Confronting My Own Misguided Beliefs about South Africa

Thanks to the Facebook feature that shows you photos and posts from this day in your past, I awoke to vivid photos of my 10-day South Africa trip that happened two years ago. Because this trip was a vacation, not a travel job assignment, I hadn’t thought to write about it. But looking back, I’d like to share a few thoughts.

Recognizing and Overcoming Stereotypes

My first few days in South Africa were eye-opening in a somewhat embarrassing way. I learned a lot about the country and its diversity of people, culture, and languages. But I also learned something about the American lens that shapes the way I view other countries. As I prepared for my trip, people warned me of how dangerous it would be. I was going with my best friend, who is a bit of a trouble maker when we’re together, and many of our friends feared that we would be kidnapped immediately. But while it was never explicitly said, I realized upon arrival that all of these warnings, and most likely other descriptions of African countries I’d encountered growing up in America, had painted an image of an uncivilized country in my mind.

Once I got to Johannesburg, I drove past a thriving downtown area and into suburbs where a single road could separate beautiful gated neighborhoods from massive slums. The wealth disparity and segregation of these communities was jarring, but it wasn’t barbaric. And it wasn’t necessarily unfamiliar. Many U.S. cities look this way to an extent. Cleveland has several neighborhoods where rundown apartment buildings clash with wealthy, tudor-style mansions. I needed to avoid dangerous situations in Johannesburg the same way that I would need to in any big city—by paying attention and using common sense. But somehow I’d been carrying the notion around in my mind that I would be facing some kind of “other,” as though people here wouldn’t be acting on the same moral code that makes us all human beings.

In fact, I learned that South Africans are very proud of the progress their country has made since instilling democracy, and many expressed to me that they wanted tourists to visit and leave with a good impression of their country and their people. This showed when I actually did become the victim of a crime in Cape Town. My boyfriend and I were using outdoor ATMs, when these men in suits come up and start entering numbers on our screen. I didn’t know what was happening, and I wasn’t sure if they were bank tellers or random strangers. They stole mine and my boyfriend’s debit cards, jumped into a car, and gunned it out of there. Immediately, people in the street started yelling after them and to each other, “They stole their cards! They stole their money! Stop them!” Our cab driver beckoned us back into his car, and he chased the criminals’ car as fast as he could, but eventually lost them.

That cab driver was so upset. He was so sad this had happened to us, and embarrassed as though he was somehow responsible for it. Despite the fear I felt for what had just happened, my heart swelled with compassion for him and for the people on the streets that had yelled for us.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that Americans have ignorant stereotypes of other countries, especially African countries. That isn’t a surprise to most people. Rather, I want to emphasize that I didn’t even realize I had this false image of South Africa in my brain until I was there. I think this is why travel is so important. When we picture the people of South Africa, most of us don’t even question that we’re not imagining business men and women commuting to work, parents taking their kids to school, or people getting their grocery shopping done. We often think nothing of our brains jumping to racist, backwards ideas of tribal Africans or lions and elephants.

Jacaranda Trees Johannesburg South Africa Pretoria

When you picture downtown Johannesburg and you’ve never been there, do you imagine billboards, restaurants, and museums? You probably aren’t thinking about streets lined with bright flowering Jacaranda trees, thousands of brilliant purple pedals pooling at the edges of dark pavement. But that’s actually a pretty iconic image of Johannesburg, and when I encountered it, my thought wasn’t just, “Oh this is pretty.” My gut reaction was also, “Wow, this is surprising.” I’m not at all proud to admit any of this, but it’s important to acknowledge. And I’m humbled to say that, through my travels, I’ve at least garnered a better understanding of the world, and of the American lens through which we see it.

So with that out of the way, I want to follow this post with a few others about my favorite highlights of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Stay tuned.

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