Disclaimer: please note that all of the reflections and opinions in this post come from my own personal experiences, and understanding. They do not represent the opinions and position of the other interns, local residents nor the organizations that I am working for.
It is hard to believe that it has already been two months since I moved to South Africa. Most of the time has been spent working at Slang, and the free time divided between yoga and the booming social life I am trying to maintain.
A week ago we were invited to a parkrun, which is an international event that takes place weekly in various parks all over the world. While running is definitely not my physical activity of choice, I decided to join as it was an excuse to get out of town and check out the Midlands (local countryside). The invitation came from a fellow South African hiker of colonial descent whom I had met in the Drakensberg mountains the previous weekend. Upon arrival to the site where the parkrun was to take place I was shocked with the feeling of being transported to a scene I have experienced many times before in homogeneous western countries. Out of the one hundred or so participants that showed up for the race I could not spot a single black African face, all of the attendees were of white colonial South African descent. This may not come as shock for those of you living or interacting in predominantly white societies, but considering that 80 percent of South Africa’s population is made up of blacks, and after living in a full Zulu immersion for two months and coming across an average of 10 white faces a week, I was startled, to say the least when I realized how many white people lived in Pietermaritzburg. More questions arose as I was trying to make sense of what I was seeing: Where are these people during the day? Why do I never see them? Why aren’t there any black people running with us when I see them running along the streets every day? Would the attendance or participation change if there were native Africans running with us?
This was not the first time I took part in an event that was attended exclusively or mainly by white people. And every time I experienced the same shock followed by the same questions. Also, how do the representatives of both races know which event will be attended by who, there are no signs anywhere that forbid the attendance of any individual. This led me to wonder whether although apartheid has ended at the political level, social segregation has been internalized and continues to infiltrate every aspect of private lives.
I did a little qualitative research and luckily people were very welcoming towards my questions and open in their responses. I interviewed a total of 10 people or so, with equal representation of both races and everyone has identified the same two main reasons:
- Cultural preferences: based on past socialization, cultural interests, upbringing, and class, the majority of individuals of a given race prefer to attend certain cultural or musical events that the other race may not be interested in or have access to.
- Internalized segregation: due to years of forced apartheid, the interests and the cultures were further divided and certain sports, music and arts were associated and labelled with a specific race. Although apartheid is no longer, the segregation on the social level persists. Furthermore certain individuals still feel resentment towards other races and would not attend events that they associate with that race. Currently, although the races are interacting on a daily basis in public, the private lives are often maintained separate.
It saddens and fascinates me to be a witness of racial social segregation to this extent, but we must remember that this is a young country and the wounds are still fresh. On a brighter note changes are happening, and they are happening fast. Just this weekend I attended an arts event in Durban that displayed a higher degree of social racial integration. Furthermore all of the interviewees expressed hope, excitement and love for their country and its future. I feel very lucky to be able to talk openly about these issues with all South Africans and peel off the complex sociopolitical layers.