July 5, 2011

Observations in South Africa

Ryan Parks, GHLI Student Fellow
June 2011 

The Campus where I am staying
I’ve been in South Africa for two weeks and one of the most striking things I’ve noticed so far is the country’s multiculturalism. While the U.S. may have more ethnic groups within its borders, the sense of cultural diversity seems far more vivid and pervasive here. 

In the U.S., there is constant tension between cultural individuality and a coherent “American” identity – the eternal “melting pot” vs. “salad bowl” debate.  While there isn’t that same conflict in South Africa.  The lines between the ethnic groups here seem much clearer, with immediately obvious differences in mannerisms and accents, not to mention their food, domestic culture and customs.
One example of cultural differences is the custom of pleasantries before any verbal exchange, something I remember distinctly from my summer last year in Uganda. When I walked up to the ticket booth to buy a movie ticket the other day, I asked for “2 adult tickets for the 8:30 movie” and got a blank stare. I then remembered what I had been told by a South African friend and had the following conversation:
“How are you?”
“Fine, how are you?”
“Fine. Could I have two adult tickets for the 8:30 movie please?”
She then smiled and happily gave me my tickets. It was the same situation when asking the security guard what time the mall closed, or calling the taxi driver for a ride somewhere. After a week of enduring blank stares (and judgment), I’ve gotten far better at this style of conversation.
However, none of that seems expected with the Afrikaners or Anglo-Africans here. It doesn’t surprise them if I do start off with usual salutations, but they seem just as happy skipping all the pleasantries.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be looked after by the (Afrikaner) family of one of the delegates to the conference, Dr. Selma Smith. I’ve stayed at their house for two of my three weekends now, and everything I’ve experienced, from the food to the atmosphere and the domestic life seems far more…familiar (I guess Western) than I would have expected. I haven’t been to a black South African household (yet), so I look forward to that experience in the coming months. 

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