While I was living in Germany after graduating college, I made a friend from South Africa. I can’t exactly remember where we met – maybe at the Goethe Institut, maybe at the University in Goettingen. Regardless, we occasionally spent some time together.
She had a job at a local restaurant which was near my apartment, and I remember hanging out there from time to time. One night she told me that her mother would be visiting from South Africa and she needed some help keeping her entertained. After having recently had my own father visit (which was a complete disaster), I decided that whatever I could do to help a friend in the same situation would be a good deed.
It turned out that her mother was used to international travel and seemed, as best I could tell, to be quite at home in Germany. We all spent New Year’s Eve together and rang in 1995, complete with special champagne glasses that I had painted up with paint pens to commemorate the occasion.
At some point during the evening, my friend’s mother made the comment that should I ever find myself in South Africa, that I should look her up. I suppose that is what planted the seed in my mind of traveling there, for prior to that point I had never considered visiting – especially in light of all of the politics of apartheid and all. (Side note: Eventually, my masters work at Ohio University would be on this very topic, but I did not know that at the time.)
After the new year, I had withdrawn from the university in Goettingen because it didn’t suit me very well, and I worked a construction job in order to get some extra money. It turned out to be very lucrative and I was able to put away quite a small stash of cash in the span of about 8 months.
Since I had cash and a passport, I decided that it was time to travel again, and so I called my friend’s mother and made arrangements to fly to South Africa. Honestly, I had no idea what I would do there, but I’d never been, so I up and went.
My friend’s mom picked me up from the airport and drove me back to their home which was in a suburb of Pretoria.
At first, driving through the city, it seemed pretty normal. The Johannesburg/Pretoria area was more or less like any other Western city – buildings, people, shops, restaurants, and the like. When we entered the suburbs of Pretoria, though, it was something entirely new. Suddenly, the fear that punctuated the South African identity took on physical form.
In the suburbs of Pretoria – and many other cities and townships in South Africa – people’s homes exist behind high walls usually topped with spikes, glass shards, or barbed wire. When the wall of one house ends, the wall for the next begins, much like fences in the United States – except they surround the property in its entirety, beginning at the street and they are very tall – around 10’ or so.
You only occasionally glimpse the houses that sit behind them – and to be clear, these are not all big fancy houses. Even the most modest homes are surrounded by these same security walls. The only difference is the fancier the house, the higher and more intimidating the wall surrounding it.
Unless you belong to one of those houses, it is very clear that the message is “Go Away. Your presence is unwanted.” Even as a foreigner who isn’t a part of the social complexities of South Africa, you can’t help but feel it yourself. You know that the message isn’t intended for you, but you can’t help but sense it.
Driving down a street looks more like passing through the corridors in a very large building, but it’s weird because you can see the sky. Imagine, if you will, the idea of being in prison – walls surrounding you – and you are unable to get out. But, instead of seeing yourself as locked inside, imagine yourself as locked outside. You can go anywhere you want, but once there, you are unable to get admission to your destination. It is like prison turned inside out.
All along these roads in the white suburbs, you see people of color walking to and from their jobs. Meanwhile, white homeowners speed by in their cars, arrive at their particular section of the non-ending wall, and gain entry via their gate code, leaving all others locked outside in their inside-out prison cell.
I have a few striking memories from my time in South Africa, and this is one of the most profound.