If you wonder what a picture of a beautiful beach has to do with racism, here is the explanation: During times of apartheid King’s Beach in Port Elizabeth was the only beach people of colour were allowed to go to, separating them from the white population. Even though the beach might look beautiful it is also the one located most closely to the industrial harbour and under the entry lane of Port Elizabeth airport.
It is a segregation that until today marks the town. Not only considering the really poor living in townships but also in the better or richer parts of the city you still find areas mostly populated by whites and others they dare or like not to go. Prejudices do exists concerning for example criminality. The segregation even has its toll on language because using the wrong terms concerning peoples race an ethnic heritage can quite easily become offensive.
Speaking of the old lady in the plane again. While flying towards Johannesburg the stewardess handed out some sweets and my next seat neighbour began telling me about her childhood when she grew up next to sweet factory. Her father, the elderly lady told me, used to buy big bags of sweets for the children and brought them home. “There were these special dark coloured ones I liked very much. We called them the black…” And there she stops making a slightly embarrassed wink with her hand. “Oh”, she said, “we don’t say that anymore here.”
What to say and what not to say, how to address and how to use the right term for the right kind of people is not that easy and I still have not completely and fully grasped it.
Officially South Africa has four big ethnic groups.
First of all there is the African or black population, a culturally and linguistically non-homogenous group. Around Port Elizabeth the main population is Xhosa who originally lived at the Eastern Cape but due to working migration can today be found in other parts of South Africa as well. The Xhosa language isiXhosa has integrated parts of the San (otherwise called Bushman) language, using klicking sounds hard to pronounce for Europeans. Others are for example Zulu, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi and Ndebele. And to make it even more complicated these groups are divided again into different tribes, the main Xhosa tribes for example are Mpondo, Mpondomise, Bomvana, Xesibe and Thembu. Prominent Xhosa people are Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, born to the royal Thembu family and therefore often addressed with his honorary title “madiba”.
The white population is heterogenic as well as for the different groups immigrating towards South Africa during colonization: From French Huguenots, Germans, Portuguese, Irish or Greek to British and Dutch immigrants. Until today the white population can be divided in English speaking people and Afrikaners, who speak Afrikaans, a language deriving from the 17th century Dutch and whose ancestors were Dutch Calvinist immigrants as well as Frisians and French Huguenots. For the Afrikaner population adjusting to the post apartheid era was possibly the hardest, since it was the Afrikaner National Party who after she came to power in 1948 passed the segregation laws and laid foundation to the whites supremacy at the cape. Above that the older colonial history has also to be considered when during the Boer War the Afrikaner were forced under British rule – a complicated history with a long prologue leading to British imperial troops confiding the Boer population in concentration camps in the 1880s and 1890s. About 15 per cent of the (civilian) Boer population died in these camps, especially children suffered. It is a history many Boer descendants have not forgotten. After the end of apartheid some more radical Afrikaners therefore came to the conclusion that their population were doomed by history at least twice, many of those Afrikaners who could afford it left the country.
I remember that in the early or middle 1990s at a family gathering I met distant relatives for the first time who had recently emigrated from South Africa. I do not remember much but I do know they had a dog, a German shepherd called Blondie, yes, exactly like Hitler’s dog. I don’t think I have to say more…
To come back to the ethnic diversity of South Africa next to the white and African population there is a big group of Indian and Asian immigrants who came to the cape as cheep workers. One has only to remind oneself that the movement of Mahatma Ghandi did not start in India but on the African continent. Today especially Chinese gain influence in South Africa since Chinese corporations started to invest in the local economy.
And this gives way to another phenomenon: Even under those who have lived under oppression for centuries prejudices against other ethnic groups like people from Bangladesh or India do exist and even more so against people with a mixed ethnic heritage. Coloured people born out of a relationship between for example – here you go again –white and black parents, are perhaps the lowest ranking people, not being part of either group, not really belonging anywhere.
Take for an example a man from Namibia driving through an area mostly inhabited by coloured people and Bangladeshi. Spotting six men sitting in a doorway having only a chat he says: “Ah look at them now. But close your eyes for a second and they rob you.”
Considering the melting pot of nations and heritages it does not come as a surprise that talking of terms is so complicated in South Africa. Considering that apartheid ended (only) 20 years ago it might as well not be surprising that segregation is not removed yet. Only thinking about the fall of the German wall nearly at the same time and the problems Germans still have to face speaking in terms of Eastern and Western Germans the problem of segregation and the long time it takes for people long divided to grow together to one entity is not as foreign a process as one might think in the first moment.