// Misconceptions About South Africa//
And Africa as a whole and other facts
march 25, 2018
Let’s talk about my favorite place on Earth. Around this time 3 years ago, I was planning my first trip to South Africa with a study abroad program. I was lured to these foreign lands by the promise of diverse culture, exotic wildlife, and the location of my resident university, Stellies, located in the winelands. In my preparations for the trip, I grew ever more excited for my journey as I read up on our safari excursions, flipped through tour books featuring stunning coastline, and of course drooled over the numerous wine farms located within minutes of my campus; meanwhile, my decision to study in South Africa was met by confusion and worry from many of my family and friends...
“Isn’t it really dangerous?”
“Aren’t you afraid of the lions?”
“Will you live in a hut… or a mud house… or a shack?”
“How will you handle the heat?”
“So are you going to be, like, the only white person?”
“But why Africa…?
… they said. Yet, 5 months later I returned in one piece, along with endless photos of my happy face with giraffes and on beaches and on top of mountains and with wine in hand, which seemed to steer the conversation to more productive topics. Upon my return from the magical city of Cape Town, I continued to travel quite frequently (now having visited 25 countries across 4 continents), yet South Africa remains at the top of my list. It is my home and my heart. Yet, when I share this endearment with others, my passion is still often met with surprise and bewilderment. So, I want to clear up the confusion by sharing some solid facts and some personal experiences.
Misconception: South Africa is a region of Africa. And Africa itself is homogeneous.
Truth: South Africa is a big country on a huge continent. One of my biggest pet peeves when speaking about my time in South Africa, is how others still refer to it as just “Africa”, when I am actually only referring to a small portion of a very large continent. I’ve found many tend to rely on images the media delivers in regards to the continent of Africa, so they make generalizations, which are really only representative of a minor fraction of the continent. When speaking of Africa, it’s best to be specify which country you are referencing, instead of just generalizing this huge landmass.
Misconception: South Africa (and most other African nations) are too dangerous to visit.
Truth: South Africa (and most other countries in Africa) are quite safe.
Again, the media paints the whole of Africa as war torn, poverty stricken, and dangerous. Yes, there are regions in Africa that are war torn and may not be safe to travel to. However, South Africa is not one of those places. The big cities in South Africa (Cape Town and Johannesburg) are similar to many international big cities, in that you should always be aware of what is going on around you, refrain from walking alone at night, and avoid certain areas known for criminal activity. However, most of the crime that occurs here is petty theft, so it’s best to keep your valuables out of sight and on your person when out. Even still, I have been in South Africa 6 months in total and haven’t had a single experience where something was stolen or I was threatened. Whereas, I have had my phone stolen in Ireland, credit card information stolen in Belgium, and have been verbally (and occasionally physically) harassed in America, Europe, South America, and Central America. These are my personal experiences, which do not reflect the experiences of all tourists, as theft and violence occurs in all cities. The key is just to be aware of your surroundings to avoid dangerous or negative experiences.
Misconception: Everyone is starving and poor.
Truth: First off, there are starving people on every continent in the world. In South Africa, the majority of people have enough to eat. While there is a large wage gap between the impoverished and wealthy, there are many initiatives to dissolve this with data supporting a decrease in poverty over the last decade. South Africans eat and they eat darn well. The food is delicious, diverse, and is often quite carnivorous, but veggies are also plentiful. Produce and other goods are usually far healthier than stateside as the locals tend to use more sustainable farming practices, including less pesticides and preservatives. Click the following links for more information on poverty in South Africa and hunger in America.
Misconception: Lions, elephants, and zebras roam freely.
Truth: These animals are protected from poachers in game reserves throughout the country, so you will not have to wait for the giraffes to cross the road. In fact, the wild animals I see most frequently in South Africa are ostriches and baboons. If you want to see the more exotic wild animals, you must visit one of the game parks, pay a fee to drive through or hire a local guide. There are also animal sanctuaries, where you can usually interact with the animals more intimately. It’s also important to note that you should do proper ethical research when it comes to animal encounters.
Misconception: Everyone lives in mudhouses, huts, or shacks.
Truth: The architecture in South Africa is quite diverse and well-developed. There are still many who do live in shacks (2017 estimate shows 6-10 million people, or 10-20% of the population), mostly in the Townships (more impoverished areas of the country, which were historically used for racial segregation until the end of Apartheid in 1994). The majority of South Africans live in houses. My dormitory in South Africa was nicer than the 4 I inhabited over the course of my years studying in Chicago. Additionally, every apartment I have rented has come with a weekly house cleaning service.
Misconception: The country (and continent) is made up entirely of dessert and savannah.
Truth: One of my favorite things about this corner of the world is the diverse landscape and plantlife. It’s also not nearly as hot as everyone believes, as it is located on the southern tip of the continent, quite a distance from the equator. It does get quite warm in the summer, but it is chilly and cold in the winter too. No snow, but a lot of rain and temperatures ranging from upper 30s to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Cape Town itself is set on the sea in a cradle of mountains, but drive an hour in any direction and you could be in sand dunes, under a waterfall, on a vineyard, in a lake, or in the bush. Believe it or not, penguins swim up from the Antartica and bathe on the beaches of Cape Town year round. Opportunities to adventure are endless.
Misconception: People speak African.
Truth: “African” is not a language. South Africa has 11 national languages. Known as the “Rainbow Nation,” South Africa is incredibly diverse in terms of culture. Some of these 11 languages are indigenous to the region, stemming from tribal communication, including Zulu and Xhosa (a click language). Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, is spoken among many caucasian inhabitants. Additionally, English is widely spoken and is the common language in city centers, such as Cape Town.
So, to answer those inquisitive folks, “But… why Africa?”
I say, “You mean South Africa? Because I have only been to 3 countries out of the 54 nations on the continent of Africa.” And then I go on to share what makes this place so unique and lovely: the incredible experiences I’ve had, such as spotting giraffes on a game drive following a wine tasting, making friends from all over the world and diverse backgrounds over a braai, driving gorgeous coastlines with incredible souls, being hugged by an elephant, discovering a love for hiking, and finding my passion for working with children by tutoring English in a township. It is a place that has made my heart grow and my soul soar. It is my home.