you're reading...

South Africa: Beautiful and Struggling

It was an interesting point in time, that was for sure. South Africa was, quite literally, the midpoint of our voyage. My itinerary for last spring’s Semester at Sea voyage had us sail from the Bahamas, south to Brazil and up the Amazon River 600 miles, then back out and over to Ghana, before coming down to the southernmost tip of Africa, where I found myself a little over a year ago today. Everything about South Africa screamed different. It is (arguably but commonly viewed) the “most European” of the African countries, and I know after the culture shocks of Dominica, Brazil, and Ghana, we needed some comfort.

I remember that at the time, I was just ready to tackle another country. I had heard from SAS alumni that South Africa was one of the more fun ports, lots to see and do, plus it had a relatively familiar party scene. Certainly, it was safer than the middle of the Amazon rainforest. And it was supposed to be gorgeous. I had big plans and new best friends. Looking back, I realize now that it was the tipping point for when I really became a global traveler. South Africa was just familiar enough to help me realize how much I had already grown, yet just different enough to give me a sweet taste of something new. But after we left South Africa, it was onwards to India and another five countries across Asia – we could no longer hide from the culture shock. We were told to appreciate the familiarities of South Africa, because after we left, we’d be on our own. 

Our voyage itinerary, although the ports in Japan were replaced with Taiwan, as the tsunami hit Japan about two weeks before we were set to dock. Talk about a terrifying wake-up call...

It’s impossible to pick my favorite country out of everywhere I went. I usually end up assigning superlatives – place that changed me the most, best people, place that “put things into perspective”, best Great Wall, best markets, best food, best scenery, etc. (India, Vietnam, Ghana, China, Singapore, India, Vietnam- I was a big fan of Asia.) But my usual answer to the question of “if you had to pick, where would you live?” is always answered with South Africa. I can’t explain why. Embarrassingly, it might be because it’s actually pretty familiar. I would argue that it was the most America-like out of everywhere I went, so imagining myself there in thirty years with a family and a job isn’t too far-fetched. I don’t think it would be that hard to assimilate myself into that culture. For goodness sakes, the waterfront had a huge mall with a H&M and a Haagen-Daaz. And a Ferris Wheel! Everyone spoke English and wore clothes that looked exactly like ours. African desert, this was not.

And yet, the social issues facing South Africa today are fascinating. One of my classes discussed domestic violence for each country we visited, and the recent social upheavals with the end of apartheid and a new government structure has thrown the country in social turmoil. I was lucky enough to spend two days/one night in a township, and I came away from the experience haunted. How could a country with such a beautiful, Victorian, modern waterfront have tiny shacks built of tin and with no electricity literally just minutes away?

South Africa still struggles with apartheid, even though it has been illegal since 1994. The effects of apartheid have reached into every corner of their society, and trying to remove it is a tough challenge, with some bad side effects – the positive correlation between the social upheaval and domestic violence increase, for example. Searching the think tank NIRA gave me some interesting links, one of which was the Centre for Development and Enterprise, a think tank that focuses on research on national development issues, especially of the socio-economic sort. The CRE also linked to interesting research on how apartheid led to displaced urbanisation, aka the very opposite of the urbanisation we saw during the Industrial Revolution. This in turn has led to disproportionate levels  of poverty and poor urban planning, which makes it difficult for South Africa to develop its cities on a global scale. Another interesting research article presented by the CDE discussed the status of post-apartheid local governments as of 2003, analyzing the poor communication between departments, lack of community involvement, and poor financial support. Clearly, removing apartheid from South Africa’s society – no matter what level of society you’re talking about – is going to be a long and arduous task.

I thought that the CDE was a very professional, thorough, and quite helpful think tank. From what I could see, the research presented by the CDE covered a wide range of topics (business development, government structure, city and town organizations, education, globalisation, land reform, jobs, migration – you name it, they’ve analyzed it) and all of their research could be of great help to other scholars, South African citizens, and their politicians.

South Africa is a beautiful, diverse, culturally rich country. I loved every second of my time there, whether it was heartbreaking, educational, fun, or just exploratory. One of the most rewarding experiences I had was my day with Operation Hunger, where we ran a soup kitchen in a township for a day (you have not seen joy until you see a malnourished child eat a fresh meal) and then worked for a township’s library that was attempting to self-teach their children to read. Some of the most beautiful landscape I ever saw was traveling along South Africa’s famous Garden Route (just google search some pictures…. unbelievable), and South Africa gave me some of my best abroad stories. I hope to potentially go to grad school there! Definitely, definitely visit if you get the chance. I know I’ll be going back, one way or another.

Wine tasting on a breezy day in beautiful Stellenbosch. Just look at that view!


About Caitlin H.

I am a senior at Bucknell University, double majoring in management and music. I hope to work post-graduation as a corporate event planner, and to eventually go to the Olympics for three-day eventing. I enjoy singing opera, riding horses, playing frisbee, laughing, and big bowls of coffee ice cream.


One thought on “South Africa: Beautiful and Struggling

  1. Best Great Wall?


    I think most thoughtful Americans find S Africa fascinating because its social history does seem like some sort of distorted mirror of our own.

    Displaced urbanization. I’d never thought of that, but it makes sense. Did you see District 54? It was a sci fi parable about S Africa…

    Posted by Jordi | March 23, 2012, 10:35 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


Blog 5 before session 6 What (interest) or Who (person) Inspires You? For this week’s prompt, the Blog Council wants you to examine how this class relates to your own interests. So, please write about how this class relates to some of your own intellectual or other learning interests. We are NOT interested in how it relates to a specific career goal. Plan B: same idea, but based on a person. See whole post for details.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 33 other followers

%d bloggers like this: