In South Africa

On my way to Malawi, through a series of bizarre flight manipulations, I ended up staying in Johannesburg, South Africa an extra day. There is no other place like South Africa on earth and this is like no place I’ve ever been.

A bizarre mish mash of seemingly incongruent cultures, South Africans happily manipulate a range of languages and cultural symbols. People flow from one tongue to another, with little indication that anything gets lost in communication. TV shows are like a constantly shifting, musical chairs style circular journey through South Africa’s 11 official languages, two white, and the rest indigenous African, Swahili and various creole languages. Where much is made in the United States about the standardization and enforced uniformity of language, South Africa breaks all conventions and shows that a truly multi-linguistic society can occur.

Music in South Africa is equally diverse. Store and mall music systems constantly play genre-defying sounds, mashing together forms that span rock, soul, African and a host of other, without the pale ironies and nostalgic tributes of that in the United States or Europe. It’s almost unthinkable that these parts would gel together to form a coherent whole, but it works amazingly nonetheless.

Much of my previous knowledge of South Africa stemmed from the anti-Apartheid rhetoric in the late 80’s, when the United States put immense pressure of the South African government to abandon the former racist system. People screamed in the American press, maligning the racist policies of the government at that time. I don’t see how the United States could serve as a keeper of social morality (particularly with Reagan in office), having enacted almost identical policies for nearly five centuries, but we waved the flag of moral superiority until South Africa caved and ceded power to the ANC.

Regardless, a country is not the sum total of how it is represented abroad.South Africa has much to offer. A country on the brink of implosion, massive unemployment and inequality, the highest violent crime rate in the world, but South Africa is still incredibly full of hope. Humans, in even the most culturally challenging of situations can rise up to pull together, even if it appears the opposite. South Africa, despite being older than the United States, could quite possibly be the youngest developed country on Earth. It will be incredibly interesting to see how South Africa turns out.

For now, jetlagged and falling apart at the seams…..

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

One response to “In South Africa”

  1. Ferunando-desu says :

    Awesome dude. Send me a Postcard!

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