“Welcome to a world where you have privilege based on the color of your skin.”
This statement was part of a lecture on contemporary South African issues during my first week as a student at the University of Cape Town. My professor was discussing the details of life in this unique area of the world, and his words rang truer than I ever thought they could.
I knew that living in Cape Town, South Africa for five months would be an unusual experience. As an ambitious young traveler, I wanted to spend my study abroad experience immersed in a place that had cultural and historical depth. But I didn’t realize how much I had to learn from this complex and often conflicted city.
Though Cape Town is one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan places, it is not immune to the legacies of the past. This became all too real to me while on a day trip to Boulder’s Beach. Located on the Cape Peninsula south of the city, the beach is a breathtaking sight where the waves of the Atlantic Ocean meet huge rocks, white sand and hundreds of penguin colonies.
To get there, a group of friends and I purchased tickets for the train – a form of transportation about which we had heard countless horror stories. When the doors opened at our stop in Mowbray, the six of us struggled to push into the most overcrowded space I could imagine. We huddled together as the heat of the African sun bore down relentlessly through the window.
As we traveled further, it became evident that not only were we the only white people on the train, but that we were the targets of stares from every angle. I figured this was par for the course, but seeing my friends clutching their backpacks and beach bags made me worry. Then when a man sitting next to my friend Alice began to scream at her in a language we did not understand, I began to panic, realizing we might not be so safe.
After the man got off the train, a woman quietly asked to see Alice’s ticket. She explained we were on the wrong train – our tickets were stamped “Metro Plus,” giving us the privilege to be in a first-class car, not the third-class car we had found ourselves in.
Now knowing where to go for the return trip, I realized two features in abundance in the first-class car that night: available seats and white people. Hardly anyone yelled or exchanged questionable looks, and a guard patrolled up and down the aisle.
None of us had asked for any special ticket at the station that morning, just whatever would take us to the beach. At first I figured the ticket agent wanted to take advantage of us by charging a higher price, but then it dawned on me he had given us our first lesson on racism here. In his eyes, our skin color dictated our travel preference.
South Africa’s history of tense and at times violent racial conflict is not the only issue leaving a bitter taste. Crime and poverty continue to be major concerns. Two girls in my program have been mugged, stories of rape and stabbings surface every day, and I live in a house protected by an electric fence and an intricate security system.
I may still be a bit na’ve, but I’ve spent my entire life learning that a person’s skin color has no effect on who he or she is or what he or she will become. And when I chose to come to Cape Town I knew it was not necessarily considered safe. But with a quarter of the population HIV-positive and over half living in poverty on the city’s outskirts, this place is far from paradise.
If anything, the experience on the train showed me I still have a lot to learn about the rest of the world. If I can look at every situation like this through a journalist’s eyes, maybe I can see beyond my own emotions to examine an issue from all sides. And maybe I can get closer to finding out why Cape Town is the way it is.
For now, I would say my curiosity has been piqued.