I simply didn’t get it. For many years I really did not understand what colour prejudice is all about. After all, surely the colour of someone’s skin is unimportant? It’s the quality of the person within that’s the important factor. But that was before I went to South Africa. In Port Elizabeth the divide between Black and White is obvious and extreme. Apartheid (separate development) is long gone, but the boundaries are still there for all to see and to feel. The Black townships are a sprawling mass of cramped humanity eaking out a living in any way they can. The size of a small English town (300,000+) these towns spread on for mile after mile in uninterrupted mayhem. Each “shack” or house is necessarily overcrowded as the residents gather together to form an economic familial bond in order to cope with the pecuniary hardship that is their meagre existence. Grandparents receive a small state pension, and children an even smaller child allowance. This ensures their place in the family unit as it might be the only regular income received. Unemployment is extremely high which means that bands of bored young men roam the dusty streets looking for work or mischief in equal measure.
Shops are bolted and barred, and schools, which one might have thought would have fared a little better, have long since had their facilities or even electric cables stripped out to sell to someone who wanted a new kitchen re-wired, or an office re-equipped.
In such overcrowded, lawless insanitary places disease is rife. The usual infections abound of course, but the gravest of all is often the result of masculine pride. Virile young men need sex as their right of passage dictates, and would consider using a condom as a personal insult to their erect manhood. HIV/AIDS is the killer in these townships,-infecting babies before they are born. In epidemic proportions this silent killer lurks in every street, household and school, robbing children of their parents and mothers of their babies. I met grandmothers bringing up their grandchildren. They looked totally exhausted, as any of us would in similar situations. The children’s parents had died from this dreadful disease and the grandparents had no choice but to carry on and do their best for the children.
In the affluent predominantly “White” suburbs of Port Elizabeth the streets were ordinary suburban sprawl. Nothing unusual save for the enhanced security surrounding even the most modest of homes. CCTV, barbed wire, electric gates, and warnings of vicious guard dogs. These people were truly scared. The fear is real and genuine. The popular thoughts, whether fully correct or not, is that burglaries, rape and murder are mostly committed by the Blacks from the townships, with the victims being the Whites. So, if travel broadens the mind so it also opens it up to the complexities of National dilemmas. Like Northern Ireland seemingly forever trapped in its sectarian past, so South Africa seems doomed to continue to re-live its cultural, colourful racist past. Hopefully time and immense goodwill from all sides will heal the wounds and close the gap. So do I now understand and appreciate what “colour prejudice” is all about? Of course not! But I do now understand just a little bit more about cultural divides, ignorance on all sides, amazing intelligence on all sides, and the need for economic and Political equality.
Would I return to South Africa? Yes please!
Lesley Piper, Volunteer in the Emmanuel project