Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Are whites’ race issues really less pressing?

The activist inside me wants to answer, “Yes!  Who cares about white males?  They’ve got enough privilege already.  Why should they get dedicated political space when the whole world already revolves around them?”

But that’s not a very tolerant attitude, is it?

No one can achieve lasting empowerment by dismissing others.  That sort of approach only fuels future conflicts.

We shouldn’t scorn anyone’s voice based on ethnicity – or any other reason.  Unfortunately history and contemporary society are full of such examples (, but having your forefather’s voice silenced does not justify silencing others.

Time to stop the cycle, Taylor Swift style.

Yebo.  You read that right.  Taylor Swift style.



Whenever I start thinking that I have a handle on racial issues in South Africa, something happens to completely blow my assumptions out of the water.

Two things happened last Sunday that made me realize that I have no clue what I’m talking about when I try to comment on and analyze this country’s racialization.

First, I was chatting with an opinionated Jewish man who suddenly erupted:

“I’ve had family die in both the Nazi concentration camps and the British concentration camps – and you know what?  I hate the British more!  Brits have never stuck to a single treaty in their whole history.  All they know how to do is manipulate and backstab for their own gain.  I’ve held up my glass to toast ‘Death to Britain’ on more than one occasion.”

I don’t harbor anger like that towards anyone or anything.  I can’t imagine carrying that much resentment all the time.

The second incident was with a friend who told me he was shocked when his Afrikaans friend described how often black men tell her that they’re going to rape her.  Even as she drives by, men will say it casually yet vehemently.

Can you imagine living with so much hatred directed towards you? 

I can’t.

My imagination has reached its limits.  I spend a lot of energy trying to understand issues from opposing points of view, but I can only stretch my own paradigm so far.

Tribalism isn’t about feelings, it’s about the zero-sum outlook

In that zero-sum tribal framework, it doesn’t matter whether or not you dislike the other tribe or view them an inferior. If you think of yourself as part of the straight, white, male, Christian tribe, then you’ll defend the interests of that tribe against anyone who is not straight, white, male and Christian. Whether or not personal sentiments of antipathy are involved, the effect is the same.

Feminists don’t think all men are rapists. Rapists do.

Excellent argument against rape jokes and normalizing rape vocabulary.  As in, “I got raped by that exam.”

I think the mistake that a lot of women make

Some South African reflections on Oscar Pistorius and the death of Reeva Steenkamp:

Bar Stories

I wrote this entry last week and later realized how well it contrasted with my post “Rainbows” from two days ago.  On the one hand, I advocate shattering rainbows and creating kaleidoscopes.  On the other, however, I’m staunchly “not American.”  Maybe I need to take some of my own advice.

Last weekend at a bar, a man asked if I was Chinese.

“No, I’m Canadian,” I answered.

“Oh!” he slurred as soon as I began to speak.  “You’re American!”

“No,” I said.

He opened his mouth to say something, but another woman leaned in and said, “He’s going to say it’s the same thing.”

“You’re right!” he leaned in towards her.  “You and I must be soul mates.”

“Then you’re an idiot,” I said as I walked away.

I didn’t realize that geographic proximity makes two countries identical.  So South Africa is basically the same as Namibia or Botswana or Zimbabwe, right?

Not that I expect any intelligent conversations at a bar.  For example, also last weekend, a man told me, “You’re the hottest girl I’ve seen in two weeks!”

“WHAT?” I burst out laughing.  “Is that even compliment?”

“I changed jobs two weeks ago,” he explained.

I couldn’t stop laughing – how else do you respond to something so ridiculous?  He didn’t like my reaction and said, “I take it back!  You’re not hot!  You’re not hot at all!”

“Do you honestly think I fucking care?” I giggled.

Too good!  I couldn’t make something up like that if I tried.

But let’s get back to Canada versus America.  If I get distracted by stupid and/or funny bar stories, I’ll write pages and pages of irrelevant anecdotes without even skimming the surface of my collection.

Canada and the United States have always had a close relationship – if not somewhat up and down ( – but that’s different from having similar socioeconomic or political platforms. 

Canada: welfare state
US: doesn’t even have public healthcare 

US: continually at war
Canada: mostly a peace-keeping country, despite Harper’s efforts 

Canada: now exports more wood to China than the US
US: outsources most of its manufacturing so doesn’t care

US: since WWII, has seemed intent on generating international hostility
Canada: since its formation, has tried to remain inconspicuous so that no powerful nations realize we’ve got tons of natural resources, from water to diamonds to oil

On the one hand, I have harsh opinions of Canada.  I complain about Harper, Vancouver’s affordability crisis, Aboriginal disempowerment, Harper, our military presence in Afghanistan, the Enbridge pipeline, Harper, and more.  But I still love living in Canada, whereas I could never live in the United States – despite the better climate.

Why?  Tons of reasons, but the #1 explanation: warmongering.

In sum, if you continually bomb another country and kill their civilians, not only the people of that country but the part of the world that identifies with it will increasingly despise the country doing it. That’s the ultimate irony, the most warped paradox, of US discourse on these issues: the very policies that Americans constantly justify by spouting the Terrorism slogan are exactly what causes anti-American hatred and anti-American Terrorism in the first place. The most basic understanding of human nature renders that self-evident, but this polling data indisputably confirms it.

So, no, despite my accent I’m not basically the same thing as an American.

Dancing On My Own

Yesterday, this was my Facebook status update:

Just had my bank card stolen by a group of men. By the time I got to my computer and drove to an internet café to call TD Canada Trust via Skype, they had already made 10 withdrawals. As I waited on hold, crying with frustration, lots of people stopped to ask if I was ok. One man, who overheard me talking to the bank representative, tried to give me R500. I told him I couldn’t accept it and he told me not to let my pride get in the way. I refused again and told him that just the gesture was kind enough.

Just when I wanted to get frustrated with humanity, strangers wouldn’t let me! People are so compassionate it blows my mind.

Back home in my “real” life, I don’t use Facebook very often.  I only used it for the typical stuff – procrastinating when I should be studying, stalking boys to analyze their dating potential, etc etc.  Here, though, I post something almost every day as a way to stay “connected,” as lame as that sounds.  I never thought much of social media before, but now I really appreciate every comment and “Like” from my friends back home.

I guess part of me is afraid that my friends back home will forget me.  Or that no one misses me.  Or that I’m losing touch with everyone.  It’s amazing how much one stupid little “Like” helps assuage my fears.

Despite my newfound dependency to Facebook, however, I still try not to post emotional stuff.  There are places to deal with emotions and the internet is not one of them!

On the other hand, I know people back home want to hear South African horror stories.  It doesn’t matter how much I tell people “I love Joburg!” they don’t really want to hear it.  They want to hear about the muggings, shootings, and robberies.  So I decided to throw them a bone and share that something bad finally happened.

So what’s the story?  I’m actually really embarrassed to write about this.

At 5:30pm yesterday I was at a weird little bank alcove beside the parking lot of a grocery store that I frequent.  There are two ATMs in the alcove, although I rarely use them.  When I walked in, there were four men standing in line.  I had my bank card in my hand and stood well behind them to give them privacy.  One man was on the phone and went to stand at the entrance of the alcove behind me.  I thought that was odd, but took a step forward because I thought it was a normal line.

One of the men gestured to the second ATM and told me to use it.  “Aren’t you in line?” I asked.

“No, go ahead.”

I took another step forward and turned to him.  “Are you sure?  Aren’t you waiting?”

As I was looking at him, a second man said, “You can use this one” and took my card out of my hand and put it in the machine.

Like I said, I don’t use this particular ATM alcove often.  But I’ve used enough ATMs here that I can recognize which ones give money and which ones provide other services.

“No, that’s the wrong machine,” I said as I pushed cancel to get my card out.

“You have to push ‘Correction’ then enter your PIN,” the first man said.

“No, there’s something wrong.  That’s bullshit!” I started to get angry,

I entered the wrong number a couple times.

“No you have to hold this button while you enter your PIN,” the first man explained.

“That doesn’t make any sense!” I started to panic as I pushed “Cancel” and “Correction” and “Escape” over and over.  But the machine wasn’t spitting back my card.

“My card is stuck in the machine!  You got my card stuck!” I accused the man.

“It’s because you’re doing it wrong.”

“No!  What did you do?!”

I knew the situation was bad and unfortunately I allowed myself to get flustered.  I focused on arguing with the man who was telling me to enter my PIN instead of the man who had taken my card out of my hand.  I let my anger get the better of me as I stood there and told him he was wrong instead of thinking rationally.

I finally entered the same number twice in a row, my actual PIN.  Maybe he was right and there was something particularly wrong with this machine?  By that time three of the men had left and I was left with the one trying to “help” me.

As soon as he saw the same number twice he told me to call the bank to come fix the machine and took off.

I called the bank.  The representative said there was nothing she could do, that I had to leave and go to a Standard Bank first thing in the morning and they would send someone to fix the ATM.

“I’m not going to walk away from my bank card!  I think the men have tampered with the machine and will come get it out later.”

Now I’m going to admit something really bad.  In my anger, I thought something like, They can’t send someone because it’s after 5pm?  I thought people in this country were POOR.  Don’t tell me they can’t hire a technician to fix this problem. This is ridiculous.  This country has absolutely no customer serviceThis would never happen in Canada and half our population isn’t unemployed.

Over the next few days, I’m going to have to sift through my personal prejudices and come to terms with them.

Yesterday, though, I didn’t say any of that to the bank woman.  Instead I hung up on her.

Then I called one of my friends who’s an accountant as Standard Bank.  I thought maybe she could pull some strings or at least give me some advice.

She told me to call my bank right away and cancel the card.

I should’ve done that immediately, but instead I went into the store beside the ATM alcove to talk to the employees.  Not that I drink a lot or anything, but I’m on good terms with the people who work at the liquor store.  I asked if they’d heard of similar problems with the ATM before.  No, they hadn’t and they also told me to go cancel my card.

I talked to the security person outside.  “Will you keep an eye on the bank machine and make sure no one tampers with it?”

He was frustratingly non-committal.  He murmured something like, “Oh… that ATM gives trouble sometimes.”  As I was speaking with him, I saw someone else put his card in the ATM, make transaction, and get it out.

Only at that point did it dawn on me that the man who took my card never actually put it into the machine.

Like I said, I’ m embarrassed to tell this story.

I raced home and grabbed my computer.  I drove to the nearest coffee shop, ordered a cup of tea to get an internet slip, and called my bank via Skype.  By now, about half an hour had passed since the incident at the ATM.  I was on hold for 10 minutes before I got to talk to someone.  He froze my card and said there had already been 10 transactions in the last 45 minutes.  I started to cry and he transferred me to the Fraud Department.

I knew that in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal.  I wasn’t hurt.  I wasn’t scared.  But I was frustrated – mostly with myself for letting it happen.  Furthermore, whenever something bad happens, I get incredibly homesick.  My heart constantly aches for home, but incidents like this make me so lonely it physically hurts.

Consequently, I over-reacted.  I sat at the coffee shop and cried.

In the movie Bridesmaids, the main character tells the mean girl that she’s an ugly crier.  I’m one of those people: my eyes become narrow slits and my nose somehow swells to 8 times its normal size.  I don’t cry often and I try to do all my sobbing alone, in private.

However, these five weeks have been really tough.  Car troubles, trying to find somewhere new to move (difficult with no vehicle), an unhealed broken foot, boy troubles.  I’ve done a lot of crying and too much of it has been in public places: stranded on the side of the road, in my car, at work, at coffee shops.

Crying at work really killed me.  As an engineer in a male-dominated workplace, I try hard to stay emotionally level so that no one will accuse of me of being too moody like a “typical woman.”  Luckily, though, my boss was in a meeting when I broke down into sobs.  My coworker gave me a hug as I apologized and said, “Bethany, you’re not a robot!  You’re allowed to have feelings!   You’re allowed to be upset.”

Immediately Robin started playing in my head: “I’ve got some news for you.  Fembots have feelings too.  You split my heart in two.”

Once again, yesterday, this fembot was crying in a public place.

But you know what?  I know everyone back home is tired of hearing this, but I really, really love Joburg.

A lot of people stopped to ask if I was ok.  As I said in my Facebook post, one man even tried to give me money.

I refused over and over.  He told me that he had gotten the money unexpectedly and would like to pass on the favour.  Again, I told him that I didn’t need the money, but his gesture and kindness already made me feel better.

Which it did.  Everyone was so nice to me that I couldn’t help but smile through my tears.

Eventually I got ahold of my bank’s Fraud department.  As I tried to explain to the woman what had happened, I started to cry again.

She said, “Calm down.  It’s ok.  Take a deep breath then tell me what happened.”

“I’m sorry!  It’s just that I’m so far away from home right now…” I started to say, then thought, Whoa Beth.  This is not the person to dump your homesick sadness on.

I got myself together (another Robyn song! and told her the story.  She said that all the money would be returned to me within the next 3 business days and that they’d send me a new card.

So, in the end, it wasn’t a big deal at all.  Mostly it was an inconvenience.  Yes, it could have gone a lot worse.  As I’ve told the story to my South African friends, the most common response has been, “You shouldn’t have gotten into a confrontation.  Men will kill you over smaller things.”  But, as I wrote before, I wasn’t scared.  At no point did I feel like I was in danger.

To be honest, though, I kind of think it was worth it.  Even though I’m super embarrassed that I let those men pull one over me, it was comforting to experience so much kindness yesterday.  Like I said, the past few weeks have been brutal.

The hardest part about living in Johannesburg isn’t fear for my personal safety; it’s being away from home.  And that would happen no matter where I lived, even if it was Paradise.

Yesterday morning I Skyped with one of my friends and told her about all the shit I’d been going through lately.  Afterward she emailed me the following message:

“I love you too, as much and as big as anything.  Just remember how many people who love you you’re coming home to.”

Hours later, as I waited on hold with my bank, I kept thinking about her words.  I kept thinking about compassion and kindness and love.

I don’t know how to express how grateful I am for the people in my life.  Strangers often tell me that I seem really independent, moving across the world on my own and remaining smiling and energetic no matter the circumstances.  But they don’t know how much love I have in my life, holding me strong whenever I stumble.

Thank you.

To my friends and family back home, to the new friends I’ve made here, and to the concerned strangers that stopped: thank you, thank you, thank you.  You give me strength and make me brave.

As another good friend emailed me recently, “Tides change.”

And she’s right.  I have a vehicle now, I found somewhere to live (with an awesome roommate), my foot will heal – and so will my heart.

One more Robyn song for everyone back home: 

I’m gonna love you like
Like I’ve never been hurt before
I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible
Your love is ultimate
Now again it’s taking over
This is hardcore
And I’m indestructible


I take it back: South Africa’s history is indeed unique enough to explain the persistent vocabulary of resentment and racial antagonism.

I’ve been struggling with racial tensions lately.  I can’t help but wonder if, as a Canadian, I’ll never fully grasp the depth of history in this country.

Part of me wants to simplify things: why can’t they just celebrate tolerance and diversity like Canada?  How do we make a South African version of the Multicultural Act?

As you can probably tell, I am very pro-multiculturalism: I think it’s one of the best parts of being Canadian.  In the federal government’s official Multiculturalism Act, we recognize that diversity is of part of Canada’s culture.  Yay for tolerance!  It ensures social equality regardless of race.  Furthermore, it clearly spells out that minorities have the right to enjoy this culture.

Great, right?  More festivals and celebrations for all!  Plus more choices at the Food Court!

Multiculturalism is not without criticisms.  Some people say that it emphasizes differences between groups rather than creating one single Canadian identity.  Others say that it leads to racial stereotypes or even geographic ethnic ghettos.  But I say that you critics need to get out and travel more!  Obviously multiculturalism isn’t perfect and needs to be continually improved upon – but I think we’re doing way better at dealing with immigration that most other countries.

I don’t agree that Interculturalism is the solution or the next evolution of Multiculturalism either.  Interculturalism is Quebec’s brainchild: “We claim to welcome people of all origins, but you must assimilate into Quebec culture.”  But I’m not going to get started on Quebec – like most people from the West Coast I’m slightly belligerent towards our French-speaking province.  Not that I have anything against French, I just think they complain a lot. 

(On the other hand, I was 100% behind the student protest last summer.  I even pinned a red square to my backpack.  But that’s another story.)

South Africa celebrates itself as the Rainbow Nation.  Unfortunately, this analogy is too accurate: each colour exists by itself, on its own path.  I don’t advocate a melting pot like the United States (how much did that policy fail?), but I prefer Canada’s kaleidoscope: pieces of colour moving and interacting with each other.  We have so many different shades and shapes – each one adds to the tapestry.  It’s the contrast of our different ethnicities that makes us so beautiful and distinctive.

I grew up in a multi-ethnic household in a multi-ethnic family.  I went to a hippy school that taught me to love Multiculturalism (even though it was 96% white).  These values were instilled in me from childhood.

I want to say, “That’s what South Africa needs!  We need to teach these kids to love their country for its differences!” but the sad fact is that most ZA children go through the school system without learning proper grammar or basic math.  Maybe a new kind of nationalism isn’t the biggest priority.

But then what’s the solution?  I know a lot of people would argue economics: once people don’t have to worry about food, shelter, and basic needs, then we can address the social problems.  But how can we convince the rich to share (through higher wages, taxes, etc.) when the rich are mostly white and the poor are mostly black and they don’t want to get along?

That’s another simplification.  Most people want to get along.  However, they still tend to blame the other side for the country’s problems instead of seeing that everyone contributes.

Maybe we all just need to take a little more responsibility for our countries.  We are, in fact, active citizens and each of our experiences is just as valid as the other person’s.  Moreover, we each impact what it means to be “Canadian” or “South African.”

After I started traveling, I became a lot friendlier back home.  If I see someone standing on a corner with a map in his or her hand, I’ll always ask if they’re lost and need directions.  I’ll ask about the person and make recommendations for things to do while they’re here.  And you know what?  I bet those people go home and say, “It’s true!  Canadians are really nice!”

Each time I hear a white South African complain about blacks and their sense of entitlement, they’re driving that racial wedge a little deeper.

So do we ignore colour?  Of course not.  We all see different ethnicities and make generalizations.

But let’s recognize our stereotypes and racism and try to overcome it.  Let’s stop over-simplifying the issues – and the people.  Let’s shatter this rainbow and splash colours all over the place!

Capitalist Competition

Stimulus (Ecuador) versus Austerity (United States)

And the winner is…


Curiously, despite the breadth of its conquests, Afrikanerdom’s rhetoric has never been that of a master race.  Instead, it is the complaining tone of a persecuted, lonely tribe, first oppressed by the powerful British, then struggling for survival in a hostile black sea.  Today, when fewer than 3 million Afrikaners control a government that has the atom bomb, rules of a nation of 40 million, and economically and militarily towers over every other country in the continent, Afrikaners still talk to you as if they are on the verge of extinction.  “We are,” an Afrikaner editor in Johannesburg once said to me plaintively, referring to the rest of the continent under black rule, “being Finlandized.”  At times, Afrikaners even sound like leaders of a colony still struggling for its independence.  “If there is one question which will have to be resolved in the years ahead,” recently declared Andries Treurnicht, leader of South Africa’s far-right Conservative Party, “it is that the white man in South Africa has the right to his own homeland.”

We are accustomed to thinking of the Afrikaner sense of martyrdom as beginning with the Boer War, when 26,000 Afrikaner women and children died in British concentration camps and the Afrikaners were universally seen as victims of horrendous mistreatment by a much larger empire.  But in fact that sense of victim’s identity begins much earlier, with the events leading up to the Great Trek, the Trek itself, and, above all, the story of Piet Retief.  For he and his men were the victims of such treachery at the hands of the Zulus.

Or were they?  If we go back carefully over Retief’s ill-fated journey and try to see it as it must have appeared to the Zulus, the whole expedition begins to look quite different.  When I first began reading about this period, I thought of it as one of a clash between peoples, I see it now as also a clash between rival streams of memory.

(Hochschild, Adam. (1990) The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey.  Viking Penguin: New York, pg. 66)

Some days it feels like everyone in this country harbours resentment.

At work, my black colleagues complain about the Afrikaner directors.  Although it’s common for tensions to exist between employees and employers, it’s impossible to deny to the racial element to this particular conflict.

At the same time, the Afrikaner directors barely hide their hostility and frustration towards black people: “why can’t they just understand what I want?”  How many times have I heard my boss speak incredibly patronizingly to the various black employees.  He talks to them like they are children and he is deigning to take the time to explain his superior point of view.

Or how about the black youth I meet on the street?  The teenage boys that yelled at my friend and I for driving to an obviously black beach outside of Cape Town.  She told me that kids that age make her nervous, especially in large groups.  I agreed.  But I also think they deserve to be angry.  And we deserve to have their anger directed at us for supporting a system of disempowerment.

Or what about the young adults that I hang out with here?

A few weeks ago, a white (non-Afrikaner) man tried to convince a group of Canadians and South Africans that he isn’t racist because he’s willing to jump in a fight for white AND coloured people.  In fact, he’s done it before.

As my Canadian friend retorted, however, “The fact that he had to differentiate kind of proves his racism, doesn’t it?”

Not exactly.  It shows how aware he is of race, but also that he’s trying to overcome these differences.

His friend, however, another white South African, told us about Uhuru.  The word represents an uprising that will take place when Nelson Mandela dies in which the black people slaughter all the white people.  Apparently if a black man taps his wrist (like tapping a wristwatch), it means, “Just wait.  Your time is coming and then we will kill you.”

(I have yet to see this.)

“Why do you think we’re all armed?” the young white man said.  “We’re prepared!  We have to be!”

In general, I have not hung out with many Afrikaners here.  Apparently they keep to themselves.  They don’t associate with non-Afrikaners (and “definitely don’t marry them”), although I suspect the prejudice goes both ways.  I’ve met many whites who make fun of Afrikaners for being so conservative and backwards and racist – but they don’t realize their generalizations make them look like the discriminatory ones.

Collective identity is important.  I recognize that. 

But you can’t let it disempower others.  Or yourself.

As one of my colleagues once joked, “Where do you hide something if you don’t want a black person to find it?  In a book.”

“Don’t say that about yourself!” I exclaimed.  “You’re really, really smart!  You know seven languages!”

“Relax Beth.  It’s just a joke.”

But it isn’t funny.

South Africa’s history is based upon racial conflict and colonialism.  Then again, so are a lot of other countries.  Consider the Native Americans in both the United States and Canada, the Opium Wars in China, the rest of Africa.  What makes South Africa so different?  Why is the vocabulary of “us versus them” still so incredibly prevalent?

I don’t have any answers yet, but I’m thinking about it.  More on this later.

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