South Africa – First cultural report.

Though it’s been 15 years since the fall of the Apartheid Regime and 13 years since the ANC got the power of government after the first ever democratic election in South Africa, it is still very much influenced by thinking in “races”. During the Apartheid period South Africa was subdivided into 4 racial groups: Africans (blacks), Coloureds (all mixes of 2 or more races), Indians/Asians and Whites, and the vast majority of South Africans still identify themselves by those labels, but more importantly, they still regard the other racial groups as different from themselves in terms of both their culture, their language, their behaviour and their view of the world.

I asked a young black woman about growing up during Apartheid. She replied that there hadn’t been too much of it where she grew up because she grew up in Port Elisabeth during the 1980’ies, where the Apartheid regime slowly but surely was coming to its end and where they actually in certain places already, experimentally, were mixing the different races, but did add that her mother had not only told her about bees and flowers and men and women, but had told her about bees and flowers, men and women and white people.

Most racial groups have extremely stereotypical prejudices about the other racial groups. One of my neighbours, who’s an Indian/Asian, once commended with truckloads of certainty that “Blacks are never shy” – we were talking about his housemate Chris, who’s black and very shy. However, this young man was sure that Chris had manipulated me into believing in his alledged shyness, “because no Blacks are that way”. And after Apartheid there are very strong, unwritten rules about who’s allowed to generalise about who. For Whites generalising about Blacks is Taboo, whereas the other racial groups can voice a bit of prejudice against each other without causing a social faux-pas, and it is perfectly all right for Blacks to generalise about Whites. But everybody has prejudice against each other anyway and the only effect the Taboos have is to limit where or in which company you voice your prejudice.

The Whites have a more “European” approach to the relations between men and women, by which I mean that they’re open to Platonic friendships between men and women, they do not expect the man to provide for the woman and they base their relationships on how you get along as opposed to income group, status symbols or whatever. Most of the Blacks who live in the same compound as me are completely uncomprehending of my friendships with men and seem to think that it’s immoral of me to let my male friends crash in my spare bedroom. Some of them even suggest that I’m actually sleeping with all of my male friends. There’s no working public transport in  South Africa, and it’s hard to get anywhere after 19h00 unless you have a car, which means that it’s very normal to have people staying over. But even still, my black neighbours think that this is completely different if the friend in question is of the opposite gender.

My closest colleagues, whom I share my office with, are 3 young, Black men and one young Black woman. The 3 guys often discuss how you just can’t get a girlfriend unless you have a car, a solid education and money. They’re worried that with the Affirmative Action (the Equality Police of the ANC Government) the Black women are going to get the better jobs, and then how will they ever get a girlfriend? It seems as well that the predominant view on relationships among Black women dictates that you just cannot have a man who earns less than yourself. Unfortunately I do not deal so much with Coloureds and Indian/Asians that I can say for sure how they regard these things.

The newest statistics that I have seen are from 2001, from the latest census that was carried out. According to this census the Blacks are still the least educated, poorest, most underprivileged in terms from everything from employment to access to running water and electricity, but it’s hard to get an idea of what the situation really is, because the impression you get about South Africa is hugely dependent on who you’re talking to.

If you ask the Whites, they think that the policies of the ANC Government is some sort of “Black Apartheid” and that this policy gives preferential treatment to the Blacks. What they’re talking about is the Affirmative Action, a job market policy aiming at eliminating all discrimination on account of race, gender, religious view, HIV status or sexual orientation. Affirmative Action dictates a lot of quotas, which forces companies to hire Blacks to fulfil them. This also means that for a White, especially a white man above the age of 40, chances are that you’ll never get another job if for some reason you become unemployed. At least not unless you have really good connections.

If you ask the Blacks, they’ll tell you that it’s the Whites who have all the opportunities. They have the connections it takes to get a good job and the good nepotistic liaisons because they had all the benefits of Apartheid, they have better education, make more money and so on. They Blacks make up more than 80 % of the population, and the latest goal, the CSIR had decided on, was a quota of 28 % Black scientists. They actually managed to get more than 30 %, and everybody thought that this was one helluvan achievement. For the sake of justice I have to add that in South Africa, getting qualified labour is very difficult no matter what colour your candidates are. South Africa is still to a large extend a developing country and experiences the same problems of brain drain as all other developing countries.

One very obvious flip side to Affrimative Action is that Black students at the South African universities come with funds from the government, while White, Indian/Asian and Coloured students don’t. Because of the aftermath of the Bantu Education (the educational system under Apartheid, which aimed at giving the Blacks a second degree education which wasn’t up to scratch) and the fact that the high school area have more or less been ignored, nothing much has been done in order to get more young Blacks to study, and a lot of faculties cannot get the money they need, simply because there are not enough Black students to attract. The Government doesn’t show any kind of appreciation of this kind of problems. And no matter how skilled a Black scientist is, people will always think that this person got his or her position because of the skin colour rather than the skills.

Even though the truth and Reconciliation Committee tried to bridge the gaps and heal the wounds after Apartheid, there are still huge differences, both real and imaginary, between the different race groups in South Africa. When worse comes to worst it sparks atrocities and ill will based solely on your skin colour, which ends up sounding like a cuss word, but this doesn’t normally surface without some initial tension. The vast majority of South Africans are open minded, friendly, helpful and interested in getting to know you and understand a bit about the place that you’re from. They’ll be happy to tell you about their won country, too, though the opinions on status quo differ.