South Africa is a country renowned for its iconic landmarks, such as Table Mountain, Robben Island and Jeffreys Bay.
But an ugly reality belies the beautiful landscape, stunning coastline and enchanting history promoted in glossy tourism brochures. In my first trip back to my homeland in seven years I saw how a backdrop of gangs, violence and crime were ruining the public face of what I had always believed to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Poverty, violence and corruption are the order of the day. It may seem harsh but that is the sad reality of what’s left of South Africa.
My first day driving through the streets of Port Elizabeth was disastrous.
The streets were covered with potholes and nobody knew how to stick to a speed limit. Don’t get me wrong; driving at 130km/h on a main street gave me the biggest adrenaline rush, but I was more interested in my safety than my speed.
There are certain areas where I was advised by family and friends not to stop at red lights, to keep moving for safety, and even to drive well above the speed limit in some areas to minimise the possibility of robbery and carjacking.
Port Elizabeth locals famously know Helenvale, Schauderville, Arcadia and Bloemendal as “red zones” where there is frequent unrest. On many nights violence erupts in those areas as residents protest against all-too-frequent power blackouts by burning tyres on the streets and throwing rocks at passing cars.
Violence on the streets
I thought that was as bad as it could get but the subsequent days bore many surprises. Two news placards posted on a street-light pole made grim reading: “Two-year-old’s body pierced with bullets” and “Gang violence claims more lives”.
In Australia, those headlines would lead to public outcry and government intervention but in South Africa it seems everyone has become accustomed to this tragic level of violence. After speaking to the local residents I learned many people accept that this is just how life is but many say they live in fear, particularly when all they hear at night is gunfire and police sirens.
Gang violence has become a worsening problem; they have started to kill one another.
In my first week in South Africa a gang member was shot in the head at point blank range outside a shopping centre across the road from a primary school, where his body was left in the car while students walked past on their way home from school that day.
I can only imagine how this type of scene would affect a young child’s psyche.
I guess it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that I too would fall victim to crime during my visit. One afternoon as I prepared to draw some cash from an ATM a man carrying a gun demanded my card. I gave it to him and left as fast as I could to call the police. By the time they arrived the robber was gone – and my bank account had been emptied of 20,000 rands (about $A2000).
I was both angry and sad that I had let my guard down. I should’ve known better. I was angry because I had been comfortable carrying out what would be an everyday activity on the streets of Sydney but I was overridden with sadness that people had to resort to stealing from a stranger to survive. I know the South African economy is bad but how down on his luck did he have to be to steal from a vulnerable girl half his size?
At the end of the day I consoled myself that it was just money and it could’ve ended in spilt blood. Fortunately it was a lesson learned and I survived, poorer in pocket but wiser in my actions.
The life of the poor
Experiencing all these different types of scenes sent me into a whirlwind of emotions.
It was really heartbreaking to have children aged five to 10 beg for money just so they could buy something to eat. Sometimes it wasn’t children, it was disabled people who could barely walk, asking for my spare change. All they wanted was enough to buy a loaf of bread, I gave what I could but it still didn’t stop that heart-wrenching feeling of not being able to do more.
I was overwhelmed by everything that I saw. I returned to my own country as a tourist but I wanted to experience it at the local level and went all the places a local resident would go.
Many people said to live in a South African town you need to have “serious hair on your back” and just ignore all the bad that you see. How do you do that? How do you ignore little children begging for money? How do you turn a blind eye to how the poor are living?
The disparity between rich and poor is evident. The rich (and they’re not all white) live in suburbs where houses have high fences; the poor are pushed to the outskirts of town to live in shacks. The thousands of tin shacks surrounding the major cities are known as the “shanty towns”.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night, the air is filled with blankets of smoke. Everywhere you turn there are field fires right next to these towns. Children playing around in the bushes set majority of the fires.
Twenty years after Nelson Mandela presided over the birth of the Rainbow Nation the racial divide is as evident as it was back then. But we are living in the 21st century. Discriminating against another person because of the colour of their skin is not progression – that is regression.
Beauty of the motherland
After the bad luck of the first week in Port Elizabeth I could not wait to get to Cape Town – it had to be better than the previous week. Cape Town is home to some of the most beautiful beaches and historical sites.
It was my first time going to Robben Island and what an amazing experience it was. The Robben Island prison is best known for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 years but as a tourist I learned more about his fellow inmates, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Mac Maharaj and Ahmed Kathrada.
Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, explained how they ended up in prison but to me going to Robben Island and learning more about the famous names of South African history can’t be explained. Being able to walk the same ground they did and lie on the same floor they did placed a heavy weight on my heart.
Robben Island in photos
The next stop was Table Mountain. The view from the top took my breath away. I love taking photos and this was the prime location for me.
Despite the crime and corruption that plagues South Africa, the safaris that the country has on offer are some of the best worldwide. Spotting the “Big Five” – the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and the white rhinoceros – is one of the most popular tourist pursuits.
I went on a safari at Addo Elephant National Park and, although I’m not a big animal fan, I was mesmerised by the beauty of it all. I had lunch overlooking a watering hole where there were zebras and springboks.
I was relieved that despite the many changes, one thing that remains the same in South Africa is its eclectic range of food. I tried everything from snoek (a salted barracuda) to gatsbys (a humongous footlong sandwich containing “the lot”) to a good ol’ fashioned braai with sundowners (barbecued chicken wings on a stick).
Regardless of the violence and crime South Africa will always be a part of me. The two weeks I spent there resonated with me in a way that can’t be explained.
It is a country filled with beauty but, sadly, a country destroyed by its people. As an outsider I saw the good, the bad and the heart-shattering reality it offers those who call it home. One thing that will always remain a strong part of the South African culture is the gratitude shown to those who made the sacrifices that built the nation. And the hope that just as change has come before, it can again. – Photos and text by Ra’Eesah Lillah
Ra’Eesah Lillah completed Macleay College’s Bachelor of Journalism degree in 2015.