Race, Townships, and Tour Guides in South Africa

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The January 2015 TechWomen mentoring program Delegation to South Africa rode from place to place in a big bus. Because traffic was often heavy, IIE arranged for tour guides to give background and tell us more about what we were seeing on the long drives. During the week, we had three guides with very different perspectives:

  • One guide was from an old Afrikaner family who did not seem happy about many of the changes since Apartheid ended (around 1994).
  • Another was (I think) what South Africans call Coloured (“people of mixed ethnic origin who possess ancestry from Europe, Asia, and various Khoisan and Bantu tribes” – according to Wikipedia).
  • The third was a European immigrant.

I don’t know if we were purposefully given guides with such varied points of view but it was very interesting nonetheless.

One of the many fascinating exhibits at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg addressed the complex question of what it meant and means to be in part of a South African ethnic/racial group. For example, here is a quote from the South Africa “Population Registration Act” of 1950 on display in the museum:

“A white person is one who in appearance is, or who is generally accepted as, a white person, but does not include a person who, although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a coloured person.  A native is a person who is in fact or is generally accepted as a member of any aboriginal race or tribe from Africa.  A coloured person is a person who is not a white person not a native.”

Each of our Apartheid Museum tickets was randomly printed “White” or “Non-White” on the back – dividing the delegation in two. The halves of the delegation had the disturbing experience of entering the museum through different doors and seeing the first exhibit from separated walkways. I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement in America. It was hard to explain to my TechWomen colleagues from the Middle East why splitting of the Delegation by race made me feel angry and ill.  We have worked so hard to build a community of sisters from the Silicon Valley, Africa, and the Middle East in TechWomen – intentionally dividing us felt very bad, even for such a brief educational experience.

In getting to all of our meetings and events, almost every day the Delegation was driven past many miles of Townships which showed varying degrees of infrastructure quality (roads, electricity, fences, garbage pickup) and prosperity. I think South Africa Townships are something like American suburbs but not as ethnically integrated as what I see in California suburbs.  From what the guides said, there are very active, expensive, and controversial government programs to upgrade and sometimes relocate the Townships. In just a week, I could not possibly understand the subtleties of these programs and their politics but it did seem that South Africa has a great deal of work ahead of it.  One of my take-aways from the trip was a new context in which to think about America’s own race and ethnic complexities.

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Images Copyright 2015 by Katy Dickinson

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Filed under Mentoring & Other Business, News & Reviews, Politics

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