Race and Racism in South Africa and Mozambique

My introduction to South African race relations was an unexpected one. On the crowded plane from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, I switched seats so the older gentleman in my row could sit in the aisle and stretch his recently replaced hip. His sweet-faced, grandmotherly wife thanked me profusely in a clipped South African accent, and as we fell into the standard pre-flight chit-chat I learned about their kids in England that they visit every year, the recent surgery the husband had, and how these long flights were horrible.

But when I asked her for recommendations in Johannesburg her face turned dark. “You don’t want to stay there”, she said firmly. She explained to me that it’s a dirty, crowded city and where I really should go is to Cape Town where she and her husband had a house. “Besides,” she dropped her voice and nodded to the black man in the row in front of us. “It’s all those types in Johannesburg. Lazy, ignorant people”. I was floored. The words came out of this sweet old woman without hesitation, in the same matter-of-fact tone that she had used talking about how awful overnight flights are. Most of what I knew about apartheid came from my high school world history class and the movie Invictus – and both seemed to indicate it had ended. As the plane sped away from Germany towards Africa, I wondered which version of Africa I was heading toward.

*          *          *

My hostel in Kensington, a stately suburb situated on top of a small rise overlooking downtown, was equally close to Ghandi’s Johannesburg house and the cave hideout of the infamous Foster Gang. As I strolled through the neighborhood to combat jetlag, house after house presented stern iron gates, barred windows, and either bored private security guards or angry dogs lunging aggressively on their chains. Barely anyone was on the streets.

When I asked the hostel security guard how I could take public transportation downtown in order to catch the bus to the apartheid museum, he looked at me in surprise. Patiently he explained that the minibuses (confusingly called “taxis”) were dangerous. Not to mention the downtown area itself, “especially for tourists like you” – meaning white people. He advised me to take a private cab like everyone else. I nodded in serious understanding, then blithely ignored him and headed to the bus stop.

As twelve pairs of eyes watched me climb on the minibus, I became acutely conscious of being the only white person on board. Inscrutable stares accompanied me as I made my way to the empty seat in the back. However the young man next to me kindly provided advice as to where I should get off and find the tourist bus stop, then cheerfully warned me that the area was dangerous, especially at night.

Downtown Johannesburg looked like any other city center, albeit a little run-down. Scores of tie and slack-adorned professionals navigated to and from coffee shops, food courts, retail stores, and large office buildings. Interspersed with the shiny gleam of active commerce were broken windows, abandoned cars, and bodies sleeping in alleys. I made my way past malls bursting with clothing, watches, bags and other paraphernalia; and eventually found the bus stop.

A group of tough-looking kids approached me, but their scowls instantly melted away when they found out I was from the United States. They excitedly asked me about rap and basketball, and helpfully told me to not worry, the bus would be on time. As I waited they buzzed around me, washing and guarding the parked cars that lined the streets, cavorting and behaving like the cocky teenagers they were. When the bus pulled up, they pointed to make sure I got it and waved goodbye.

At the immaculate, beautifully designed apartheid museum I spent five hours wandering amongst the exhibits, which painfully and clearly spelled out the systematic control and racism that black South Africans had struggled against and finally overcome, after great cost. Unlike my high school class or Invictus, the museum acknowledged that despite the victory there was a still a long way to go to achieve equality. It was so educational and engaging that when the closing announcement rang out I realized I had missed the last bus back to downtown.

Standing forlornly at the bus stop outside the museum, I cheered up when I saw a tourist bus miraculously turn the corner and pull up. The driver informed me he was simply taking the bus back to the parking lot, hesitated in the face of my obvious need, then reluctantly told me to hop aboard.

He let me off near the bus terminal, and pointed to where I should go to find my taxi stop. The day’s fading light hastened my step as even I didn’t have to be told that this was not the right place to be at night. But I was easily directed to the long line waiting for the minibuses, and had no problem returning to the hostel where the worker laughed with incredulity when I told him I had no problem. “You’re lucky, man” he shook his head at me.

*          *          *

Surprisingly it was in Mozambique where I first saw the vestiges of South Africa’s apartheid laid out in front of me. After a week in the capital Maputo, I headed to the southern beach town Ponta do Ouro joining a group of American doctoral residents working month-long shifts in Maputo’s local public hospital as part of a medical exchange program.

Ponta do Ouro lies within spitting distance of the South African-Mozambiquen border, and is a popular destination for tourists and the wealthy from both countries. Upon arrival we were dumped in a disappointingly drab and dusty hub of market stalls and cobbled-together open shacks serving as bars and restaurants. But over a small rise the crowd and noise of the open-air bar and food-stands called barracas faded away; and gleaming restaurants, hotels and dive shops spread out in front of us, interspersed with lush greenery that crept to a crescent white sandy beach. By the time we settled into our beautiful rental house and wandered out to look for food, all the tourist restaurants had shut down for the evening. Stiff from the four hour ride, we stumbled back to the barracas where a swaying drunken man brought out food different than what we had ordered, but it was warm and greasy and enough for the six of us.

After three days of diving and carousing with the American doctors, they left to return to their hospital rounds. I decided to stay another few days, shifting to a cheap hostel and back to my meager travel budget. By then I had noticed that practically all businesses were owned by white South Africans, and staffed by black Mozambiquens. The separation was everywhere, and more blatant and obvious than anything I had seen in my few short days in South Africa. It was glaringly evident in the restaurants, where black staff served white tourists; and in the advertisements around town for diving, dolphin watching, and “drunken atv-ing”, in which all participants I saw were white.


At a local dive shop, as I tried on gear and chatted with a group of young South Africans enjoying their gap year before university, the white South African dive shop owner wasted no time in confiding to us that the locals were “lazy, stupid and helpless”. He soon after interrupted all conversation in the room to explode at the black Mozambiquen helping us with our scuba gear, yelling at him “to get rid of [the malfunctioning tank] and shove it up your arse”. It was an ugly scene, and a quite unnecessary public shaming and display of anger in front of the mostly white South Africans and us foreigners – to say the least ridiculous, as the assistant could not have known that the tank was faulty.

After diving I wandered around the town’s mostly deserted beach and empty houses. In the evening, long after shade and darkness stole over the white sands I saw them walking out of the tourist area – maids, security guards, waiters and the like passing out of town like ghosts and fading into the houses and shacks in the outerlying hills and areas further from the beach and ocean views which seemed exclusive to the white-owned houses and restaurants. It was at the barracas where the local Mozambiquens owned little stores and stalls, ate, and socialized that I caught glimpses of life. While tourists quietly ate and sipped cocktails on terraced roofs overlooking the ocean, a couple hundred yards away yet separated by a hill and a hundred years the locals blared music, drank and caroused out of the sight and minds of the tourists.


The quiet, predominantly white part of Ponta do Ouro.

The morning I left Ponta do Ouro was perhaps my favorite part of the trip. I arrived at the barracas at 8 am to try and catch a ride to Ketembe. As I waited the square came to life: locals stopped in the bakery to buy fresh morning bread, women and men greeted each other and chatted smiling and laughing, in no hurry to get to their jobs serving tourists and without the weary heaviness I saw upon them at night as they returned to their houses. In the soft morning light kids accompanied their parents, or each other on the way to school. Women balancing bulky loads on their heads began to set up their identical wares in their stalls. A man still drunk from the previous night pleaded with those he knew to buy him some bread, and shortly after a bag of several small loaves was placed in his hands. It was a natural, effusive happiness that didn’t exist a hundred yards away in the tourist part of town, and it was so much more beautiful than the ugliness there that I had a thought to take pictures of the square slowly filling with life and laughter. But to introduce a camera would have introduced separation, and so I just waited for the van and observed the real Ponta do Ouro.

After an hour, a friendly Mozambiquen also going to the border herded me into a chapa, which within 20 minutes got stuck in the sand. After getting towed out by a passing truck, we left the chapa to hop on the truck as my new friend knew the driver. It turned out to be a good, albeit bumpy and dusty decision, as we later passed the same driver stuck again.

Erasing the rare, quick victory of making it to the border was a dispiritingly long wait for the chapa to Ketembe to fill up. As people slowly trickled in, we counted the remaining number of seats to be filled – seven when I arrived, and the same number three hours later. Eventually after five hours of waiting, the VW bus-sized van was full with 16 passengers, luggage filling all other space and overflowing off the roof, and two drivers. At every bump on the dirt trail charitably called a road the seat in front of me dug painfully into my knees. It wasn’t until a few hours into the trip that I even realized I was the only white person on board. I alternated between staring out the window at the African countryside passing by and the huge golf ball-sized protubescence on the shoulder of the passenger ahead of me, a few inches away from my face. There was ample time to reflect upon the last few days: to consider the kindness of the Johannesburg bus driver, the car-washing teenagers, the young man in the minibus who gave me directions and looked worried for me. The Mozambiquen student who helped get me to the border to catch the chapa that I currently sat in. They contrasted sharply with the white South African dive shop owner and grandmother on the plane, so open in their ugly racism and haughty privilege. And the group of young South Africans I met diving, whose constant ribbing of their one black member skirted the line of privileged condescension, lay somewhere in between.

As the chapa rolled on through the dry African countryside, the passengers were quiet at first, minus an occasional phonecall that everyone listened to one-sided. But after several hours many began to chat with each other, commiserating about the ugly, tough journey. Five hours in, the chatter turned into loud, pointed discussion on why the trip was taking so long. “I think something is wrong with the motor”, the woman next to me said, directly her voice toward the driver whose back remained square to us despite the accusations. “That’s why he can’t go as fast”.

At all three police checkpoints, the whole group collectively quieted in hopes that they would not ask for documents, nor ask to inspect bags in order to angle for a bribe. It would extend an already long journey, and it appeared that one middle-aged woman was traveling without her documents – a crime in Mozambique, and what could be a big problem for her not to mention an indeterminate delay and hassle for everyone else if she were caught.

But we luckily made it safely through all checkpoints, and as the African sun set, looking luminous and beautiful, dry plains sped by my window. It was fully dark when we arrived at Ketembe, and I hopped onto the ferry resigned to another long wait. But relatively soon after we pushed off to Maputo, and I walked into my friend’s apartment twelve hours after I left Ponta do Ouro that morning. My friend told me that in their private hired car, the standard mode of tourist transport to Ponta do Ouro, he and the other doctors had made the entire return trip in three hours.

I told him about the real Ponta do Ouro, getting stuck in the sand, dodging police checkpoints, the friends I had made, and what I learned about race in Africa – all in all, a fair trade for an extra nine hours.

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