South Africa, the Ugly

One day in particular, on the drive from Drakensburg to Port Elizabeth, crystallized an early impression of South Africa that subsequent experiences have done little to shake. Clarens is a touristy town encircled by spreading luxury resorts on private game parks. Horseback riding, fine wines, that sort of thing. It’s located in Free State, which is where Dutch Afrikaaner settlers retreated after the British had muscled their way in, grabbing the reins of colonial power. The story of how Afrikaaners fled to the mostly (and still mostly) empty, arable Free State, settling there with their retinues of slaves, reminded me a bit of those contemporary, right-wing anarchists America’s Pacific Northwest who inhabit huts in the rural forest regions.

Lonely Planet, our ever-inadequate, spunk-filled guide, described Clarens as a funky, hip town: art galleries, restaurants, boutiques. It was on our way south, so why not? And initially, it sort of delivered.


Cappuccino plus above-average pastries on offer in a café nestled into a tastefully funky shopping complex,


which also housed a “farm-fresh” restaurant with outdoor seating, a lifestyle boutique selling hand-mixed face creams and bamboo-framed sunglasses, a gourmet cheese shop arrayed with little custard cups offering with tastings. Nearby, historic, single (or at most double-) story brick and stone buildings were slung around a large central open area—were this New England, it would be The Green. Surrounding it all were the dramatic, burnt umber and red ochre mountainscapes of the Golden Gate National Park.

Clarens occupied a pleasant enough hour or two, though the “antique” shops and “art” galleries were, predictably, a joke. Nearly every face we saw was white, including the grim-faced settlers gazing out from the historic photographs hanging in the foyer of the 19th-century Protestant church.


Among themselves, the locals spoke Afrikaans. The proprietors of the boutique effortlessly switched between this guttural Dutch-sounding language and English, graciously explaining local customs and answering our queries regarding the origins of their goods.

Time to go. Piling back in the car, I nodded at the black construction workers repairing the sidewalk outside our little café.

We were barely out of town when we spotted the slum. This one, worse than many we’d seen, but better than the disgraceful shantytowns in Johannesburg.


The typical – horrifyingly typical — one-dark-room, dirt-floored tin shacks. Unpaved dirt pathways. (Cars are unaffordable for most South Africans, and hitchhiking is common.) Electric lines, yes, though scant evidence of running water, and plenty of indicators, including outhouses, that little was available.

Cheek by jowl: Clarens proper, which reminded me (without really resembling) my summer hometown in Woodstock, Vermont, and a destitute, garbage-strewn slum.

I thought, that’s where those construction workers, to whom I’d politely nodded, probably lived.

The racism, the grotesque inequality, is pervasive, inescapable.

— Sarah

PS: Earlier version of this post published without photos owing to connectivity challenges.


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