A Generation After Apartheid
A generation after
Right on time, the town siren blared an eerie warning at 9 pm. It was 1976 in the remote bushveld mining town of Rustenburg. The surroundings were idyllic, but the siren’s message was not: if you were a non-white, you either had to be out of town or off the streets; otherwise, patrolling police vans ensured that a night in jail awaited. This is just one facet of what life was like growing up in Apartheid South Africa. I was dwelling on those times a couple of months ago while in Johannesburg. We are 25 years on from the end of Apartheid, how much has changed in a generation….
I have had the privilege of living and working around the world. The question, ‘What was Apartheid like?’ is frequently posed. Answering it is a challenging task. We lived in a beautiful town surrounded by mountains and walked or cycled barefoot to school, while non-whites lived in satellite townships. Non-whites did not attend our schools, swim in the municipal pool, use the library, dine in restaurants or pretty much have access to any of our first world facilities. Nothing. Simply a workforce that appeared in the morning and disappeared at night. We never socialized with or had any non-white friends. Townships, where non-whites lived, had no infrastructure and very basic amenities – no running water or electricity – the list goes on. With no access to international media or another frame of reference, I was blissfully unaware of our pariah status or of the full extent of the punitive social architecture that was Apartheid until I attended South Africa’s most liberal university in the mid 1980’s. BOOM.
Democratic elections followed a decade later and by the end of 1994, we entered a very new era. Nelson Mandela was president and the Rainbow Nation was off and running. Many observers suggest that a full generation is required to assess the full impact of this momentous occasion. Twenty-five years later, there I was in Johannesburg, able to think deeply about this with the benefit of having had a front row seat for the last 40+ years of pre- and post-Apartheid. Issues of corruption and creaking infrastructure dominate the headlines in South Africa today. Both are being addressed, and I think can be improved or largely solved. Issues of unionization and land reform are more difficult to resolve, and for me, the jury is still out. Against the backdrop of these macro issues is one remarkable positive: the spirit of South Africans. It says a lot about a country that it can experience change of such magnitude in the early 90’s without a revolution or a civil war. It speaks to the quintessential characteristics that all South Africans possess: optimism, entrepreneurism, a ‘can-do’ attitude and a warm, genuine hospitality.
The latter characteristics bode so well for the industry that we love and promote: tourism. You cannot fake patriotic pride and you cannot teach warmth and light. These come from within. Tourism is a shining light that can benefit South Africa tremendously…and in return, it will benefit all who visit the county. One passport stamp will give you the world; or at the very least, it will give you Africa.