by Imani Briscoe & Kitty McGirr
I remember waiting for my flight not two weeks ago genuinely envisioning what this “rainbow nation” was going to look like once I landed in Johannesburg. Now as we conclude our time here in South Africa, I am beginning to appreciate that what lays beneath this widely propagated ideal is much more complex, nuanced and problematic than the romanticized image I and many others with a similarly elementary understanding of post-apartheid South Africa would imagine this so-called rainbow nation to be.
The varied nature of our activities and conversations on the program so far is indicative of the diversity of views and circumstances among the people of South Africa. However, while at face value this diversity supports the dominant narrative of South Africa as a rainbow nation, upon closer examination one begins to recognize that formerly institutionally separate racial groups are not suddenly coexisting harmoniously with one another now that apartheid has ended. In fact, the majority of what I have seen on the program so far suggests almost the opposite. Rather than achieving real unity and equity in the post-apartheid era, the many colorful identities comprising this so-called rainbow nation seem in some ways to be just as far removed from and unequal to each other as what was previously instituted under the apartheid system.
In addition, it is very intriguing that, even with the acknowledged importance of the history of South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation”, discussions surrounding the indigenous people and colonization of what is now known as Cape Town rarely occur. Most of what we find in the American education history books regarding the changes Cape Town has gone through seems to focus on the racial issues of blacks and whites. There is little to no conversation about the people who originally lived, loved and lost before the social constructs of race dominated the historical narratives; narratives such that influenced the process of colonization , which has very much impacted current day Cape Town. This past week we took a walking tour of the city of Cape Town with Lucy and Kadijah from Transcending History Tours, and learned a plethora of information about the way of life before and during colonial settlement and were given an opportunity to discover the untold story of Cape Town’s first people, the khoi-san.
Our tour took us through many notable areas including the first colonial settlement in the area, the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town City Centre which holds some historic markers pertaining to the slave trade prior to the 1834 emancipation, and the well-known Iziko Slave Lodge which housed slaves from all over the world during the slave trade.
In every building we entered, every short filmed viewed, and every monument we paid respect to, I thought of Cape Town’s historical parallels to what was happening in the United States of America during the same time. It is illuminating to learn that on the other side of the world the same methods of racial division through systematic control and oppression were being implemented. It’s interesting to consider how both regions were shaped by the countless issues that colonization and devastation left behind. As a black American and proponent of black-consciousness, with no known blood relative connections to the Africa as a whole, I, Imani, have heard about the same kind of oppression and slavery time and time again on American soil and therefore felt like I shared a common history with those people who went through the same struggles as my ancestors did, just in another place of the world.
After leaving our homestay families in Soweto, we travelled to the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, a city traditionally associated with and populated by Afrikaner people. Upon arrival we met with the deputy director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice, JC van der Merwe for a discussion on the history of the campus as well as the issues facing the institution at present. One detail that I found particularly striking was the fact that no formal pressure was placed on UFS or any higher education institution in South Africa to desegregate their campuses after 1994. In fact, according to van de Merwe, the residences of UFS were still racially segregated as early as 2007. I was moved by this information for two reasons. Firstly, I was immediately reminded of the parallels between South Africa’s failure to desegregate its educational system and the language of Brown v. Board of Education in the US whereby the Supreme Court only required schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed”. Secondly, I was struck by how incongruous the politicized idea of a rainbow nation was to the reality on the ground in South Africa. Thirteen years after the ANC led the liberation struggle to overturn apartheid, white students at this university were still resisting administration mandates to integrate.
The last activity for our day at UFS involved taking a tour around campus with two students we had met previously at a group discussion about our respective experiences as university students. One of our tour guides was keen to relay to me her experience being part of the first racially mixed female residence on the campus, which she described as a genuine “sisterhood”. However, the visual landscape of the campus was again at odds with the widely proliferated image of the rainbow nation, the narrative of unified racial integration and even the story my tour guide relayed to me about her mixed residence minutes before the tour began. Walking around the campus I did not see one mixed race friendship nor did I notice any white students present at a growing gathering of protestors demonstrating for higher wages for black workers on campus. Confused at what ostensibly looked like a state of enduring racial separation in the university community, I asked our guide if it was at all unusual that we hadn’t seen any interracial friend groups on our tour. Her response was a disheartening one: “No, it’s not unusual. People still don’t really mix”. These words, for me, were symbolic of the countless discrepancies I have witnessed in these two short weeks here in South Africa with regard to the romanticized ideal of a rainbow nation and the enduring reality of chronic racial inequality in the post-apartheid era.