A foreign viewpoint exposes SA’s harsh reality

Ryland Fisher says we should not accept the inequalities in our society, but should work hard in order to truly say we have forsaken all vestiges of apartheid.

I am often asked to speak to groups of overseas visitors. Sometimes they are people interested in investing in South Africa; sometimes students.

This week I spent time with visitors from South East Asia attached to an overseas foundation with which I have been working closely over the past few months.

What was different this time was they asked me to show them around Cape Town and the Cape Flats and they were particularly interested in seeing inequalities, how these manifest and what people are doing to cope with them.

Most of the group are involved in healthcare initiatives in their countries.

I’m not a tour guide, but I realised they did not want a guided tour and I am a proud South African and welcome every opportunity to speak to foreigners about what we are doing right and wrong in our country.

I took them to Khayelitsha, where we visited some health facilities and the newly built Isivivana Youth Centre which will house several NGOs. It is similar to Salt River’s Community House but far nicer.

I also took them to Hout Bay because I have always been fascinated by how three distinct and different communities live side by side and depend on one another for survival there.

I also thought after a day of seeing all the hardship many experience on a daily basis, my guests should also be exposed to the beauty of Llandudno, Camps Bay and Clifton, which we passed on our way back to their hotel in the southern suburbs.

Nothing speaks more about the inequality in South Africa than comparing these beautiful suburbs to places like Khayelitsha.

But first, on the way to Khayelitsha, I decided to show them the Trojan Horse Memorial in Thornton Road, Athlone and the Gugulethu Seven Memorial in what is now known as Steve Biko Street in Gugulethu.

I have been to all these places many times before, but it is different when one is accompanied by people from other countries because they sometimes see things one would not observe.

The questions were many and some seemed strange to a South African hardened over the years by having lived under apartheid. At the Trojan Horse Memorial, some of my guests kept asking me to explain what had happened because they could not fathom that anyone could do what police did on that day in October 1985, when they jumped out of crates on the back of a South African Railways truck and started shooting indiscriminately at youth gathered in the street, killing Jonathan Claassen, aged 21, Shaun Magmoed, 15 and Michael Miranda, 11 and injuring many others.

“What kind of person would do such a thing? This is incomprehensible,” said one of my guests.

My reply was that apartheid was incomprehensible. The same type of questions were asked at the Gugulethu Seven Memorial.

Today it seems weird a group made up of roughly 15 or 20 percent of the population could oppress the majority for so long. They determined where we lived, who we could sleep with or marry, where we could go to school, where we could work.

They determined every aspect of our lives and got away with it for three centuries of colonialism and 46 years of legalised apartheid.

As we walked through a clinic in Khayelitsha and the nursing sisters were telling us about the struggles they deal with on a daily basis, I could not help thinking about how fortunate so many of us are who don’t live in a township like Khayelitsha, even those who live in the suburbs and go to do good work in the townships.

The difference for those who live in the suburbs and work in the townships is they get to go home every night to a place more comfortable than anything you might experience in the township. They can also, at any time decide to withdraw completely.

Those who live in places like Khayelitsha do not have that luxury.

This is their home and they have to make things work there in order to be able to provide their children with a better future.

This might sound like platitudes, but ultimately we all want the same things for our children. We want them to grow up in a decent environment, have a good education and afterwards have access to the best possible employment opportunities.

It is of course much harder if your starting point is Khayelitsha or Mitchells Plain as opposed to Camps Bay or Constantia.

My guests this week could not understand why so many people continue to live in poverty. Many South Africans have accepted this as part of our reality.

But we need to start imagining a reality where things will be different for people in townships such as Khayelitsha, and where the gap between rich and poor is no longer so wide.

Sometimes all it takes is to walk through the townships and commit yourself to working with others to change the living conditions of people. I kept on wondering how many local white people have ever gone willingly into places like Khayelitsha.

My guests told me they had learnt a great deal from me.

I learnt much from them because their realities are different from ours.

I learnt we should not accept the inequalities in our society. We should be working hard to change things so we can truly say we have forsaken all vestiges of apartheid. Otherwise townships like Khayelitsha will always be stark reminders of our dark past.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 18 June 2016)