Showing beautiful footage in a video is easy, but talking about what goes on beyond the beauty is what matters. South-Africa, my faraway unknown. As a child, I was a little scared of the unknown, and somehow South-Africa, specifically Cape Town, became my faraway land; the place that you consider the other side of the world in your mind, despite if that is true from a geographic point of view. I wondered if my life would ever take me to Cape Town. Last February, it did.
When it was about faraway places, I always had a mindset of “I’ll believe it when I see it”, especially in regards to what the media told me other countries were like or what school taught me about their cultures. South-Africa had been painted to me as an exotic, chaotic and undeveloped nation. When I speak to South-Africans, they tell me they hear this a lot. They express that they’re saddened by the stereotypes that exist. Most stereotypes are relatively innocent, like saying that Dutch love cheese and that Asians confuse the R and the L. But to know that half the world believes you live in houses made of clay and lack basic sewage and water plans is heartbreaking. If you’re averagely intelligent, you should know better than to assume the worst of what stereotypes tell you, especially with the power of the internet. It is pretty clear to me the media showed snippets of South-African life, but not the whole picture. So knowing what kind of mindset I had going to South-Africa, let me tell you about what I saw and what I think.
Delicious breakfast at a local chain called "Mug and Beans"
The environment. When you see how densely surrounded the people of Cape Town are with nature, trees and a big biodiversity, it almost gives the impression that the flora in The Netherlands struggles to maintain itself. This is probably true, seeing that The Netherlands is more economically developed and therefore builds more and higher, systematically pushing nature away and out of our cities. In contrast to how plants and trees burst and peek out of every fence, crack, street and field, nature in the Netherlands needs to be permitted to expand. And it doesn’t even feel as if the South-African environment is fighting it. I remember seeing a debate about TV if a big oak tree should be removed because the shadow of it blocks a part of a lady’s garden (and we all know how the Dutch wheeze for some sun). In Europe, we urgently debate whether or not a tree lives or dies, while South-Africa just to work with it. A local journalist told me about how most of the land used to be desert and that migrants and settlers had managed to plant a diverse amount of trees to create sustainable, fertile land. He claimed that most of the flora isn’t native to the country. In the video, you see a shot of Tokai Forest in the Cape. This forest is planted relatively recent, and both the field of trees and the hillsides you see right after, were once upon a time stretches of sand.
It took seeing different trees somehow standing together to realize how sterile our trees can look being planted perfectly in a row. Perhaps this might change in the future when smaller towns are more inclined to expand and grow, but so far there seems no urge to take green and trees away for the sake of convenience. Some would say it’s a matter of common sense, like the type that feels all trees near roads should be cut down to avoid accidents. But some might say that the average South-African citizen doesn’t have the inflated ego that their world is about them like some do. The Culture. It’s a big misconception that the South-African culture ties in with the cultures of the neighboring countries, the way it often does in Europe. In the USA, the “American” culture is a diverse mixture of all the different cultures that have migrated to the country. In Europe you feel the typical “European culture” wherever you go, but with the local region’s interpretation. South-Africa maintains a culture that has a very western feel and then successfully mixes the cultures that migrated down into it, and this can feel very “American”. This I define as the modern, media-driven and food stimulated culture, housing major international brands. It’s a culture that has sucked foods, customs and habits from different ethnicities into this recipe, and each of these is accepted as part of it. This counts for habits and traditions that cultures maintain, they’ve all become part of the same pot. As a result, cultures, and ethnicities can be hard to distinguish when you’re out, especially if you don’t know what to look out for. I am sure I must have passed ten different cultures while roaming the towns and streets, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I’ve seen. As for the tension the media claims South-Africa has, it would be foolish and ignorant to say there is none at all, but it is not nearly as explosive as the media likes to make it seem. Like with most things, they report on incidents and give you a zoomed-in frame of it. When you see such a frame a few times, then it tends to paint a picture, while it is a very small part of what is going on. I, as a white visitor, was greeted, helped and talked as just another person, and there was never a need to hold my tongue. I was free to ask questions to understand what I was experiencing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any issues at all. The locals are still nervous about going outside at night because of potential riots and you can see race-based claims in the news outlets, a mindset that is alien to a Dutch person. And when it’s about the informal living situation, I feel that some are quick to have an opinion on how the people living in those areas should better themselves. It’s a little easy to tell a man living between 4 tin walls what to do from a luxury house in a gated community.
The development. One of the South-African biggest, nationwide problems in terms of development has a name that sours all the faces when you mutter it: load shedding. Even the local radio station has a slogan: "Load shedding is such a turn off." Because of a lack of authorities over major businesses, the power companies have neglected their generators, meaning there is not enough electricity to go around. In seasons, areas are robbed of their power a few times per day for a few weeks to compensate for this. This causes numerous issues: electrical appliances break quicker, homeworkers and freelancers lose hours of work and progress, numerous shops are constantly forced to close early. These shops lose their earnings that way while they still have to pay their employees. From what I understood, it is a big reason why the economy struggles to get ahead. Among the people, there is inspiration, creativity, entrepreneurship, marketing, merchandisers and creative ways to distribute. Seeing the merchant walking between cars with his bags of fruit on the road might be a bit of a culture shock to us, but it is the way to trade over there. After all, the roadside isn’t going to rob your shop of power. It is truly a folk of creativity that is bound by the limits set by its former government, and once it gets a chance to bloom, I believe it will explode. For that matter, I don’t believe it can be considered underdeveloped. I understand why some may see it otherwise, but the issues they have are on the same level a lot of “developed” countries have or have had. No one likes to mention that South-Africa was the place with the first successful heart transplant, the place that perfected agriculture, the place that can be a role model on how multiculturalism is executed successfully. It’s unfair to say a country is not “developed” enough just because it isn’t bursting with skyscrapers full of money packed CEO’s and covered in cement to the very corners. Their harmony with nature and their harmony among themselves are things that Europe and North-America could learn from. It seems overall that the people are right where they are supposed to be and ready to thrive despite the constraints that they deal with, but just need someone to iron out the issues that the past has left behind.
"Constantia Vineyard, one of South-Africa more famous vineyards that ships internationally. A big bulk of the world's wine comes from yards like these. The architecture of the buildings on and around his yard as typical Dutch lattice pattern, a perfect example of history left behind."
The history. I think one of the biggest controversies is the interpretation of the past. This is a difficult topic to address without ruffling any feathers. If I am to believe what I was told by the locals, then the general story of what happened in the 1800s is an oversimplification, and perhaps steered to serve a certain agenda. It’s even hard for me to say what I’ve learned out loud because feelings and important causes could get hurt. Perhaps I will go deeper into this in a different article. But history left a lot behind, and a lot of things that should be let go off still linger in the streets. But you can also tell that the locals have managed to take the culture that the Europeans left behind and reshaped it into their version of it. They made it unique and original, yet to me, a Dutch person, familiar and welcoming. It brings the question to the above mentioned conflict: what is truly the “original” culture of South-Africa? It almost becomes an “egg or chicken” debate, since we rely on the interpretations of different perspectives, and even if a perspective is wrong, it can end up dictating reality.
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Overall, South-Africa is not the far away, unreachable and inaccessible place that it sometimes can be portrayed to be. If anything, the locals have done everything they could to open their arms to new ideas, new people and embrace a better future, even if different minds have different ideas of what that future looks like. The South-African culture cannot be compared to the more traditional and classic cultures of other African countries and will feel familiar to the North-American and European visitors. If anything, they will find that a lot of their inventions, like types of food and technical concepts, have been touched up and improved, or simply not as subjected to artificial fabrication.
Remember, different doesn’t mean bad. It just means different.