South Africa: General Impressions

J and I got back from South Africa yesterday 24 hours after our first flight took off from Cape Town. It is a trek, but I really loved Emirates Airlines and they made the trip much more pleasant both ways.

I have so much to say about this trip that I’ll probably be writing about it for weeks, but I thought I’d start with some general impressions.

J and I went to three different destinations: Rocklands (a bouldering site in the Cederberg Mountains Wilderness Area), the Garden Route, and Cape Town. I’m glad we did the three because they were quite different and I feel like it gave us a more complete vision of South Africa, even though all of it was still just in the Western Cape region.

Poverty and the Remaining Effects of Segregation

Okay so obviously, three weeks in South Africa makes me absolutely no kind of expert on the country, these are just the observations that I couldn’t help making. We had been told by a friend that we wouldn’t feel “dépaysé” at all in South Africa and I don’t agree though it clearly feels like a developed country (more on that later).

It was indeed striking how the divisions between blacks and whites are still so marked. I can’t speak for relations between people at all of course, but many bars, at least in the countryside, were still either frequented by whites or blacks, and we found ourselves sometimes in totally unmixed crowds.

The marks of poverty were also very clear though it did seem like there were serious efforts to fight it going on. For example, we must have seen at least ten different townships of differing conditions: most seemed to have electricity, many had wooden or cement houses, and the “best” of them positively looked like little developments with little identical houses of painted cement all in rows or even paved roads between them. Outside Knysna on the Garden Route was a remarkable township that took up both sides of the highway, with people dressed from closer to middle class to more markedly poor.

On that note, the number of people we saw walking long distances, along highways, or crossing highways (especially in Knysna) was incredible. Hitch-hiking, both free and paid (which meant holding out a 10-rand note instead of your thumb) seemed like a solid system of getting around for people who didn’t have a car or a bike. Interestingly, on our Robben Island tour, the guide mentioned that South Africans hate walking—I can understand why though he may have been talking more about the middle class.

There was some begging, but it was actually very limited, and only really happened in downtown Cape Town. The more popular way of making money seemed to be by guarding parking lots and garnering a 5-rand tip from people on their way out. This seemed like a fairly practical service except that there were times when there was pretty clearly nothing to guard from and the parking guy pretty much just pretended to help us park the car.

Otherwise, to end on a positive note, the black middle class was also quite visible on our trip most notably on our sightseeing around Cape Town in places like the Cape of Good Hope Reserve and Robben Island. On Signal Hill and the beach at Sea Point we saw a lot of black visitors. On the other hand, the high-security vacation mansions on the Garden Route were sometimes down the road from townships, and the contrast was shocking. I wondered why you would even feel it was appropriate to build such places so close to such poverty, but J had watched a TV report before we left that suggested that a lot of them were owned by foreigners (wealthy businessmen and actors for example).


The only other country I can compare South Africa to in terms of development is Morocco, and it definitely felt more developed than Morocco. The streets were well maintained, sidewalks perfectly finished, very few people hanging out aimlessly in the streets, and the tourist infrastructure (except maybe in Clanwilliam) was really solid.

Also, South Africa’s public bathroom game is on point. Way better than France. Ninety-five percent of the time public toilets were readily available, clean, well-supplied, and free.


Unfortunately South Africa was the only country I’ve visited where I didn’t feel totally safe, and thus never went out alone. Now of course I can’t say if this is the result of pregnancy paranoia or not. We were completely safe in our cottage a ten-minutes drive out of Clanwilliam during the rock-climbing portion of the trip, but I didn’t like being out in town after dark anywhere and since it was winter, night fell between 6 and 7 pm.

Everywhere but the wilderness cottages, entrances to homes had a second barred door and bars on the windows, and in Cape Town, all the homes seemed to also have a sign for a private security company on them. Buildings were frequently protected with electric or barbed wire. Now we see some of these things even in San Antonio where my parents live, but it struck me our first night in Cape Town how it was EVERYWHERE.

Our AirBnB hosts in Cape Town gave us this advice: Never leave anything in the car and at night don’t go anywhere there’s no one else around. We followed that advice throughout the trip and we never had any problems.

Besides the heightened sense of danger due to pregnancy, the other thing that made me more paranoid was the reading I did while we were in South Africa. I finished two books that took place in South Africa: Coetzee’s Disgrace and Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying. Of the two I probably liked Ways of Dying better because the characters were so lovable, and the protagonist in Disgrace is an incomprehensible sexist for the first third of the book. But here’s where the real problem was: in the middle of Disgrace a horrible crime takes place in the countryside, and Ways of Dying doesn’t hold back in relating the horrendous violence that black people had to deal with on a daily basis in the recent past. Add to those images the high frequency of rape and that rape often leads to contracting HIV, and, well, these were just not easy thoughts for a pregnant woman!

So, if you go to South Africa, read these books afterward.

Interaction with People

So as not to end on that note, I’ll finish by saying that 99% of the interactions we had with actual South Africans were lovely. The people were truly kind and friendly.

Coming Next

So I didn’t take pictures of any of these things (townships, bathrooms, parking lots…) but we saw some really beautiful places and I will be posting about them soon with accompanying photos. My mom left her better camera with us for the trip so we took over 900 photos—don’t worry, I won’t put them all up.


4 thoughts on “South Africa: General Impressions

  1. I don’t know much about South Africa at all except for the major historical moments and basic cultural aspects, so it was really interesting to read your post. I know people who have visited the country, but I haven’t yet felt the pull to go there myself. Maybe your posts will change that!

    I really enjoyed seeing your photos on social media, and I can’t wait to see more and read all about it!

    • I knew a little about South Africa from teaching in in première a few years ago, but I read all the history parts of my guidebook before leaving and definitely learned more on this trip. I also teach it in BTS Tourism which is how I knew about the touristy spots. Glad you liked it!

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