There are six kids at the table, five adults, and two more kids who are technically old enough to count as grown-ups. Three are black, two are colored, one has white hair, one has corn-rows, and one is bleached blonde. Ages 7 – 70. Ginger, the cat, is probably even older if there was such a thing like cat years. My aunt strokes him lovingly and declares that ‘Opa’, her husband, and Ginger have much in common: they both miss when they pee. Everybody roares with laughter, we are not used to her making fun on behalf of her husband, but even he chuckles and uses the incident as an excuse for another whiskey.
More insults, laughter, and burger buns are flying around the table. Now there is talk about Zuma and whether we should attend the #ZumaMustFall march the next day. Can a white person in this country support that claim or will you be called a racist? I also wonder if it makes me an opportunist to draw as much money as I can while the Rand is down.
Regular thoughts, regular discussions over dinner time. We are not especially politically correct except for our family constellation. If my family was a company we would get a really good BEE rating. As it is, none of us cares if the person next to us is black, white or purple as long as he or she doesn’t empty the ice cream tub completely.
Only when politics and its impact on South Africans of all colors come up, I sit back and listen more than I talk. While I do call this country my second home, it is technically not, so what do I really know of its issues? Even though my family is a micro rainbow nation in itself and a working one at that, I know we are still an exception.
Fast forward a few weeks and into the new year. My brother came for a visit and only left yesterday. I was so excited for him to come, but also, a bit anxious. He was last in South Africa about 12 years ago and I think he secretly vowed to never come back. Part of that were personal reasons and part of it was South Africa’s ‘fault’.
While it is one of the most stunning countries in the world, it is also a country still facing a lot of socioeconomic problems. Apartheid has been over for years, but its injustices still prevail and it can make visitors uncomfortable to watch. Get over yourself you may think, how uncomfortable must it be to live through those injustices and of course, you are right. However, I think we have all been in situations that are so far from our reality, our normality that we cringe. Sometimes there is just too much wrong in the world and presumingly too little can be done about it. Sometimes we cannot even handle being a visitor or an observer from the other side where the grass is green.
*We found a dead chameleon and where absolutely mesmerized that it kept a beautiful bright yellow color*
Some people get hit by this harder than others. My brother is very perceptive whereas certain people are very good at closing their eyes while they travel. Or rather they have a very selective vision, seeing only what they want to see. In Cape Town, that means they can admire the vista of Table Mountain, they see the bushes they put their golf ball in if it didn’t make it into the hole, and find 50 different shades of ocean blue. Nothing wrong with that but obviously there is so much more to the city. And unfortunately, part of it is not so nice, sometimes downright ugly.
I think as a traveler you have the responsibility to at least see that side too. Now I don’t say you have to like it or even act upon it (though that would be nice!), but at least, acknowledge it. I’ve always shied away from that silly debate of tourist versus traveler yet maybe I can make a distinction of taking a holiday versus traveling. A holiday is meant to be pleasant, relaxing, invigorating and traveling can, maybe should be work, educational at least. In a recent Travelettes post, I picked up on my notion that I hate travel and laid out 6 reasons why travel can break your heart. One of them is just that: ignorance is bliss and as soon as we travel with our eyes open we are forced to see. Ignorance is not an option anymore and the result can be truly heartbreaking.
Of course, I go on holiday too. I spend time at nice hotels, post cocktail pictures next to the pool, drink all the wine there is, and don’t have a care in the world. I won’t judge anyone for doing the same, but there comes a time when I want more. When I want to open my eyes and truly see. I want to ask questions, I want to learn, I want to take a look behind the shiny facade of a place. I think as travelers it is our job to try to understand a bit more, know a bit more, share a bit more, and ultimately make the world a better place. Mind you, maybe that is too much to ask for. Still, that aspiration is one of my reasons for traveling (and Pad Thai, of course, always Pad Thai!).
In Cape Town, you can do both. You can go and have the holiday of a lifetime and just close your eyes while you are driving along the N2 into town. That stretch usually gets visitors as there are several townships right next to the highway. What, poor people so close to my chic guesthouse? How come? Oh no, is there no other way to get there? No, there isn’t. So if you are on a holiday, I recommend you take a 20-minute nap. Your driver won’t mind, most likely he lives there but I am sure he is used to people closing their eyes upon seeing his home.
Of course, if you are an actual decent human being you won’t just close your eyes. You will chat to him, ask his name, where he is from and probably learn the name of his kids too. If you get lucky, he will tell you his favorite sights in town and the must-go beaches. After all, beaches are for everybody (though judging by recent holiday news some South Africans disagree).
With that said, yes, you can have a holiday here, but I think you should be a traveler too. Maybe even more. Maybe make South Africa your home while you are here and treat it accordingly: tread lightly, be polite, don’t presume, and don’t close your eyes when you see something unpleasant, but ask how you can help to make it better.
Further reading: One of my favorite South African blogs that muses about this country, its problems, its great coffee and what it means to live with both is Disco Pants & A Mountain. While Susan is a white expat living in Cape Town I think she writes incredibly insightful, humble and is funny.
However, some may say that she still writes from a point of white privilege (as do I for that matter). If you do, I would love recommendations for insightful blogs about South Africa by black writers.