A tale of two South Africas

For me travelling has been a way of life. When I was four, my parents decided that I wasn’t going to have a stable, cosy upbringing, surrounded by the comforting familiarity of the local chippy on the corner (that has been there since time began) or the knowledge that the friends I make in infant school will probably be my friends for life. My parents decided we would move country every five years, change schools every two years, move house at least once every full moon, and see the world in the process. So I’ve been brought up in the jungles of Zambia, the deserts of Botswana, the lush hills of Zimbabwe, and not forgetting the green grass of my “home town” in South Wales. I’ve seen the moon rise above the desert dunes and kopjes of Namibia, heard the cackle of a lone male hyena outside my bedroom window, and raised an ostrich from an egg. Although it had ultimately been my parent’s wanderlust that had driven us across international waters and country borders, and therefore their choice in destination, it was now my turn to independently track my own uncharted course across the surface of the earth, and therefore satisfying, temporarily, my inherited travelling bug in the process.

So after my G.C.S.E’S, I decided I’d got enough qualifications under my belt for now, and was going to travel. I don’t quite know how I persuaded my parents to let me go, but at the tender age of seventeen I packed my bags and set off as a volunteer to Johannesburg, South Africa.

Once there, I volunteered in “Amakhaya” which translated means homes for the homeless, a children’s Project aimed at housing street children, as well as caring for children orphaned and affected through HIV/AIDS.

I have to say that I had an easy life for a volunteer, I basically watched TV with the older toddlers (ninja turtles and some other action type programmes that kids worldwide seem to find enthralling for some unknown reason…) and helped put the younger children to bed by reading bedtime stories (ninja turtles and major world dominance type action once again)

Although it was an amazing experience, working with the orphans was emotionally draining. It became harder to adjust to the fact that although they were all so full of life and talked of becoming famous footballers and film stars, as kids do, they were naive to the fact that the disease that had taken the lives of their parents would condemn them to a life’s dependency on drugs that at best can only hold the disease at bay. Not something that you want to deal with at the age of five, which was the average age of the orphans in Amakhya. The AIDS epidemic is finally being addressed, however, and projects such as Amakhaya are on the front line, teaching awareness about the disease in schools and on the street, mainly working with volunteers.

There was another German volunteer, along with a French Mauritian volunteer, and two South African girls volunteering at the same time as me. One of the South African girls, who lived locally, asked if I wanted to spend the weekend with her family, and as I was extremely tired of eating peanut butter sandwiches I jumped at the chance at getting a home cooked meal. That was before she told me she lived in Soweto, the notorious ghetto township of Southern Africa. I was slightly apprehensive at that point.

Soweto is a former township from the times of Apartheid, and is where around two million people now live. Soweto was created out of the segregation act of 1948, when the system of apartheid was set up, that turned 20 million people into second class citizens because of their colour. Black South Africans had separate buses, schools, shops and even beaches, to the White South Africans, and it was always second rate. Apartheid was only got rid of in 1994 with the election of President Nelson Mandela, who, by the way, has a house in Soweto that is now a major tourist attraction.

Although you would think that the atmosphere in a place that has such a painful history of abuse and racial discrimination would be of hate, I have to say it felt the complete opposite. The people living in Soweto seemed ready to forgive the past, or at least not dwell on it, and move forward. I was, however, given strange looks from other South Africans, especially the white South Africans, who I told about my weekend stay in Soweto. They didn’t think a white, seventeen year old girl could survive in such an infamous township. However, I felt completely safe and never felt in any danger the whole weekend (could have been me being naive mind…. I am British)

Everyone in my friend’s family had at least two gold teeth, even her mother, although her mother was going for the subtle “glint of gold” look. I felt a bit out of place with my boring whites, and could have got talked into knocking a few teeth out to make room for some bling.  One night I went with my friend, her boyfriend and his mates to KFC and I had to sit in the middle of the backseat- apparently it has been known for white girls to be pulled from the car in the hope of grabbing a handbag, but I think they just both wanted the window seat. That night I ate KFC chicken wings and played card games with them, as they gambled their wages, teeth and mothers away, with varied success. Although it wasn’t a very financially profitable night for me, I have to say that I felt completely at home, and was one on of the best memories I took back with me.

I also stayed the weekend with another of the volunteers, a white South African born and bred in Pretoria, the cosmopolitan capital of South Africa. She lived in typical suburbia, with whitewashed houses and manicured lawns, and there wasn’t a gold tooth in sight. Instead of a KFC and card game, we went to a nightclub were they searched everyone, not for drugs and the occasional hipflask, but for handguns with names such as Kimber Raptor II and Detonics CombatMaster. I’d felt safer in the Sowetan ghetto to be honest. Never the less, I survived the night without a single shootout (they were having a good week apparently) we then went to stay in the university halls of my mate’s boyfriend, and I had my first real taste of the underlying racisms that still exists in South Africa, and surprisingly, it was from a white south African, rather than a Black South African, who were at the receiving end of the past racial discrimination.  This young South African thought segregation was the only way to build a better South Africa (mind you, he did have a poster of Hitler on his wall and a swastika as his screen saver…)

Although there will inevitably be strong feelings of opposition towards change and to compromise, as such a history is hard to forgive and forget, such obvious racism and hatred are becoming less of a way of life for most South Africans, and is fading along with the politically motivated graffiti that spoke for a past era.

The trip completely changed my outlook on South Africa, with the stunning landscape, fascinating cultures and the proud people that share the land. It’s also incredible, and uplifting, how a country can survive such segregation and hatred and attempt to start over again.


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