I have always thought of South Africa as a country whose history paralleled my own, and that by virtue of being black and conscious in America, I would possess some innate ability to “understand” or empathize with blackness in the South African context. When I arrived to Arniston, a small fishing village three hours outside of Cape Town, this ill-informed idea was met with a brutal awakening: The totality of South Africa’s history is an expanse wide and complex enough to swallow me and my preconceived notions whole.
Arniston is a village of rolling white sands and bright blues, nestled along the shores of South Africa’s Western Cape. Arniston’s history is interlaced into its small, but intricately woven social network; with a total population of just over 1200, the same three founding fishing families have governed industry and civic engagement since its foundation. The inhabitants of this village have historically been colored, and many have worked for generations in industries – such as tourism and domestic service – that overwhelmingly prioritize the needs of wealthy, white tourists and foreign landholders over those of colored locals. Many such locals say that the only thing that changed after the end of Apartheid was the physical removal of the fence that separated white beach-goers from those who were colored and black.
Racism, discrimination, and segregation – explicitly mandated or otherwise – for me, are not new concepts.
I am a daughter of parents whose history was swallowed whole by the raging Middle Passage to America, whose near ancestors bore the weight of whips, chains, and violent subjugation for generations. Today I feel this burden of being black in a world raging against my own existence, in an entirely new and violent way. I go to school, study, and travel, holding my breath in hopes that back home my father will not lose his temper with anyone in public – and certainly not with anyone white or in police uniform – and that my mother will never find herself pulled over to the side of the road for speeding or for driving with even the most slightly damaged tail light.
I was raised during the age of computers, smart phones, and social media, a world in which the recorded murders of Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philandro Castile, Shelly Frey, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, and countless others flood my ears and my mouth with the sounds of falling bodies. These are the bodies of people who look just like me, greeting me in my morning news reports and sending me to bed via my Facebook news feeds.
As a young black woman travelling in a world in which ideology knows no borders, I understand that racism is not new for me, and it certainly is not new for Arniston.
I see the poor, black Washington, D.C. neighborhoods I journeyed through every morning to high school mirrored in the informal settlements of the Western Cape. I see my cousins in the sun-kissed, radiant brown skin of children laughing and playing in Arniston’s streets. I see my father in my host dad as he takes his mountain of morning hypertension pills, and I hear the impassioned voices of American rap music alongside the rhythmic beats and wobbling knees of South African music video dancers, gliding across my home television screen. If I let myself slip blissfully into the familiar, it can, at times, feel exactly like home.
And then, there are moments when I can’t help but feel that those of South Africa are suffering a burden that we African-Americans cannot even begin to fathom. It is true that we were enslaved and torn from our homes, our roots, and our civilizations, wrecked for the sake of European imperialism at the cost of the near-extinction of indigenous peoples, and then “freed” and told by many to stop crying and fall in line with an alleged post-racial America. Yet, the indigenous communities of South Africa were raped within their own homeland. Virtually all of this land, its resources, and its substance for livelihood were violently stolen from the very hands of its owners and then paraded in front of them, separated only by a town or fence.
What does it mean for 90 percent of the population to be crowded into 10 percent of its original land, and for the end of Apartheid, according to many native South Africans, to have changed absolutely nothing for the better? What does it mean to have townships in comparable or worse condition than when under Apartheid rule? What does it mean to have your water drained from your land and circulated through a visible pipe to the next, whiter and more affluent town over, the remaining droplets rationed out amongst your larger and higher-suffering neighborhood?
This is a reality that I cannot, in any true or authentic way, even begin to fathom – and it is only a scratch upon the surface of generations and generations of legally legitimized racial subjugation – a history which I, as an outsider, cannot possibly understand.
Living during this brief but immensely meaningful period in South Africa has enabled me to see that, regardless of apparent similarity or eager intent, one can never truly understand any lived experience other than his or her own. I cannot know what it is like to be black in South Africa simply by virtue of being black elsewhere. These differences in experiences and understandings are then further separated along the lines of the individual as one lives and operates within a given world of circumstance. Blackness is intersectional and, even more so, it is individual.
I can’t possess some abstract, “better” idea of what it’s like to be black in South Africa simply because I am black in the United States. Yet, as an eager learner and sympathetic human standing in solidarity with my South African brothers and sisters, what I can and will do is continue to learn, to reflect, and to listen.