I remember, not a long time ago on my first trip to Africa, I was visiting Ghana after having spent three months living with a host family in a small town in Benin. I knew arriving in Ghana that it was a wealthier country than Benin – much wealthier by some standards – and my arrival in Accra, the capital, certainly gave me that impression. Paved roads in much better condition than those in Benin, people walking briskly down the street in smart clothing – as if going to work, as if they might really be employed – even a new shopping mall under construction just on the outskirts of town, like a real American suburban big-box complex. The street food tasted a bit better, was a bit more complex. There was a choice at the breakfast stands between brown bread and white, instead of just white like in Benin. Things looked like they were going a bit better here. But then I spent another three weeks traveling in Ghana from north to south, and I saw that things really weren’t that different. In fact, they somehow seemed worse – the country itself was wealthier with better infrastructure, but many people – outside of the capital and also within it, once you just looked a bit closer – looked just as poor as the average person in Benin did. It wasn’t unlike anything I’d seen in Benin at all on a daily basis, even lived in. But it somehow was just as shocking. A wealthier country, with few of the higher living standards for the general population that are meant to accompany a higher GDP. Things were even more expensive – everyday things like soap and bananas! As my Beninese friend said when he came to Ghana with me, “It’s as if this country’s government is mocking its people.”
Poverty existing in the midst of great wealth – it seemed ridiculous, and I felt ashamed knowing that my country, Canada, one of the most privileged and wealthiest in the world, also contained poverty. I just hadn’t it because it wasn’t as prevalent, and I hadn’t thought much about it because hey – if you’ve got the majority of the country living comfortably, it can’t be that bad, right? But it is bad. It’s worse. Because when the country’s rich, there shouldn’t be any reason for anyone to be poor.
During three months in South Africa, I’ve had the privilege to live with a host family in Khayelitsha but also to see Cape Town thoroughly, as well as to visit the famously beautiful Garden Route a bit further up the coast in a land dominated by white Afrikaners. I’ve got to see the Cape Winelands and the true cape itself in Simon’s Town, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg. Everywhere South Africa surprised me and shocked me.
I’d never seen true shantytowns – officially called “informal settlements” – before coming here. I certainly could have never imagined what Khayelitsha really looks like – a sea of metal shacks, stretching as far as the eye can see. Some neighbourhoods are a bit better off than others – a bit safer, cleaner, situated away from major highways and lucky to have legally-obtained electricity in their homes. Maybe they’re only sharing one toilet between 5 families, instead of between 10 like many do. I never could have truly imagined the sheer numbers of people living in woefully inadequate housing in this country.
Traveling around a bit, you realize you never actually get away from it: you might find yourself in a white, wealthy, colonial-style town one moment, but before you know it you’ve passed it by and are now flying by a crowding of shacks populated mostly by black people, right beside you on the highway. You go in and out this way as you drive – one moment you feel like you could be in a Mediterranean town in the south of France, the next moment you’re back in the poverty, the lifestyle that unfortunately dominates the country.
This has been the value of being in South Africa for me. In other, poor countries, you are always surrounded by very poor people living in sometimes terrible conditions – and you spend so much time around it that yes, it’s true – you get used to it, you actually do. You stop staring and thinking “Wow” or “Thank god that’s not my life” and you stop really noticing it at all. This happened to me during my first few weeks in Khayelitsha, before I went anywhere else. But the gift of South Africa, for a privileged white Canadian like myself, is that the country will always remind you that no, this isn’t normal.
You enter into a rich white neighbourhood and you remember: this isn’t okay. You enter into a shantytown and you think the same thing. You’re offered a juxtaposition you don’t often get on a daily basis in Canada, you’re offered a constant reminder of the extremes that exist and how really not okay they are.
It’s a country where you can’t pretend you don’t know about differences in class and wealth. You can’t pretend you don’t notice that most of the poor people are not white and that most of the wealthy people are, so it doesn’t let you ignore the role that race plays in all of this. You can’t get used to it – you can’t ever think that one of the two lifestyles, rich or poor, is “normal” because going back-and-forth between the two always makes you feel that something is not quite right about either of them. And certainly there is something wrong with the fact that they exist right beside each other.
I often feel like there is a bit of a cruel joke being played on the people of Khayelitsha, like maybe there is a bit of “mockery” going on as my friend suggested in Ghana. The first time I took a taxi to Cape Town, a beautiful and engaging city and a tourism capital of the country, I was surprised at how quick the trip was – only about twenty minutes. It was so close! And so cheap (for me) – only about R12 one way, or a little under $2. Then I thought about how someone from Khayelitsha would think of that R24 – most people would maybe never go to town if they lived in a shack, lacked employment, were old or sick or supporting an entire family. Then we went to Robben Island, former prison to many of the country’s most famous political prisoners, including Mandela, and it cost each of us R220 – about $30. I thought about how many South Africans, especially people of colour, would ever afford to go there – many black people who might have been right there in the freedom fight of past decades, and perhaps their children and grandchildren, would be denied visiting that symbolic site because of its unaffordable cost.
I was also surprised when I found out the cost of taking the bus into the city – at peak hours, Khayelitsha to Claremont, a suburb of Cape Town, can cost up to R20 or just under $3 – the same price of a bus trip in many cities in Canada. I realized how relatively astronomic was the price of the monthly bus pass my host mother paid for in order to get to Oranjezicht in Cape Town each day for work.
“You didn’t know?” she said when I told her how expensive I thought it was. “You know, in South Africa we’re working for our transport money.” Khayelitsha started as a place where black people were forced to relocate during apartheid, to get them away from the nicer spots in the Cape Town area where white people wanted to live. Then they were kept there by pass laws and by the fact that in those days police were paid to keep the races separate from each other. In many ways, it’s still not that easy to leave. Maybe the pass laws are gone, apartheid is over. But do people in Khayelitsha have all of their universal human rights – notably reasonable access to clean water, and freedom of movement? Not really. Maybe on paper, but certainly not in practice. If you can’t afford movement, you don’t really have that freedom.
I have learned in Khayelitsha that dismantling apartheid and implementing equality policy for all was only the beginning. Like the federal government’s apology to Aboriginal peoples in Canada for the assimilationist policy, forced relocation and residential schools of the past, the act of dismantling apartheid policy was just the act of stopping the dig. Segregation and apartheid in South Africa were just years of the country digging itself into a deep ugly hole. Once you stop digging you still have to find a way out.
Maybe because of their country’s painful past, I’ve found there is a humility and frankness in South Africans of all colours. In some ways, I’ve also been surprised by how much progress has been made here – there is at once more and less segregation that I imagined, and while white and coloured South Africans seem appalled at the idea that our group spent three months in Khayelitsha (“And you have no security with you?!”), the fact that we are able to come here and live very safely is quite different than how things might have been ten years ago.
South Africa truly is blessed with so many amazing things – resources, climate, stunning natural geography, interesting, ancient and diverse cultures, warm and friendly people, and everything you could ever want as a tourist. Sometimes when I look at the realities of Khayelitsha, all I can think is, What a shame that this poverty can still exist here. But I also loved my experience here because of the gift of Khayelitsha – the reminder that when we go home, we have to keep our eyes open for what is wrong in our own communities and countries, not to overlook it because sometimes in Canada, unlike in South Africa, we can overlook it.