South Africa in hindsight

ostrich in suburbia

Pinterest South Africa sunset lakeSouth Africa leaves an indelible impression. During our three month stay we fell in love with it for a multitude of reasons, but frequently felt uncomfortable. The answer I came up with, again and again, when asked by locals how we like it: “South Africa is a beautiful, complicated place.” Very complicated.

In the “pro” column, landscape is diverse and magnificent. We joked on our first road trip- a couple of thousand kilometers from Richards Bay to Johannesburg and then nearly to Botswana and back again- that every few hours, it looked like a different US state. We went through parts of Montana, Kansas, western Massachusetts in succession.

Even arid stretches of the Karoo held beauty (not to mention, greatly expanded our list of critter sightings: the favorite, meerkats!). Right, the Karoo, the horizon to horizon stretch of desert plains to the north. See, plans are a dangerous thing for cruisers…and because our plans to get to Cape Town in time for the arrival of relatives from the US were thwarted by weather, we made an impromptu road trip clear across South Africa. But few thousand miles of driving really is nothing, to see loved ones.


So that was interesting, and mostly awesome, except for having the gas siphoned out of our rental car while it was inside the locked gates of the guest house where we stopped on the way. Although parts of it might have been more interesting…

3 road trip

…but others were really unforgettable, like the delicious dinner at a kind of Ethopian-expat-community-center in Phuthaditjhaba.

4- ethiopian food

Or the sweet guesthouse in the cute town of Kestell that sent us to that Ethiopian feed, and is a true gem of a hideaway in reach of the Drakensberg and Lesotho. We felt so welcome, and are still enjoying homemade jams from their orchard.

karma lodge kestell free state

But the mega-miles were essential for family time with my cousin, her husband (who we had on board back in January last year, in Thailand), my aunts, and a pile of new South African in-laws to meet (cool!). Aside from precious family time, we had the all-important regional competition of POCRT (Pan Oceanic Chicago Rummy Tournament, which we have now hosted or participated in across FOUR continents).

mairen the card shark

Driving across the country hammered in a few other aspects of South Africa, like how broken the transportation system is. On highways in the middle of nowhere, people walk everywhere, because that’s the only option they have. Small towns were 30 to 50 miles apart.

6 countryside

6 walking walking

The road etiquette took some getting used to, but mostly worked. A tremendous amount ofgoods are trucked on the two-land roads across the country, and we had to shuffle the limited space right there with them. That, and animals on the roads, prompted us to limit driving to daylight hours only.

7 road etiquette

And the sailing? It was OK. We did get to chalk up our biggest 24 mile run on Totem, a whopping 242 nautical miles, but there was a pretty big assist from the Agulhas current (we were running under genoa only) so it doesn’t really feel like a “record.” Mostly, the sailing in South Africa was about waiting, sometimes for weeks, until we were pretty sure wouldn’t get smacked by the weather. With the reputation for drama along this coast we had absolutely NO interest in taking chances.

Motoring into False Bay, near Cape Town
Motoring into False Bay, near Cape Town

There were some fabulous quirks. Our kids’ favorite is the vibrant kelly green color of cream soda. Who decided THAT? And yes, it tints the tongue a lovely shade of moss.

8 cream soda

Or the fact that you can buy just about anything from a mobile vender at an intersection. All kind of random household goods (I think this guy is selling coat hangars) are present.

street corner

Or were the roadsigns. How often to you get to see signs like this?! Right.

wild animal crossing

Or the fact that you can wander through suburbia, and might encounter ostrich, or penguins. CRAZY


What I’ll always take with me from the three months we spent in South Africa is how wonderful people were to us. It started from the very beginning, with the welcome at Zululand Yacht Club in Richards Bay, where we met the family of the catamaran ‘Goody’ and got to hear about the circumnavigation where they left as a family of 3, and returned as a family of 5. Or the extended family of US friends (thank you Mowerys!), who welcomed us as their own when we arrived in Durban. Or my cousin Maeve’s in-laws near Cape Town, who made us family. Over and over again, the friendliness, hospitality, warmth, and embrace of South Africans was something we didn’t expect at all: we thought that would be one of the more difficult aspects, to be honest.

dinghy to goody
Newly arrived and off to dinner with the lovely family from SV Goody

But hanging over the beauty, and the friendliness, and the funny quirks, there was an overarching weight. Apartheid technically ended in 1994, but the country is still pretty well carved up by race. You see things you don’t want to understand at first because they visually spell out how much bald racism remains a fact of everyday life. It was horrible to realize how differently we were treated by non-whites in South Africa AFTER they realized we were visitors, not Afrikaaners, most of the time: from avoiding engagement to pleasant chatting.

prepaid power
At an Old Navy – like retailer, you can top up your…home electricity?! Welcome to South Africa.

It was weird to have white South Africans warn us about the great dangers of their beautiful country loaded with generalizations about the racial nature of whatever problem they were cautioning us against. It is a country with real crime problems, but often the message was not that there are good people and bad people, but rather, that black people are the danger. Some whites pressed the idea that things were better under Apartheid. Um, for better who? As a country, South Africa is spectacularly dysfunctional, but Apartheid was most certainly not “better,” and it’s jaw dropping that anyone could think that way. The fact that people could even lead a conversation in that direction (or otherwise feel justified in espousing racist ideas, also heard repeatedly) is shocking.  And as if this needed a physical reminder, walled compounds with razor wire or electric fences on top are the rule.

fences razor wire topped
If you are privileged / white, you probably live behind a wall topped with razor wire. From our guesthouse

South Africans will say we can’t understand, and I have no doubt that’s true, but it’s impossible to skip over how broken it is and not wonder at the history that leaves so many either inured to or perpetuating injustice. I don’t mean to suggest all the South Africans we met were racist, because it’s far from the truth, but it’s a fair generalization that many seemed comfortable with a despairing acceptance of the status quo.

It takes time, some will say. The USA still struggles with racism, and it’s been a long period of “equality.”

I don’t like to end this on such a negative note. We enjoyed our three months in South Africa. It was a country for which we didn’t have many expectations, and it blew us away – mostly in ways that leave wonderful memories. Overwhelmingly, it was about time with our family- both Jamie’s aunt & uncle, who live in Johannesburg, and my relatives from California who came to visit- and about positive experiences in a beautiful place. It’s just…complicated.

Totem is somewhere in the Atlantic, hopefully getting close to Barbados by now. See how we’re doing: our current position and speed here! We will get comments at sea, so add a little interest to our day out in the big blue. We’ll be able to respond after we hook up to the interwebs again in late April.

22 Responses

  1. This is a perfect description of the South Africa I too experienced in my short visit. We had a whirlwind visit for our son’s wedding to a South African in Pretoria. When asked what it was like, I generally talk about the walls and fences around EVERYTHING, presumably thwarting crimes of opportunity. The tension between blacks and whites was ubiquitous, an underlyment of pervasive small recitals of words and actions held together by the thread of fear. A gorgeous country, and very truly complicated.

  2. Whenever people ask me what my favorite country was to travel in, I always respond that South Africa because of its diversity- you get beautiful cosmopolitan Cape Town to rural villages, beaches to mountains, surfer culture, lions, and the kindest people you can imagine. (I always joke that the second most chivalrous men in the world are American Midwesterners. The first are South Africans.) But then I add in that while I loved traveling there I wouldn’t want to actually live there- it seems strange to be paranoid and live behind barbed wire all the time!

    Plus, a note on South Africa from my field in particular. Right now South Africa is a HUGE astronomy center for my specialty, as the Square Kilometer Array (biggest radio telescope array in the world) is going to be constructed there. It’s awesome and a lot of exciting stuff is going on. But argh, my field is also 20% women on a good day, and EVERYBODY knows that several prominent astronomers moved down there because of serious sexual harassment allegations in their home countries that make it impossible for these men to continue working there, but South Africa is desperate for good talent and will look the other way. It is a source of embarrassment for international collaborations with South African institutions, as they are ok with big names doing atrocious things to those less superior. It took me a few years to think back on the random casual racism I sometimes saw during my backpacking days and realize there’s likely a connection between the two, because any culture that tolerates the marginalization of one group is probably more likely to tolerate others.

    Of course, this does not apply to all South African astronomers, and there are unfortunately far too many astronomers abroad who are also awful people. But as you said, it’s complicated.

    1. Really interesting observations Yvette, and about the connection that suggests a tolerance of marginalization. It’s sad and it does make me wonder. 🙁

  3. You may be shocked by the blatant racism that has permeated the US in the last 8 years. It’s really disheartening. Nothing like what you saw in SA, but it’s a pretty big change from what we are used to. Of course, maybe it was always there, but people kept it under wraps. I don’t know what’s worse.

    1. Truly, Wendy, I wonder what we’re going to feel when we get back. What we see in the news is awful. What people feel acceptable to voice is at least as bad. What does it take?!

  4. A lovely, honest synopsis of a fascinating country Behan. Your account of South Africa reminds me of the terrible situation currently existing between Isreal and Palestine. My friends there too tell me that I wouldn’t understand not coming from there and that the situation is “complicated”. But I’m not convinced. Humanity knows no nationality and crime is not written in ones genes. In most cases I find people are simply a product of their environment and the way their society has shaped them.

    How many more sleeps?

  5. A thoughtful piece with an interesting and difficult message.

    We are often taken aback by open racism on our travels. Texas was a real eye opener as are sections of New Zealand where strangers seem to think it’s OK to share with you their opinions and prejudices so often based on fear.

    It really makes the gratitude we feel very complicated when you suspect, or it is clear, that the kindness you’re experiencing is very dependent on your skin colour and accent.

    What a wonderful education, especially for the kids to be able to have time to work through these differences in people and places.

    Fair winds and safe homecomings!

    Ruth and Duncan

  6. We found the racism really awful too. Coming from New Zealand, we had never experienced anything like it. We made a point of ensuring that everyone we met knew we were tourists. This wasn’t hard – just by being friendly and respectful to other races, they immediately guessed we were not white South Africans. And I think that says it all.

  7. My father was sent to ZA in 1936 to open the Firestone plant in PE. The family did not return to the States until 1957; I was 16 at the time. We always thought there would be a civil war to resolve the apartheid situation. That it never occurred was entirely due to Mandela. I wonder what he would think of the situation as you describe today. I suppose one of these days I should go back and see how things have changed or not changed. But, at age 74 I have to wonder if I will.

  8. Oh wow! getting closer and closer to the Caribbean…and as I check this (Mon. at 7pm EST), you’re doing 11knots!! Well done!

    What a tragic observation…the way you were treated by the non-whites when they realized you were tourists. Very telling. And, yes, the history is complicated, and post-apartheid is very recent, new history. But racism is racism, and we can hope that change will come.

    And the scenery…stunning! Thanks for sharing!

  9. I have spent a lot of time in East Africa, namely Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and also used to being called mzungu. I was then really looking forward to spending time in South Africa. Scenery, food and wine are fantastic. But it is very black and very white, quite a shock to what I was used to and, so made it bittersweet. But other parts of Africa are the same, Ghana and Nigeria, one friendly and the other not so.. But Africa, like many other places is truly awesome, geographically and culturally…it’s just harder work..

    1. I had to look up mzungu! We only got to experience a few other corners of Africa, but yes, in our experience too they were very different from each other and from SA. But nowhere in the five other African countries we visited (admittedly, this is a small corner) did we feel the racial antagonism encountered in SA.

  10. During her speech at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in New York City on Wednesday last week, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton discussed racism in America.

    “As you know so well, the last few years also have laid bare to deep fault lines in America”, Clinton said. “They’ve revealed how frayed our bonds of trust and respect have become. Despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with racism is far from finished. And we are seeing that in this election”.

    And this 52 years after having passed the American Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Most of us share your abhorrence of racism, but it is disappointing that you (like so many other visitors who have been warmly welcomed to the shores of our beautiful country), find it necessary to portray racism as an exclusively South African problem and an “Afrikaner” phenomenon. Yes, our country has a very complex history, but not very different from the histories of the many countries colonised by the British over the centuries…… perhaps different only to the extent that in other parts of the world segregation was kept under wraps (as “Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home” astutely points out in her reply above).

    We’ve enjoyed following your blog and sharing your experiences and look forward to continuing this.

    1. This post was about South Africa, not the USA or any other country. I freely admit there are problems with racism in the USA and they seem to have gotten worse instead of better during our years away…but yeah, not remotely the topic of this post. Vaughn, there’s a reason “so many other visitors” walk away with similar observations to my own. After 8 years of full time travel in dozens of countries, I can confidently tell you that it IS different and it IS worse and it IS horrible compared to other countries. It is still an incredible, beautiful country and we loved our months there…it’s just very messed up. Thank you for the candor, I do appreciate that.

  11. Well written Behan, thanks!
    It is indeed a complicated society we live in, the cultures so diverse and the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” so great. After your short three months stay as a (wealthy) tourist, it is indeed difficult if not outright impossible for you to fully understand the problems we are facing. You have to live and work here to get the real feel for it. Then, after your 3rd or 4th burglary at home, you would not be all that surprised that you need high fencing around your property. And once you realise that the vast majority of all burglaries are committed by persons with a darker skin, you may become just a tiny bit racist as the rest of us, even so you will never admit it.
    And no, of course Apartheid was not better, it was an appalling system that should never have been passed and enforced. It set South Africa back for decades. What people mean is that under Apartheid things worked better. For example roads were repaired, the post-office delivered on time (now on the verge of collapse), the health system worked, law enforcement was efficient – I could go on with a long list. What we’re facing now is a reversed apartheid: BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) enforced by the government: If your skin is not black, most jobs or business opportunities are closed for you.
    The danger we’re facing at present is renewed racism fuelled by a very few individuals and an opportunistic minority opposition party (EFF) with a big-mouthed leader, Trump style (the guy who has such success in America), and a weak government with a corrupt president as a head of state who has no vision and sets a very poor example.
    What we need in SA is a new leader of the calibre of Nelson Mandela, a man with foresight, to take us forward. Unfortunately there are not many of his integrity and statesmanship around.
    Give South Africa more time, we will sort ourselves out. I’m not sure if racism will ever disappear completely but in time we’ll learn to live and work together more harmoniously. It may take one or two generations more.
    Fair winds!

    1. I know it was a cop out of me to call it “complicated” but truly, it is. I appreciate having your voice chiming in, Toby, and really enjoyed meeting you in Simons Town. But I really resist what you’re saying about racism being some kind of natural evolution after living there. And yes, having friends and family who are directly disadvantaged by BEE is frustrating, but I think the healing effects of time need legislative boosts too…but when there’s more problems with corruption and lack of transparency, it’s undermined. I won’t pretend to have any great ideas or solutions, because I can’t begin to understand the nuances of the problem. But I don’t have any problem with the simple truth that generalizations based on race are flat out wrong. I fervently hope SA gets their next Mandela, because it’s the post-Mandela environment that has gone off the tracks.

  12. I’m happy that you enjoyed your stay in South Africa. I echo Toby’s comments above (except the part about Nelson Mandela who murdered hundreds of people) – you need to stay here for a couple of years and then assess the situation. Granted, it is complicated but there are untold things visitors do not normally see or experience. Most foreigners who arrive here on our shores have quite a liberal view of matters. But as they experience the real South Africa, a few years later they are total racists – indeed, far worse than the average South African who has learned to accept the situation. Please visit us again – but stay a couple of years. Go with the wind!

    1. I’d actually love to stay a few years! I’ll often say I fall in love with every place we visit, but it *is* a place I could imagine coming back to for extended time. But turning INTO a racist? I don’t understand that, and no thanks.

  13. Very well said! Thanks for this describtion on SA. We feel the same.
    Have good last miles across the Atlantic. Enjoy.
    Safe sailing and fair winds, Kerstin and Helmut from Lop To

  14. The way you described the racial tension in SA was exactly the way we were treated in Memphis in 1990. While with white acquaintances we were almost recruited to be racist against the blacks. The blacks were somewhat uneasy around us until they found out we were from Texas. Then they welcomed us into their groups.

Comments are closed.