Channeling Andres Neuman in South Africa

In Journeys

By Dylan Cox


Setting: Cape Town

Environment: Gloomy

Feeling: Apprehensive

Cape Town International Airport. Midwinter. I pass through customs with my mother and sister, grasping my American and South African identity in the form of my passports, anticipating being welcomed into the country. I wonder if I should try and act South African and ask, “hoe gaan dit?” instead of “how are you.” I stick with being American. I approach the counter. The customs agent asks what my business is in returning to South Africa. I respond with “visiting family.” She smiles. “Welcome back.” I wonder: am I a South African returning home or an American visiting South Africa?

*

I roll my eyes at a South African couple complaining about their winters as they return from vacation. They take out their Patagonia jackets for 60-degree Fahrenheit weather. They don’t know I’m used to subzero temperatures back in America.

*

My first impression of the country I was born in is bleak. Traveling down the N1 in the drizzling rain, we pass by the township, Khayelitsha. The sea of shanties seems endless, all connected with electrical cables like veins and arteries. We are passing observers of a community for thousands. Small brick homes with TV dishes stand out, reminders of hope.

*

It has been five years since I last visited. I understand a lot more now that I’m older. I have become so used to unlocked doors and a sense of safety living in the US. White South Africans believe they live a privileged existence and yet seem only to be comforted by their brick walls and barbed wire. When we arrive at Kenilworth suburb to visit my uncle, a security guard in his camo uniform smiles at us as we pass through the entrance. The paved street is empty and claustrophobic. As I exit the car, I’m greeted with a growl from a dog behind a nearby gate.

*

The weather is everchanging. Slowly, the clouds swirl around the flat top of the mountain. People brave enough to scale it by foot can get lost in the mist and may lose their way. They don’t call this point of land the Cape of Good Hope for nothing. Seamen willing to test their bravery cross the tip where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean. Many were – and are – not so lucky. When the Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, crossed that area of the sea in 1488, he called it the Cape of Storms. I stare out the window of my uncle’s house at the dark rainclouds consuming Table Mountain. 

*

Talking with family after being apart for so long is refreshing, but difficult. In the past five years, I’ve graduated high school, played in tennis tournaments, acted in plays, attended two years of college, and made new friends. And yet, the only thing I can offer to the conversation is that nothing has really changed in South Africa. The conversation shifts when my uncle puts on Johnny Clegg and Juluka’s song Impi and we start talking about the good times. But my mood changes again when I scan through a newspaper: Cricket matches, rugby superstars, Ramaphosa’s election campaign, and a young Black boy murdered for his cellphone.

*

My mother and I take a trip to Robben Island, a small landmass off the coast of Cape Town that’s sole purpose was to imprison people. Now it’s a tourist destination. I travel with the intention of learning more about South Africa’s recent history, but I’m instantly distracted when I see a mole snake. I glare at it with an intense curiosity, anticipating the bus coming to a halt so that I could act out my best Steve Irwin performance. My excitement shifts as I stand in front of the empty cell that Nelson Mandela lived in for almost twenty years. There is a small window above a wooden bed; I can imagine him staring out of it every day. Not far from the prison is a small stone quarry where the prisoners used to work. The marble-colored rocks, beaten down by the strength of unknown figures, shine in the sun. It is difficult to imagine the evil that existed here. Mandela was arrested for being a political dissident and speaking out against racism. White South Africans have always had the upper hand. After twenty-seven years of prison, he left more enlightened and determined than when he entered, became president, and helped bring South Africans closer together. I leave the island feeling inspired. 

*

Peregrine Farm Stall is a popular stop between Cape Town and Summerset West. Every South African considers it a treat. As you enter, you are hit with the smell of baked goods, meat pies, biltong, and koeksisters – braded doughnuts that are dipped in a delicious syrup and covered in powdered sugar. Biltong remains a disputed topic among Americans and South Africans, as it is comparable to jerky, but much more moist, cut into thick strips, and marinated in a special sauce. It is one of my favorite foods to make at home, but nothing can beat South African-made biltong. My mouth begins to water as I remember what I love so much about this country. 

*

We travel up the coast with my grandparents and my uncle’s family to visit my great aunt in Knysna, a small, quaint city almost hidden by the abundance of greenery. During a family gathering at her house, my South African family points out how American I sound. Maybe I should try and change my accent, so they don’t bring it up anymore? I say some words to myself with a South African accent, but I shake my head. Should I feel proud to be an American or a South African? I can’t decide.

*

The highlight of our trip is our one-week stay at Kariega Game Reserve, a beautiful private park in the Eastern Cape that is a sanctuary for endangered animals. Poaching is always a problem for Africa’s animals. The park is home to Thandi the rhino who was, at one point, at the forefront of the anti-poaching movement. She had her horn cut out of her face while she was pregnant with her baby, which she successfully delivered. When we saw her with her baby, I couldn’t help but feel shameful. She stares at us with her disfigured nose, shielding her baby from view. 

*

I sit up front in the Land Rover with the guide. He is a twenty-four-year-old South African guy who is passionate about wildlife preservation. Growing up, he always knew he wanted to become a park ranger. He tells me a story about fighting some poachers who had landed in the park at night with a helicopter. Now I understand why a lot of the guides look warily up at the sky when there’s a hum in the air. These cheery workers are guides by day, warriors by night. He asks me if I’d want to be a guide. I shrug. 

*

As we reach the end of our stay at Kariega, our family stands in front of us. No one knows when next we’ll meet. My mother tears up as she hugs her mother and father, both in their late 70s. Time is precious when we have traveled across the Atlantic. I think this is what leads to this obscurity with my identity. I stand there confused. I know I’ll miss them, but I can’t find the emotion to match. 

*

When we arrive at the airport, I wave to my uncle and grandparents. As I board the plane and sink into my seat, awaiting the long journey home, I remember the animals, the food, and the people that make South Africa a special place, dear to my heart. But then I remember the Black boy I read about in the newspaper. Maybe White South Africans hide behind their cement walls because they dwell on stories like that, ignoring the deepest wounds? There is so much I don’t understand.

*

I love South Africa, but I can understand why my parents left.

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