April was low season in Eland’s Bay and the hostel where I worked rarely had more than five guests on weeknights. While the weekend guests drank to enjoy themselves, the weekday guests drank to dull the pain. Most weekday guests were South African and had come to Eland’s Bay to get away from home. While I enjoyed the weekends more, I learned much more on weekdays.
The hostel owner and I had served in the military and traded stories from time to time— soldiers all share a camaraderie, regardless of political views or nationality. We sat around a fire in the backyard with guests one night and cooked braai, a traditional South African barbecue style, and told stories. We stuck with stories about training as I watched Ruben and a few South African guests get drunk enough to open up. Then I asked Ruben about his “no black guys” from the week before again.
Ruben blushed and apologized, then explained again that he distrusts anybody who comes without a backpack. His eyes twitched side to side as he explained the deep shame he felt about the apartheid government he had once served. His foot tapped violently while trying to distance himself from the crimes of the previous South African government. “But,” he said, “I miss the safety.”
The others around the grill agreed. Each was horrified that white South Africans allowed the apartheid system to go on for so long, yet each missed the safety which the apartheid-era police and military ensured.
Another guest started: “People breaking in here and robbing guests? It happens all the time around South Africa. Ya’ can’t even stop at a red light in Johannesburg at night or they’ll pull you out of your car and kill you on the spot. Men are getting killed over phones now!”
“This didn’t happen when we were kids,” a second guest cut in. “We had these little stickers we had to put on our bikes, remember them?” The other men around the grill nodded. “If an officer caught you without the sticker he’d beat you so bad you couldn’t sit for a week. The officers scared the hell out of me when I was a kid but I miss it. The police had so much control we couldn’t even own bikes without registration and now you get carjacked at stoplights.”
“Jason, stay away from the township,” Ruben told me as he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Township?” I asked.
“The township, over past all the retail stores. It’s not safe there. Stay away.”
I learned the township neighborhoods were violent, poor, and predominantly black. Eland’s Bay itself had almost no black residents, though its throng of minimum-wage employees were mostly black. They all lived in the township next door . The townships held the unofficial system of segregation together.
“The townships are surrounding all the cities now”’ Ruben added. “You can’t get in and out of the cities. Since ’94 (the year Nelson Mandela became president) it gets worse every year. Soon Capetown will be the same as Johannesburg—”
A guest cut in— “I’ll never go in the township. If blacks leave the township then they are welcome to my home or work. My close friends are black, but I won’t deal with anyone from the township.” He made a passionate speech for the next five minutes, explaining the guilt he felt for his ancestors’ role in apartheid and his view that the lack of education blacks had during apartheid was why South Africa’s black community was now struggling, then reiterated he would never go to the township.
Everybody around the grill nodded.