Living In The Face Of South Africa’s Apartheid

Monday, April 8, 2013


After two weeks in the bounty of Cape Town, South Africa, I can safely say I’ve arrived home.

The depths of jet-lag got me out of bed just before dawn. I’ve fired up my laptop and I find myself typing amidst a flickering orange hue of a fire to my right; my two huskies lying at my feet. If I crane my neck enough, I can see dawn chasing off the blanket of sub-zero night, just enough to backlight the jagged profile of Montana’s Tobacco Root Mountains. If I lived anywhere else, I probably wouldn’t unpack my bags.

My fingers seem to take on a life of their own, dancing across the keyboard as if they were talking to me, rather than me creating words with my fingers: “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”

It seems as if my fingers possess a deeper knowledge of life than I do. Who knew?

When I read that quote, again and again, it begins to sink in. Traveling is sometimes reduced to ticking off destinations, getting stamps in your passport, obtaining trophies; even conquests to bring home and brag to others. To me, this defeats the entire reason to travel. To travel is to experience the world, to learn about the world and the many people we share it with. As a result — one can only hope — we learn about ourselves in the process.

These previous two weeks have been an outpouring of love and generosity from friends I thought I would never see again. In 2009, I left Korea when my teaching contract was finished. It also meant I was leaving those I had grown close to in my time there. It’s a common plight of ESL teachers and travelers alike. However, three years later, I found myself sleeping in their Cape Town loft, reunited.

This trip’s worth cannot be measured by mileage, souvenirs purchased or seeing those guidebook “must-see” sites. The value is found in the moments. The split-seconds when your heart flutters, when you’re overcome by thankfulness, the pang of insight, or when you connect with someone unexpectedly. Any trip, then, becomes memory grounded in whisps of lingering moments. It will be a fleeting fraction of real time that electrifies your cortex, returning you to the place and moment. The taste in your mouth becomes the revered wretchedness of three-year-old kimchi, the hardened earth under your feet is now flour-soft Boracay sand, or the feel of shade on a hot day takes you outside the former Race Classification Appeal Board building on Queen Victoria Street in Cape Town.

Slave Lodge Museum

Cape Town is one of the few cities on earth founded by a company, rather than “discovered” and claimed by a country. The Dutch East India Company established the colony as a refueling point along the sailing route around the southern tip of Africa. Cape Town started as a large scale farm — the Company Gardens — which restocked the ships docked in the waters of Table Bay. Soon, the company began enslaving people from Indonesia and Madagascar to meet the demand of the quickly growing colony. Slavery was established.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that before taking an impromptu walking tour of downtown Cape Town. Generally speaking, a walking tour of a town, any town, won’t be one of those incredible, awe-inspiring stories that transports you back decades later. Lucky for us, a good friend of our hosts, a successful guide in his own right, volunteered a day of his weekend to show us around. It was a wonderful gift. From the Castle of Good Hope to District Six, we heard the good, the bad and the heartbreaking events that occurred within a few square blocks of downtown.

We strolled passed a brightly painted Dutch-style building, one of the oldest in Cape Town, now the Iziko Slave Lodge. The building is a museum that exposes its original purpose: housing slaves before they were to be sold.

Down the block from the slave lodge stands a rather ordinary stone building. Bookended by generic ’70s modular architecture, the building gave off a former-governmental-structure vibe. Any other day I would have wandered right on by without giving a whisper of thought. On this day, that building became the moment.

The grey blocks making up the exterior were shaded and weathered, just another old building blending in with modern city life. We stopped in front of it, next to a bench and nearby plaque. I began to read:

In the 1960’s, a room in this building was the scene of formal hearings of the most bizarre and humiliating kind as ordinary people came before an appeal panel to argue about what “race” they should be labeled. Between 1950 and 1991, apartheid’s Population Registration Act classified every South African as belonging to one of seven”races” — and accordingly granted or denied them citizenship rights on a sliding scale from White (full rights) to Bantu (with the fewest). The classification was subjective and families were split apart when paler or darker skinned children or parents or those with curlier hair, or different features were placed in separate categories.

I looked closer at the bench and brushed away some dust: Whites Only. Perhaps six feet away, on the other side of the building’s entrance, was another bench: Non-Whites Only. Apartheid suddenly blindsided me; a heavy weight on my chest. It became real.

I could tell my wife’s realization, similar to mine. We looked at each other, our skin extra pale from the northern hemisphere winter, then to the group — all with deep-hued skin tones. It was just 21 years ago that we would have been forced to sit apart; forced to live separately. The quiet of realization rang like a gong inside my head. This was their life. Aside from their accents and superior style of clothes, the difference in our skin color hadn’t even entered my mind until now.

The moment.

Race Classification Board Plaque

Apartheid was the official policy of racial segregation practiced by South Africa’s government that included rigid political, legal and economic discrimination against non-whites. This officially came to an end in 1992, a mere 21 years ago. This discrimination has touched everyone I shared the sidewalk with. It has touched our friends’ lives. In many ways, this still is our lives.

I attempted to wrap my mind around it: If, by chance, I had met these people I have come to love while we were in junior high school, it couldn’t have happened — wouldn’t have happened. How have such generous, giving and thoughtful people escaped such evil to become beacons of light. Why don’t they hate me? The only possible answer is love and kindness. Sharing of love and kindness is more powerful than anything in the world.

My heart broke, and still does, for an entire people. Yet, simultaneously, I am comforted that our world, for the most part, is heading in a better direction.

I can easily say life would not be nearly as rich nor as beautiful without my Cape Town family. For two weeks, everyone there gave us so much of themselves, their time and their grace. They invited us into their homes, cooked and shared stories. Our friends are love, they are all that is good within the Rainbow Country.

Yes, we are different and that’s okay. In fact, that’s great. It makes the rainbow all that more beautiful. I really am the richest person in the world.

By Jon Wick

[Non-Whites Only Bench by KNewman1/Wikipedia]


About the Author

Jon lives in Butte, Montana, teaching in the Technical Communication department of Montana Tech and moonlighting as the owner of 5518 Designs. Between work, play, and his recent adventure into roasting coffee, Jon squeezes in family time on the trails with his wife Cassie and pair of huskies.  Catch more of Jon at (@ExpedJon)

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