I could excuse myself and head into a shop.


One thought on “Race in South Africa

  1. wow, I am shocked. I just don’t know how best to describe my reaction here. As a South African Indian Muslim who grew up and lived in Durban until last year, I moved to CT, I am sorely disappointed and almost embarrassed at what you’ve had to hear from people of different races. I always had this hope inside that racism is slowly dying out and people can live with each other without allowing race to get in the way of anything. Sadly, it’s taking much longer than I thought.

    I admit, there is a lot of frustration in the hearts of South Africans, regardless of race, and each of their frustrations are somehow linked to the Apartheid era or the end of Apartheid. But it seems as though not enough is being done to move forward and think more clearly, without bias.

    Anyway, I still have hope. Always will.

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