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The Great Divide:

by on May 15, 2022

The Great Divide: South Africa after Apartheid”

Taking a closer look at the remnants and ramifications of race and segregation in South Africa– and how it compares to the United States, today.

By Tamila Kianfard

Arriving in Cape Town International Airport, after a thirty-seven hour voyage was something I couldn’t have prepared for. Aside from my swollen feet, being over-exhausted, jet-lagged, desperate for a nap, and being in dire need of a hot shower—I was in a foreign place. I stood out where most residents mainly fit into one of the three tick boxes: black, white, or coloured? Yep, as a Southern American—that one caught me completely off guard, and with our history, sent me straight down memory lane and all the way to 5th grade Black History Month—the only time that specific jargon is relevant, but berated.

Then I encountered my first South African in South Africa. Granted it was the lady at the visa checkpoint asking me why I was even in South Africa, and while we didn’t go into song-and-dance about my visiting her home country—I was absolutely floored by her especially unique look, and naturally had to inquire about her ethnic background. Probably not the wisest move in this day and age, but when I say this woman was “uniquely” stunning, I’m not exaggerating. She was so incredibly different from anything I had ever seen. Her eyes were piercing blue with green hues, and her skin was the shade of brown that girls, literally, burn for. Let’s not even begin to try to describe the perfection that was her hair color. For kicks, we’ll attempt to simply call it ‘golden.’ The only way I knew to describe her unique look is that her features were closest to that of someone whom I would recognize, and would probably widely be considered in my hometown in the States, as “mixed” race.

(Sheepishly, I learned the term “mixed” is not only inappropriate, but also highly offensive to describe “coloured” people in South Africa.) It was put so sweetly to kindly educate this one foreigner, “You mix a cake, and colour the world.” I appreciated the profound quip this older, wiser, South African ‘Mama’ was offering me, and I took it.

Ironically, the populous of South Africa mostly fall under “Black,” and what most Americans view as derogatory: Coloured.

It took me some time to be able to adopt this new vocabulary as a rule, but I quickly realized that while the vocabulary may have been difficult to adjust to, the division between the color classes was even more frightening. To understand how and why these color distinctions are so prominent in the social interactions, and overall dynamic, of South African culture—presented the real challenge.

I lived in an area where the divide was so mindboggling, that to be able to grasp an idea of just how much of a gap was present, one had to turn to the dehumanizing fact that the elite’s pets had more proof of existence than the children living in townships. In certain places, like Hout Bay, people who put their dogs in doggy daycare, had “Repawt” cards, and other daily check-ins, while many adults and children in townships didn’t have birth certificates, and many of them are still unaccounted for.

The plot thickened, as I couldn’t help the sad realization that washed over me while I sat there, on my American pedestal—this country was reflecting my own in many ways. In shocking disbelief, I realized the parallels between South Africa and the American South, are way too close for comfort. I wondered how something of the past so prominently haunted and dictated the future. How could the Rainbow nation with such a colorful background, fighting segregation, apartheid, with Madiba—still be so divided? The worst part: The Mother City was a mirroring parallel to the place I dearly call home—Atlanta, Georgia.

What was even more daunting was the fact that, the country I call home is one of the most powerfully lucrative in the world, and yet, evidently not powerful enough to fight racism or poverty. At that moment, I couldn’t help but to think how many thousands of times, over, both, Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had tossed in their eternal beds. I am still shaken by the thought, and this revelation.

As less than a handful of Americans in Cape Town at the time, I was, shockingly, one of the few Americans who recognized this disturbing connection. As if I wasn’t traumatized enough, and now to add my own ethno-Southern roots– most of the other Americans were from more liberal areas of the United States, which, I noticed, strangely enough, actually seemed impartial to what was going on. Not to say that they didn’t care, or that liberals, democrats should care more, but they do tend to vocalize it more—so where was that initiation? Why was it absent in a place it was needed most? Why are there as many people starving in the world today, as there are people who claim to care about them?

Have we desensitized even some of the most sensitive in the world? This is not to imply blame, but more to admit confusion on what direction we have gone in the world. What is our direction? Have human lives become so worthless that we can sit back and watch while our fellow humans starve in the cycle in which they were born, chained to the shackles of the situations they can’t get out of because there is no way out provided?

Working and volunteering in the legal systems, human rights commissions, and battered women and children’s shelters in Cape Town, one thing was absolutely apparent to me:

That many people are not failing the system; the system is failing them. That many people are not flawed; the system is flawed.

The 16 year old–going to jail, tainting his future with a past, because he can’t afford the cheese and bread he shoplifted, desperately, to feed himself and his family, and now must pay a legal fine that is triple the amount of money he couldn’t afford to begin with– is not to blame. The woman who stands up to her abusive, alcoholic husband, and gets beaten in front her children, the woman who can’t get a job, to get out of the horrible situation, because she looks “too rough”– is not to blame. The children who are brought up in that environment, picking up only what they know, what they see, and what they are shown, and reflect it—are not to blame. These are those cycles that one must honestly ask oneself, “What would I do in that situation?”

What is an even more grim reality is the fact that the physical divide between people, is more based on race than proximity. In layman’s terms: the proof is in the pudding—a black man from the American South, eerily, understands to some varying degree, the hardships of a black man in South Africa, without ever setting foot in the other’s country. This is not coincidence. It is systemic.

We must do better. We must learn to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, towards each other, in hopes of meeting halfway, to find a balance that would remedy the casual indifference we live in today. Not just for South Africa, not just for the United States, but also for the entire world, and future generations.

Let’s “colour“ the world, properly—staying within the lines—of dignity and respect.

This article is dedicated to all the incredible individuals I had the pleasure of meeting in Kaapstad. You have touched my heart, forever. Dankie, Dankie, Dankie.

Tamila Kianfard is a human rights advocate, focusing on empowering women’s rights everywhere Tamila Kianfard she goes—from Women’s Freedom Forum in Washington DC to St. Anne’s Women’s Shelter in South Africa. She has a BA in International Affairs from Kennesaw State University, with a concentration on diplomacy and development, specifically in the Middle East and Africa.

In her spare time, she’s pretty much a mermaid (yes, really) with a deep love for protecting our oceans and Recycling—she [shamelessly] urges everyone she meets to do the same.

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6 Comments
  1. Thank you, Tamila. This is truly a deeply remarkable post and your insights and candor are striking and inspirational. I sometimes wonder how to reach out to people without offending them. For example, someone I know has a habit of asking people who speak with accents “Where are you from?” I would find that offensive. So, I pointed out that when I am interested in forming a bond with someone such as that I say, “I was brought here as a child from Italy. Where are you from?” I have found that my initial statement eliminates the sense of challenge and opens the door to communication. Of course, I may also be able to make those statements in the person’s native language, but that, too, may seem like a challenge to them.

    I realize that the British part of me (my appearance) throws people off when they hear my name and ask about it. When I say Italian they often say, “You don’t look Italian.” I then respond by asking them the last time they were in Italy – which almost always is “never”.

    Thanks again, and I hope more people will take part in your discussion.

    Like

    • From Tamila:

      Also, I have struggled my entire life with the “where are you from” question. And I have found the way I have kept it light and easy, is to make a joke of it. And I think because I don’t take offense to the question, because I feel like it’s part of me now, it’s interesting to have to consider how it might trigger others. I’m so use to being a foreigner wherever I go, that it has afforded me this will to be a citizen of the world. And for that I’m so grateful.

      Warm regards,

      Tamila

      Like

  2. From Alex in Canada:

    Reading Tamila’s account brought to mind a made for TV movie of 2000 called ‘The Color of Friendship’. It was based on a exchange student issue where a white South African, unknowingly, came to stay with a U.S. black family. It had not occurred to the white South African that in a majority white country she would be placed with a black family. On the other side the black girl didn’t imagine that from a black majority country she would be hosting a white girl. That movie has really stuck with me.
    But it seems for Tamila there were still race related adventures and surprises to be found. alex

    Like

  3. From Tamila:

    Alex, I can’t tell you the emotions I felt when you brought up “The color of friendship” I remember this movie so well, and it still gives me chills. I remember thinking about this movie during my time in South Africa, and remembering how relevant it still is. How the scenes in that movie, were still very real today— but not just in South Africa but also very much present in the deep American south. Thank you for this reminder.

    Warm regards,

    Tamila

    Like

  4. Dana permalink

    Tamila, thank you for contributing this wonderful essay. I have very little I can think to add at the moment except that I hope you will continue to share your experiences and your perspective

    This excerpt is powerful, and well-said:

    “We must do better. We must learn to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, towards each other, in hopes of meeting halfway, to find a balance that would remedy the casual indifference we live in today. “

    Like

    • Tamila Kianfard permalink

      Dana, thank you so much. There are very few comments that are more uplifting than one that understands where another is coming from. Thank you for your kind words and your kind heart. Thank you for grasping the message I was trying so hard to get across.

      Like

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