Is South Africa…….Africa?

Ok, so this might sound like a stupid question but since I arrived here I have been surprised by the number of people (generally expats) who have made the comment, ‘well South Africa isn’t really Africa, is it’. [1]

To start with I wasn’t really sure what they meant, I mean have they not seen a map? (Although some would argue that the UK is geographically in Europe, but isn’t part of Europe…..)

Anyway, it started me thinking and in true researcher fashion I began asking people what they meant, and here are their responses (perhaps put a bit more bluntly than they may have done so themselves)

1. It isn’t really cheap.

My previous housemate here in Cape Town had a real issue with how much rent we are expected to pay. Now maybe it is because I have come straight from London but to me a room in a lovely 4 bedroom house, beautifully furnished with a large sitting room, garden and let’s not forget the stunning view of Table mountain, for £300 a month is a bit of a bargain. But apparently not for my American housemate who couldn’t quite get her head round it. ‘I thought I was coming to Africa’ (which could also be rephrased as ‘I thought this was somewhere where I would be able to get a lot more for my dollar and it irks me that I can’t).

2. It’s developed

Following on from this South Africa and it’s high prices are seen to be ‘not really Africa’ because it is perceived to be ‘developed’. This doesn’t sit easily with me for two reasons in particular. Firstly, can Africa not be developed? Has the narrative of ‘poor Africa’ become so dominant in western media that if somewhere doesn’t look like it belongs on a comic relief ad it can’t ‘really’ be Africa? (And don’t get me started on what ‘developed’ actually is, I’m a sociologist after all……)

Secondly, not all of South Africa is like Cape Town. In fact South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world (income gini coefficient of around 0.7 for you stats people). Indeed the World Bank Country Director recently noted that ‘The top deciles of the population accounts for 58% of the country’s income while the bottom deciles accounts for 0.5% and the bottom half less than 8%.’

Therefore whilst Cape Town may at times feel like a ‘modern’ cosmopolitan city, the enduring legacy of apartheid means that for many people in the the country access to basic services is far from easy. And with between 25-32% of the population unemployed efforts to address poverty have struggled to make an impact (in fact what reduction there has been in poverty is due largely to social assistance grants e.g. pensions, child benefit etc that have slowly been rolled out since 1994).

Now you could argue that I’m contradicting myself. On the one hand I am saying that we shouldn’t solely see Africa as ‘less developed’, and then I’m pointing out that many areas in South Africa are exactly that. But the key thing is to not see one thing. There is not one single story. Africa can be both developed and poor, in fact it can be many things. The problem is in people being able to see and recognise them all, and in fact recognising that there isn’t in fact one path to ‘development’.

3. It’s so westernised

Another common thing that people have said is that South Africa is westernised, that it feels more like being in Europe than ‘Africa’. Certainly Cape Town is in many ways with a number of large shopping malls, internationally recognised chains (some better than others!) and first class restaurants. Living here you are able to get pretty much all the home comforts that you could ask for. It isn’t going to induce a huge culture shock on most people.

But again, does this mean that can’t be Africa? Just because men don’t dance around with spears wearing lion skin skirts (ok, so maybe I’m being a bit facetious) doesn’t meant that a rich indigenous heritage is absent. Indeed it is hard to walk around Cape Town itself without seeing it, whether it be the Castle of Good Hope in the city centre, museums such as the District 6 Museum (and in fact District 6 itself) or areas such as Bo Kaap, Cape Town is much more than just another globalised city. One just has to sit on the train and listen to the multitude of languages (South Africa has 11 official languages) to realise what a diverse and culturally rich this place is.

4. There’s lots of white people

Ok, so this isn’t exactly what people said, but it is certainly what was inferred. Now Cape Town certainly has a white population (as does South Africa in general) which is much larger than in other areas of sub-saharan African in particular due to the history of European migration and settlement in the cape. But again, does that mean that South Africa isn’t Africa?

Speaking to my white South African friends about how they define themselves I get a mixed response. They certainly don’t see themselves as European! Many see themselves as African, with most defining themselves as South African recognising the problems inherent in defining yourself as a continent as large and diverse as Africa is. Crucially it is up to them to define who they are and how they see themselves. I certainly don’t see the value in judging the validity of a country’s claim (or even a city’s claim) to be one thing or another, African or otherwise, based upon the colour of the skin of the people living there.

5. It’s cold

This one makes me laugh the most. Yes, bits of Africa are cold. And not just at the top of mountains! If you come to South Africa in winter, particularly to Cape Town, you might get a bit of shock. No it’s not snowing, but it is still cold, a fact made even worse by the lack of central heating in most houses.

And it isn’t just South Africa that isn’t a hot dry desert either. I was lucky enough to recently go to Ethiopia, probably a country more than any other in Africa associated with famine and drought, and even there it can get cold (just ask my sister who had to share a tent with me in the Simien Mountains, lucky girl.)

Rant over? Not quite I’m afraid.

Because whilst the people in question claim that South Africa isn’t Africa, at times they also do quite the opposite, reciting the famous phrase – This Is Africa – when it seems to suit them. Common examples are when someone runs a red light, when a taxi goes past with twice as many people as the vehicle manufacturer intended, or when discussing the need for extra gates and bars on houses. Remember TIA.

Now I’m not denying any of the above situations. They certainly do exist but I’m not sure that you could categorise them as issues solely associated with, and defining features of, Africa.

What really irks me is how it shows how we are happy to endorse an idea when it fits within our preconceived ideas, but that when this is challenged our immediate reaction is not to think that maybe we were wrong. Rather when South Africa isn’t the image of Africa that we imagined, it is South Africa that isn’t right.

Maybe what we really need to do is to stop talking about Africa like it is a country, like it has a homogenous identity which can easily be categorised (I find it surprising  how many Europeans are happy to do this given the problems a similar approach has caused in our own little part of the world).

This is not to deny that there are many things which the continent shares, not least the experience of colonial rule and the difficult path since independence. But this should not blind us to the amazing diversity in culture and history that the continent has to offer.

My aim in writing this is not to give a definitive answer as to whether South Africa is or isn’t Africa. Rather I guess I want to both  a) get off my chest various things that have made me feel uncomfortable recently and b)try and show some of the problems that there are in the way we (and I am certainly not exempt) often talk about this continent. Rather than shying away from, we should embrace the ways in which both Africa and the world more generally differs from our expectations. Such moments provide us with an opportunity to challenge our preconceptions and deserve more than to be simply dismissed with the phrase ‘well, it’s not really Africa, is it’.


[1] I would like to point out at this early stage that this does not refer to most of the very very very lovely people that I have met here in Cape Town.

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About raqueld83

A social policy PhD student with a passion for young people and all things (South) African. Currently embarking on a year of fieldwork in this amazing country - read on for updates on my (mis)adventures.
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