February 28, 2008

Race, Identity, Soweto and Me

“Hello, white girl.” This was my welcome to Soweto.

One of South Africa’s largest townships, Soweto is most well known as the hotbed of youth activism against apartheid, particularly during the fateful June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising when over 10,000 students marched against the government’s policy that education must take place in Afrikaans as opposed to English. (The apparent “logic” behind the ruling was that White’s taxes were contributing to Black education, thus Blacks must learn in Afrikaans, a language they had no background in.) The Soweto Uprising brought national attention to South Africa as police opened random fire on the students after a policeman threw rocks into the crowd and the children threw rocks back. 566 people died that day, and the senseless violence upon children was the tipping point to bring political and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Knowing this history, I of course wanted to visit Soweto. The guys at work decided that I wasn’t allowed to take a tour. “No, no, no. We’ll take you to the hood,” they liked to tell me. So I finally got them to commit to a time, and on Sunday Thabiso and Molemo (in the pictures below) showed me around their town.

For starters, their version of the “hood” is not exactly the Magnolia Projects. Perhaps I’m not sensitized as I might be if from here, but I certainly didn’t feel in danger at any point in time. Instead, I felt like I was in a low-middle income Black community, not so unlike Duke Dr. where I spent my early years in Kenner, Louisiana. Single family homes with lots of family coming in and out. Folks hanging out in the streets, strolling around on a hot summer day. People calling out to everyone who passed by ‘cause you know they know your “mama and ‘dem.” (Ok, so maybe we only say that phrase in New Orleans. =))

What was different were the clear signs of apartheid and the progress since. Soweto is where Gauteng Province’s Black people were forcibly moved during apartheid (and today 6 million of South Africa’s 42 million people live in Soweto). No one was allowed to own land. The homes were built practically on top of each other, so there are generally no “yards” to speak of. And quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity to be found in Soweto.

On the other hand, those who have been able have added extensions to their homes. So in between a row of modest houses are newly constructed two-story places. (However, interestingly enough, very few of these houses have the immense security walls found in the White suburbs.) At the “posh” local restaurants you do see some folks of other races. And perhaps Soweto’s most interesting sign of “progress” is the absolutely massive mall and the equally ginormous mega-churches. (I thought I’d seen some of world’s largest mega-churches when working in Ohio, but this is a whole other thing….)

Soweto, like most of my time in South Africa, also consistently brought me back to the conversation of race. The initial trigger came as Thabiso and I were standing outside Molemo’s house waiting for him to get back from church. Molemo’s cousin walked by and started calling out to me:

“Hello white girl. Come stand in the shade with me white girl. Don’t get burned white girl.” Thabiso just laughed and laughed.

My jaw dropped. “Thabiso, did I lose six shades of pigment since this morning?”

“Nah, you’re just White in Soweto.”

Hmm…ok. I could see how even in the Rainbow Nation the black/white paradigm would be powerful in the township. If you aren’t Black in Soweto, essentially you’re White. I could see that.

However, the next day is what really surprised me. I went into the office to tell my Sowetan tales, including my new found whiteness. I was certain everyone would see the humor in my “Hello white girl” moment and laugh with me at the story. Turns out several people at the office thought I was White as well!

So again, I ask the fairly inane question, “Did I lose several shades of pigment today?” The Johannesburg summer has been baking me, and I’m definitely a very toasty shade of brown.

“No, it’s not about your skintone. Your facial features are White. You don’t look like our Indians. And you speak proper,” says my White, Afrikaans-speaking co-worker. Apparently accents in South Africa tell you more about racial category than skin color.

“I thought you were White as well, but maybe Coloured (mixed). Although wouldn’t have guessed Indian,” says my White, lesbian co-worker, whose partner is Coloured and adopted daughter is Black.

“Why not Indian I ask?” South Africa has the largest Indian community outside of India. Surely I could be “recognized” Indian here.

“We don’t really know that there are any Indians from India in America.”

Fantastic. We need to get Kal Penn to do more movies.

I then ask a Black female co-worker and she says she couldn’t guess my racial background either. But she did notice that I had “Indian hair”...

So then I asked an Indian co-worker (in a fairly obvious move for acceptance) what he thought my ethnic background was. Surely he would take me for one of his own.

“I figured you were Hispanic.”


From what I gathered from him, most of South Africa’s Indians are South Indian, who are generally darker skinned than me. And as I was told by another co-worker, “Our Indians aren't usually ‘curvy’ as you are.” Ah, the curves…

In the end it became abundantly clear that my racial category had been a topic of office conversation, and the general consensus was that no one knew. Which also meant they didn’t know which social box to put me in. Well, except foreign.

Which got me thinking…

In America, I’m never quite American. Everyone asks me where I’m from. Not the American city I was born in, but where I’m “from from,” in other words my ethnic background. In India, I don’t have to open my mouth before it is assumed I’m not from India, simply in how I carry myself. In Argentina, I was assumed to be Brazilian. In Brazil, I was Venezuelan. In Ohio, I was Black. And in South Africa, I’m now apparently White.

I’m not complaining about playing racial chameleon. It’s actually often fun, generally interesting, and sometimes quite helpful. It’s just fascinating to me that race is still used as such a salient social construct, although it can’t be definitively defined.

Moreover, this whole experience has me thinking about identity. My personal identity is deeply linked to being “South Asian American,” but that construct has no value here. I’ve also grown up working with and for communities of color, but suddenly I’m seen as White here – not as part of the majority group, but as part of those with elevated access and power.

I’m not really sure what all of this means yet. But I am going back to Soweto tomorrow tonight. Maybe there I’ll find some answers, or at least some more questions...

February 17, 2008


I’m getting really antsy to spend some time outside of Johannesburg, partly because the constant reminders of extreme income disparities are incredibly unnerving. I’m aware that economic inequality is not a uniquely South African condition, but the acceptance of the disparity here makes me terribly sad and uncomfortable. As someone explained it to me, “You have a first world society within a third world country, designed that way during years of apartheid to create cheap labor. No one is going to rush to change that – newly rich Black or always rich White.”

A perfect example of the juxtaposition is a comparison of Jo’burg’s so-called Downtown CBD and the current location of most corporate offices, Sandton. Downtown Jo’burg looks like the place time forgot. Dilapidated office buildings, pot-holed filled roads, and chaotic taxi ranks suggest the area was once a business center, while simultaneously evoking a complete lack of care. As the pictures tell the story:

In contrast, Sandton, as I’ve mentioned, looks like Beverly Hills. Below are pictures of the place I’m staying. Considered your standard “nice Sandton home,” I can’t even capture the whole thing in one shot (although again, not complaining).

Perhaps it’s not only the juxtapositions that do exist, but also the ones that do not that are making me a bit anxious. American movies, American television, American restaurants, American clothing stores – all part of my daily life here. I didn’t come abroad to get away from those things necessarily, but I was certainly looking for something a little different. And it’s not that differences don’t exist, it’s just that I often have to look really hard to find them.

Part of the lack of difference, I believe, is that the uniquely “South African” story, as I’ve mentioned before, is still developing. (ie. The government tried to introduce a national pledge. Though a good idea in theory, the actual words were greeted with much controversy: “SA Battles National Identity Crisis” http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx? articleid=332519&area=/breaking_news/breaking_news__national/ ) The other part of Americanized Johannesburg, I think, is the city's apparent xenophobia and its deep desire to be to be Africa’s “most Western city.” Often I’ve heard South Africans tell me that they’re going to “Africa Africa” when headed to another African country. Even Black South Africans do not consider themselves to be “African.”

In the end, maybe my personal anxiousness is based in expectations, and I need to stop looking for or at “juxtapositions.” Perhaps instead I should learn to be more fully present in the moments that are. Not really sure either way. But in the meantime while I figure it out, I just booked a trip to Mozambique. =)

February 15, 2008

I <3 Technology

For someone who works in “new media,” I certainly have crap luck with technology. My problems began when I realized that Apple computers do not have even a remote following in South Africa, not even in the trendiest Jo’burg suburbs. So when I talk about my “Mac,” more than once I’ve been asked if I’m referring to McDonalds.

The lack of Mac computers of course means there’s a lack of support services. So when I nearly blew a fuse in the office trying to charge my laptop through my converter, it took interrogating six different computer stores to realize no one could help me get a local charger, extended battery, or a converter that wouldn’t spark when I plugged it in. (Thankfully some bootleg options solved that problem.)

My second issue has been internet access outside of the office. Like most developing countries, there is no mass use of broadband or existence of cable modems here. Anything that requires laying cable doesn’t exist. So satellite and wireless are the norm, which would be fine if I had a PC. 3G cards are easily accessible and incredibly easy to use. But alas, again, the Mac I love has no slot for a 3G card.

So I devise Plan B: use my cell phone as a modem via Bluetooth or a USB chord. Should be easy enough. I load my SIM card with a data package, follow all the appropriate instructions, and rush home excited to finally be on Skype when people in the US are awake.

Five calls to customer service later I learn that Macs are apparently only compatible with Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones for use as a modem. I own a Motorola.

Great. I go to each of the wireless service providers again for other options, but they can make me no guarantees. “We don’t know Apple computers ma’am. Sorry.”

By this point I’m angry and bitter and taking it out on the folks at the one Apple-authorized dealer I did find, as they can barely help me with anything either. The manager feels so bad for me that he personally takes me around to all the wireless service providers in the mall yet again. Perhaps there was some solution…

Four stores and an hour later, we finally found one. A Mac-friendly USB modem that I could buy without signing away my first-born (most required a three year contract and infinite paperwork that I, as a foreigner, could not produce). I purchase this US$400 device out of exhaustion and desperation; I needed the madness to end.

I get home and again am supremely excited to be connected. But my bliss only lasts one week. The SIM card in my USB modem suddenly malfunctions and I again cannot connect. Error message: “Cannot negotiate connection with remote PPP server.”

Ignoring the fact that I have no idea what that means, the people at customer service had no idea either. After calling every day for a week, after spending 5 hours total on hold listening to terrible music, after talking to 9 different customer service reps, no one could tell me what happened to my SIM card. “We’ll try to fix it ASAP. We assure you.” I’m not so trusting of call center assurances.

Finally today, over a week after it stopped working and two weeks after my USB modem’s purchase, I spoke to someone sane at MTN, my service provider.

“You’ve simply run out of airtime miss.”

“I’m sorry, what?

I’ve been speaking to you people for a week now.”

“Yes, seems as though you were set up with 100MB of data and it was used up in five days. You just need to purchase a new SIM card.”

Oh. Great. That’s all. Say hi to your colleagues for me. Tell them I’m the girl with the Mac.

February 14, 2008

Home Is Where the Heart Is

They say living abroad helps you better appreciate home. I wrote this entry about six months ago while sitting in an airport contemplating my random travels. It has nothing to do with South Africa, but reading it again while in SA gave it more meaning, as part of me going abroad on my own was to be reminded how much I love the people, places, and things I love. Perhaps because it’s Valentine’s Day, perhaps it’s the sentimentality that comes with being away for a month now….not sure. But thought I’d share this random entry anyway. =)


I’ve had two great loves in my life.

The first gave me life, taught me to grow, unconditionally provided me with support, kindness and grace that I didn’t even ask for. It taught me reality from fantasy and authenticity from pretense. It taught me the true meanings of loyalty and honor. And perhaps most importantly, my first love taught me to love all of life, even in its many shades of gray.

But I left that love. I was young, and it was all I knew. So eight years ago I packed my bags in search of something more.

I didn’t find something more, but I did find something new. I found a second love that brought excitement, intrigue, and wonder. A love that taught me about the world’s endless possibilities, and then taught me about my own. I remain in awe of my second love as I slowly discover its history and many dimensions. In my second love, I find myself finding myself.

Yet both of my loves have seen tragedy - my second was hurt before I knew it; the first is still not back on its feet two years after it was struck. So I’ve begun to reconnect with my first love, to be supportive in this time of need and in hopes of finding all its original glory. Instead what I find are small broken remnants of what once was and constant reminders of what may never again be. My second love sees and understands from afar, but doesn’t truly comprehend why my first love can’t seem to recover.

See my first love is the city of New Orleans – vibrant, diverse, nuanced, and unique in only those most indescribable of ways. A city that throughout my childhood exuded the type of energy that alchemists once tried to bottle and store, but they couldn’t capture its beauty. The music, the colors, the people, the food, the history, the art, the love of life that cannot be replicated, all made up everything I knew as a child and how I believed the rest of the world to be. It wasn’t until I left it, however, that I realized how truly special it was. Apparently all children do not celebrate Mardi Gras and treasure cabbage thrown at them on St. Patrick’s Day.

My second love has many of its own idiosyncrasies. I am in a committed and fairly serious relationship with the city of New York. We’ve been together nearly five years now, and not a day goes by that I don’t discover something new. New York is so full of energy that no one even tries to capture it, as it’s clearly impossible. In fact, the endless potential found in New York is both awe-inspiring and simultaneously maddening. Sometimes it makes my head spin when I realize just how much I can actually do in the city of New York. Yet the truth is that the madness is exactly what keeps me coming back, and every time I leave and return to New York, I’m quickly reminded why I love it so much.

What I can’t understand, however, is why my two loves can’t meld and share. Why can’t the crazy accomplishment driven energy of New York be shared with New Orleans to help my first love rebuild? Why can’t New Orleans’ love of life’s smallest pleasures be shared with New York to help my second love slow down? Perhaps then they wouldn’t be the same, and I should learn to accept them as they are.

But if I were to be truly honest, my greatest dream would be to have them both. A few months with my first love, a few others with my second. In theory, that can be accomplished, but I’m genuinely scared that my first love is dying. That my children will never know the New Orleans I knew, and my New York self doesn’t know how to change that.

All I do know is that the energy of New Orleans that once could not be bridled now only comes in as a soft whisper. And although barely audible, it tells me the core of its soul is not gone and allows me to feel the ever so slight beat of a pulse to say New Orleans is still alive – it will return to full form in its own way, in its own time. My New York self doesn’t really understand that type of patience and continues to push for signs of progress, but my New Orleans self reminds me to have faith, and to continue to love one day at a time.

February 11, 2008

Apartheid Museum

Every weekend I try to do one touristy activity. This weekend was the much heralded Apartheid Museum. I must say that it is a beautifully designed structure. In particular, the path to enter the museum is a gorgeous depiction on full length mirrors of South Africa’s multi-racial people walking “with you” on the path. So as you walk by to see who makes up South Africa, you consistently see yourself. Another beautiful acknowledgement of inclusion and individuality.

Beyond the design, the museum itself brought up lots of interesting questions about what makes a “museum” and how one can tell the story of apartheid. The current “exhibit” takes you through the history of apartheid, beginning with Johannesburg’s gold rush that brought people from all over the world to SA and then taking you through the economic and social factors that created and eventually brought down the horrific institution of apartheid. Although most certainly worth experiencing, I personally have read and studied this aspect of South African history at length, so my mind went immediately to how the story was told as opposed to the story itself.

At the Apartheid Museum the story is told almost exclusively through photos, words, and videos. So you feel like someone has blown up pages from a multi-media history book and you’re simply walking through. There are few “artifacts” of the “era” – beyond the many signs that designated segregation between “Europeans” and “Non-Europeans.” Further, there is limited editorial to the story. Instead, everything known to have happened is placed on the walls in basically chronological order.

In truth I don’t know that the “museum” can present its “exhibit” any differently, except perhaps to deepen the segregation experience for attendees (which they try to do with the separate entrances to the museum, but it’s a very small example of the severe indignities people faced during apartheid). Beyond this, South Africa’s truth is that the story of apartheid is still evolving. There is yet little time and space for historians to look back and say, “This is how this story should be told.” No place to dig up “artifacts” to define the “experience” of apartheid. South Africa has essentially erected a “museum” (a structure usually displaying items already in existence, such as art or artifacts) for a story that is still in development, and the post-apartheid picture has yet to emerge.

My personal fear is that the post-apartheid story will be an economic one. Today, one does see racial integration – in the office, in the mall, even at the clubs – you see people of every color, a true “Rainbow Nation.” But the mix of races quickly belies the similarity in socioeconomic class. And as you move into the “poorer” parts of town, the mix of races all but disappears. There are few white members of Johannesburg’s underclass. And although there has been growth of a black middle class and the emergence of the "Black Diamonds," SA's black wealthy elite, the distribution of wealth is not even close to reaching a broad base. As such, the photos in the Apartheid Museum of how things “were” in terms of racial and economic segregation in SA are unfortunately photos that could just as easily be taken today.

February 3, 2008

How Eskom Stole My Saturday Night

One of my new found Jo’burg friends planned a big evening out for Saturday night – dinner and dancing at the Monte Casino, full on Vegas style. She wanted to introduce me to Jo’burg nightlife, have me meet all of her friends, and essentially show me – the new foreign girl – a good time in her city. Obviously, I was looking forward to the evening, especially as my new friend had gone to so much effort.

Eskom is South Africa’s electricity provider. These days, they are also Public Enemy #1. On the lips of every radio talk show host, newspaper editor, businessperson, taxi driver, or street vendor are words of venom toward Eskom as the load shedding continues to disrupt everyone’s lives. The salt in the wound is that Ekom (and the government) knew ten years ago that this power shortage would come, but no one chose to do anything about it.

Initially, I only listened to everyone’s Eskom horror stories, but did not join in the bashing. Load shedding is something I’m familiar with from India, so I didn’t think it was unbearable. UNTIL Saturday night.

On Saturday I learned that the security gates to get in and out of the property where I’m staying are powered by electricity. And lucky for me, the power went just as I tried to leave the house for the big night out.

[ For all who know me, this will be a classic sight: Four-inch platform heels, layers of non-waterproof mascara, recently straightened hair + pouring rain, complete darkness, and manual labor. ]

The only way to get in and out of my place without electricity was to manually open the gates. In order to do so, one has to unlock the padlocks on the heavy iron arms that lock the gate. Then one has to lift the iron arms, move them to the side, then one can physically pull open the massive gates. At first I was quite proud of myself because I figured it all out. But then, as soon as I shut the gates, I learned that one can manually open the gates to get out, but cannot manually open the gates to get back in….

Let’s just say I never made it to Monte Casino.

February 2, 2008

Old Fort Prison and Constitutional Hill

Old Fort Prison, commonly known as Number Four, was home to many of apartheid’s atrocities. Every political prisoner – from Nelson Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi – was held and abused there. And Number Four’s “common law” prisoners faced even further severe human rights violations and indignities there.

In an effort to both acknowledge the past and move towards the future, South Africa chose to place it’s Constitutional Court on the site of Old Fort Prison. The Court, which has created perhaps the most progressive Constitution in existence, hears only cases of human rights violations and works to move South Africa forward. As such, it was built out of the bricks of the Old Fort Prison into a new, forward-moving, inclusive space that is deeply embossed in symbolism. In doing so, the Constitutional Court building demonstrates both the beauty and challenge of diversity. It sits as an example of inclusiveness without assimilation and demonstrates how different cultures can mix together and still stand on their own.

The photos tell the story best. (Click on the box twice to see the slideshow full screen.)