When you go travelling and eventually converse with some locals, soon enough the inevitable dialogue regarding nationhood and context emerges. However, rare it would be to find an equally interesting transaction when the destination is South Africa (or anywhere in Southern Africa for that matter), the locals are either a) “black” or b) Afrikaans and you are an emigrant of the nation. Truth being told I answer as such, “I’m from Australia, but I was born in Johannesburg.” Fellow companion asks curiously, “When did you leave?” I take my last breath and resign myself to the judgement that prequels “1994…”
Now, as an Australian citizen, 19 years later with Apartheid well and truly “reconciled”, many of us are still branded as cowards and betrayers by our former comrades. The “blacks” assume you were scared that their parents were going to murder you or start burning your farms in the Transvaal, and the Afrikaners are pissed off that you didn’t stay and help fight against the now “they-told-us-so delinquent” African National Congress (ANC). The reason we left was very loosely orientated towards the former accusation. Crime was getting unusually bad and middle-class outer-suburb Joburgians weren’t quite on the bandwagon of getting four metre high walls erected around their land, along with electric wires, a panic button, a few underpaid security guards and five untrained Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Alas, crime was synonymous with daily life and got worse, perhaps even reached unprecedented heights in the last decade. Despite the fact that crime is still a part of a South African’s existence, it is not all there is to their existence. Via media and ignorant transnational whispers, the country (and generally the continent itself) has been branded with a terribly unfashionable and unjust stigma. There are stories one can tell of the kind of lives people live (from the rich in Bryanston to the poor in Hillbrow), which would disgust and appal I’m sure – in any case a person with friends or family there will know what I’m referring to. What makes it all the worse is what’s said about the transgressive state of politics that sanctions the nation and what’s not said about South Africa’s lifestyle, people, landscape and diversity.
It is not uncommon to be heading to Southern Africa for the first, second or third time and still hear from family and friends “You’re going to Africa? Why?! You’ll be assaulted or murdered!” This is not an exaggeration. Meanwhile over in South America somewhere your friends are held at gunpoint for their iPhone and a comparable circumstance is simultaneously inflicted upon acquaintances in India. But for the majority, any other destination is more desirable than Africa, apparently. I’ve travelled almost all of Southern Africa and to this day there is still not a continent nor a people that I love more. I’ve felt safer in downtown Joburg, hitchhiking in Botswana…even getting bitten my mosquitos in Mozambique, than I have walking around Kings Cross in Sydney. Admittedly I’ve been very fortunate having avoided any real danger in my time there.
I guess I just hope that one day we’ll be able to discuss travelling in Africa with friends the same way we’ve conversed about experiences in Bali or Bangkok. When people know and understand the place better and acknowledge the reality of circumstances there first, before either a) signing up for live below the line thinking their making the slightest difference in the world or b) writing their friends eulogy before they’ve even hitched their flight to O.R. Tambo, the world may seem a better place. This is complex and rarely does one speak on the topic without contradicting themselves (myself included), but it’s worth wondering – why such a trouble with Africa?