I’ve been in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria for work this week. I’m pretty much here to talk to people and organizations about human rights in South Africa, and my overall impression is that this country is really hard.
I don’t mean that it’s callous (though sometimes it is), or inaccessible (though sometimes it is), but just that it’s really difficult. At every level and on every issue, it’s really tough to find a constructive or feasible—forget about ‘right’—way to do things. Race, gender, economics, work, culture: It’s all threaded with a history and a context that make it difficult to talk about and even more difficult to reconcile.
Obviously, it’s a totally fascinating place, and every conversation with someone who grew up here teaches you something you didn’t know. It’s my first trip to Africa, and I keep coming to little mini-piphanies every time I chat with someone longer than 10 minutes.
Being in public means looking over your shoulder, knowing who’s around you and being ready to act in extreme ways at any moment.
‘Be aware of your surroundings,’ my Serbian cabdriver told me as he drove me home at 2 am in Cape Town.
‘Everyone says that,’ I said. ‘But what are you supposed to do if you see something sketchy, or a potential thief approaches you?’
‘You must act,’ he said.
‘What, kick them in the nuts and run away?’ I said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘You must beat them. Strike fast, and when they are on the ground, kick them so they cannot get up.’
‘Holy shit, have you actually done this?’
‘Twice since the World Cup,’ he said. ‘And many before.’
‘Jesus,’ I said.
‘Yes, the soccer really calmed things down.’
A survey was published this week showing that blacks are victims of violence far more than whites. When we think of crime in South Africa, it’s tempting to think of a rich, white majority under siege by the poor, black masses, but it’s much more accurate to think of the whole country as living under house arrest.
I’ve never been to a place where I was so relentlessly encouraged to racially profile. My driver in Johannesburg warned me repeatedly about the ‘gormless Africans’ on the streets and in the shops. Even black people and ‘coloreds’ (that’s what they call mixed-race people here) warned me about this.
But it’s not as simple as saying that everyone is racist. People understand the plight of other racial groups, and the intense injustices under Apartheid are widely known and repented. It’s just that, as soon as the issue of security comes up, all the ‘rainbow nation’ stuff flies out the window.
It’s clear to me now that racial unity, and other lofty, logical principles are only valid as long as nothing is on the line. As soon as you’re in danger of losing your job, or walking down a deserted downtown street, you’re gonna do everything you can to keep yours, and look to members of your tribe for support.