Thursday, July 8, 2010

South Africa: First Impressions

One of the first things you notice about South Africa when you come off the plane is the fences. Not nice white picket fences lining green lawns, but walls with solid metal fences toped with vicious looking spikes. If I was to start a business in Johannesburg I would go into the fencing business. Everywhere you go you'll see large fences, some topped with spikes, some with razor wire, some with electric wire, some with a combination. People are quite serious about their fencing here.

The country seems to be one with contrasting extremes as harsh and abrupt as the fencing. In a short drive through Joburg you can go from a nice neighborhood, to grassy fields (in the winter often burnt or burning), to large mansions, and then suddenly to low income housing and shanty towns.

South Africa seems to be correctly named the "Rainbow Nation," because like a rainbow, everybody fits into a distinct color. You have English speaking whites, Afrikaans, Colored, Indians, and Blacks. And more or less everyone seems to fit into one of these categories. If the apartheid had its way then the fencing would still keep these colors apart, as it is the colors are bleeding together slowly.

I'm not trying to sound negative, far from it. South Africa is a diverse and wonderful country filled with diverse and amazing people. And its amazing to see how far the country has come in such a short period of time. The apartheid is recent history, just over 15 years gone. To contrast that with racial change in the United States, it was nearly a century after slavery was abolished before the black civil rights movement really picked up any ground. That said, there is still along way to go.

If you ask a South African their opinion of their country almost everyone will answer that they love their country. If you ask a South African their opinion of where their country is headed then it really seems to depend on whether they are an optimist or a pessimist. The country has its fair share of problems that nobody can deny. You have a government struggling with corruption and at times competency. Theres a poor majority with an unemployment rate that, if found in America, would seem to indicate the end of the world. There are also some pretty rough numbers in terms of violent crimes (especially rape) and then of course AIDS.

So ask the pessimist. He'll tell you that you have a wealthy minority paying all the taxes, but then the corrupt and incompetent government isn't even getting most of that money where it needs to go (toward development of housing and education in the low-income areas). Unfortunately this is the same government that the poor majority keeps voting in. He'll also point out that affirmative action is making it harder for whites to get jobs and lowering the quality of the schools. The result is that more and more of the educated population is looking overseas for work and to raise their families.

What about the optimist? He won't deny the problems, but will point out that there has been lots of progress and good accomplished since the apartheid. Corruption is slowly being weeded out of the government by the judicial system. And in general relations between races is good. This is especially apparent in recent sporting events. The World Cup more or less has gone very smoothly and everyone has been very friendly, tourists will certainly be returning home with positive reviews. In Soweto, a black township near Johannesburg, rugby games are being hosted for the tri-nations cup while all the stadiums in Pretoria and Joburg are being used for the World Cup. Rugby is historically a white South African sport and Soccer a black South Africa sport. In the last month everyone in South Africa has become a soccer fan and a Bafana supporter. In Soweto the blacks have become great hosts and even fans alongside the Afrikaans rugby supporters.

So sure there's social, political, and economic problems, most countries have these. But South Africa is a country with great spirit. They've overcome great obstacles that have torn apart other nations, and they will continue to progress.

Lots of new pictures up!

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