Further Thoughts about South Africa once in Cape Town

Kimberley Station 1130 pm on 24/05/2016

Kimberley Station 1130 pm on 24/05/2016



Dear All,

A term I’ve heard addressed towards me since coming here is Mulungu, translated as ‘being of white heritage’. Generally when I’ve been addressed in this way it’s a way of saying hello while identifying my ethnic origin, at other times there’s a more hostile element in Soweto which I sense is more like ‘what the hell are you doing here’. What the term reminds me of is how racially stratified South Africa still is. Like when I lived here ethnic origin or race remains a main focus of my contacts in Soweto where I’m asked when speaking about people I know in the country the first question is whether they are white. It’s not something I’m asked by white people because of their sensitivity about this issue and for most of them having no social contacts with the majority community or visiting the townships. For all South Africans there remains a way of probing about ethnic origin through asking for surnames and where people live which makes me uneasy but can’t be avoided. My view is that this issue shows how deeply embedded discrimination and inequality remain in South Africa, with a similarity to the rest of the world where status is focussed on different skin colour, from white to shades of white then shades of black to black.

I’ve just thought of something else which is a question of what similarities there are between South Africa after majority rule and Northern Ireland after the Good Friday agreement which started the process of devolving power to the countries National Assembly. The answer is an increase in attacks on foreigners and refugees living in both countries. While I don’t know about the current Northern Ireland situation prejudice and violence against these groups in South Africa is now part of the culture with regular organised attacks. These have led to attacks, killings and a feeling among these groupings that they are unsafe in South Africa. When the major attacks have occurred they’ve fled from where they stay to places of safety like Churches and other Civic buildings. It’s ironic that the majority community which suffered grievously under apartheid have turned their anger about the lack of change into attacks. In my view this deferred anger maintains the current status quo where there has been so little evidence of change.

Returning to what I started with I spoke recently with Antoinette Sithole’s husband Mantla about the term Mulungu. What he told me is Mulungu is an aberration of the word a Xhosa word Further Thoughts about South Africa and the Transition to Cape Town. Amulumbi which translates as Magician or Wonder Maker which comes from the first encounters in the Eastern Cape between Xhosa and white settlers called the Boers moving north from the initial Dutch settlements in the Western Cape. The origin of the word in his view was because of the new technology the Boers brought with them like firearms and the wheels on their wagons which had not been used by Xhosas. I think that from the start of these encounters that status made the Boers and white people superior in the minds of the black tribes moving into South Africa from the North. Conflict developed over time in the Eastern Cape over land ownership and cattle between the settlers and black people where power was held by the settlers because of their superior force through having firearms. I thought afterwards about Magicians and Wonder Makers in a more negative context where these qualities could make them mistrusted or suspected of witchcraft or wizardry which put them at risk. History suggests in my view that the colonial mind-set had at its centre discrimination based on colour which reflects badly on these settlers now as South African citizens placing them at future risk unless a more inclusive country and nation emerges.

Even before I start to describe my trip to Cape Town I’ve thought about the travel I’ve done since setting off from Heathrow on 10 April. I flew British Airways, noting first that only about 10% of the passengers were black, really little different to anytime I’ve traveled to South Africa since 1999. Clearly on aeroplanes the 20-1 low Rand to UK Pound rate makes an international return air ticket at a minimum of R12000(£600)travel very expensive for most South Africans, creating the flying equivalent of economic exclusion and discrimination. On the bus trip to and from Durban for Indaba I noticed that roughly 95%of the travelers were black. The bus service was reasonably good however the internal fabric of the vehicles was poor; the floors needed cleaning, with some seats     broken or not adjustable. The single toilet was always dirty and many passengers preferred to wait until the set stop to use facilities there. Air conditioning was a problem because on the route to Durban cool air was blown through when not needed, making the bus very cold. On the return journey there was heating when cooling was needed. Quite clearly long distance bus travel through large Companies or minibus taxis internally and to other Southern African countries as far as Malawi and Zambia is more affordable than flying.

Train travel has discrimination built in it through the services provided. The most expensive trains are run by private companies, Ravos Rail and the Blue Train, prices for which only the very rich can afford.  Next is Premier Classe which has a R2000 (£100) fee for a single trip to or from Cape Town. This is a premium service with comfortable compartments, a viewing coach and a high range dining car. I traveled on the Tourist class train Shosholoza Meyl which cost R699 for a single trip (£35). The service was comfortable and the serving staff very attentive which made the travel pleasant, the only problem being a history of these trains always running late. My train didn’t have Third Class carriages so I can’t comment on this service.

On the train I felt like being plunged back into the past through the way customer care staff were organised in a hierarchy based on ethnic origin where the train manager was white and the other staff black, reminding me of train trips I took before I emigrated to the UK. Separately the system was controlled by the staff with clear routines around bedding being provided, and meals, with no negotiation possible. It felt a bit like being in a Goffman type total institution like they were the trustees in the Asylum described by him. While the staff were pleasant they were totally in charge of what they provided and weren’t into negotiating or flexibility. I felt strange travelling in a service where it felt like the system was set up for the staff not for travelers.

I traveled from Johannesburg to Cape Town from 24-25 April by train because I wanted to have an experience which gave me a stronger connection to the terrain from the Highveld through the Karoo and then to Cape Town. I’ve downloaded some photos from the trip with this post, unfortunately no pictures from travels end as the environment and scenery changed are worth including. The train left Johannesburg Station early in the afternoon on 24 May and until sunset we travelled through the Highveld, mainly in what’s called the Witwatersrand, the industrial area that extends South beyond Johannesburg. We passed gold and coal mines as well as South Africa’s main steelworks as the train moved south, with frequent delays because of poor maintenance on the route and no priority being given to passenger trains. The route later passed through the wheat and cereal growing areas, with a golden hue to the vegetation because of lack of rain and the end of the growing season, ending with a sunset made up of a vivid mixture of gold and orange painted on the sky as a palette.

When I woke the next morning we were in the Southern Karoo which is semi desert with sparse vegetation and a low population. The main industry here is sheep farming for meat or wool, with a special brand called Merino wool which is world renowned for making warm loosely woven blankets and scarves. The scenery started to change in the early afternoon after Worcester from an arid flat landscape to one with mountains and farms where irrigation made the vegetation green. This is the area in South Africa UK citizens know best because of exports to us which include oranges, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, grapes and wine. The quality of the land stood out because of the irrigation and fertility from 400 years of cultivation. Worcester, Wellington and Huguenot were towns where the quality of civil buildings and housing showed the wealth that came from the industry. From what I saw on this route until it reached the edge of Cape Town it didn’t pass shanty dwellings on the edges of towns, although quite clearly the farm labourer homes were very small compared to the main farmhouses, suggesting a large income disparity.

On the whole route rail stations were sleepy places where the train arriving was a major occasion, as the night drew on I sensed a type of Hopper type alienation at stopping stations because people were there because of roles for the train from the official who sent the train on its way through blowing his whistle, security staff, baggage handlers and traders selling their wares, not to relate to anyone and the main reason for railways being there was to transport agricultural production to other towns or cities or to Cape Town for export. Throughout my travel through small South African towns since 1999 my general impression has been that little had changed in these towns for the majority of South African citizens who’ve lived in them since 1994 and majority rule.

I’ve reached my time and content deadline now so I’ll end the post now. I plan to send another post about Cape Town and my experiences here before I leave on 8 June. Just before I end I want to make a brief mention about the UK referendum after a friend emailed me yesterday, worried that the country might vote to leave the EU. I’ve thought for some time that there’s a potential for the referendum vote being in favour of leaving the EU. It’s unusual for governments to hold referendums unless they think voters will support their views. Immigration and disaffection with politicians as well as a long period of time for exit supporters and the red top press including the Times and Telegraph to deeply embedding the exit lies make the outcome too close to call. A Conservative Party led by their most right wing MP’s is frightening. It reminds me of the election which brought Hitler to power in the 1930’s because of the risks a victory poses to any UK minority.

Apologies for the formatting,


Beaufort West Station

Beaufort West Station Cape Province    


A social gathering alongside the Prince Albert Station

A social gathering alongside the Prince Albert Road Station



6 thoughts on “Further Thoughts about South Africa once in Cape Town

    • Hi There,

      Brief comment. Felt after I’d sent it my posts have become repetitive, with similar issues and views about South Africa to what I thought in 2014. Hope my latest post deals with education which has failed children and young people in poor Schools.


  1. Weiss, Ursula - UK

    Hi Steve, I am just back from Cape Town (BA overnight). Attended a conference on vaccines for tropical diseases and lifestock. Participants from 31 countries, 90% of postdocs, students and junior investigators attending were black. I am not as negative as you are. I went to Llanga township with someone who grew up there and saw big differences, not all is depressing. If you see the exhibition in the big art museum (at the end of the park) you notice how far the country has come. I found people very critical of the government but hopeful for the next one. Enjoy the rest if your stay, All best, Ursula

    Sent from my iPad

    • Hi Ursula,
      I think our views about South Africa because of our different experiences while there. I wouldn’t deny that there are people from the majority community who’ve made that transition through good education to be successful. I’ve just posted the first part about Schooling in South Africa which shows how the education system is failing poor children in South Africa, I think it’s highly unlikely that these children will have the same opportunities as the students you met. I’m back in London on 21 June and we can meet up then to speak further about South Africa.


  2. Alan Arnstein

    Very evocative post Steve – thanks. It brings back train journeys with my parents from Jhb-CT. SA seems ready for a C21 update of Cry the Beloved Country.

    And yes, a leave vote in the referendum is a terrifying prospect.

    • Hi Alan,

      Felt strange having the experience at the time. I felt split about enjoying the trip and thinking how little had changed in how the system still works like before we left the country.


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