Learning decolonization from the South Africans

Danielle DeVries

16 November 2016


As an intern travelling to live in a new country, I have already experienced far more than I thought I would socially and culturally. People always say that will happen, so I don’t know why I doubted them. It is true that these experiences can make a lasting impression in our lives.

Living in South Africa in particular is a very different experience from home in Canada. South Africa has only been a democracy for the last 22 years since Apartheid ended. This was an awful period of time for the country where the legal practice was complete segregation. There were separate areas for all black, white, coloured, and Indian people, as they classified them, to live in isolation of each other. In the city, there were certain privileges only white people could have such as sitting at the bus stops, enjoying parks, etc. After Apartheid ended, the country has moved forward in efforts to restore relationships between cultural groups. Much of the influence that came from being a British Colony has been replaced with traditional ways.

A bus shelter from the Apartheid days, placed on the green roof at the Urban Management Zones (UMZ) offices as a reminder of what life used to be like

Recently the city has changed the street names from the ones they were given in colonial days, like Smith, Victoria, and Prince Edward, to the names of great South Africans who helped end Apartheid, like Anton Lembede, Margaret Mncadi, and Dr Goonam respectively. Most of the people that I meet and work with here are Zulu, one of the traditional cultures in Southern Africa. Their culture and influence comes through in most things here, so they are making advances in reclaiming their traditional areas and moving forward as a multicultural country.

One of the areas that still has historic infrastructure is around city hall. I visited the other day with the local interns who are around my age, and was surprised by their reaction. The light poles on this block are left over from the Apartheid days and have an old crest embossed on them. There is also a memorial garden for the fallen soldiers from Durban in the two World Wars; however, it only features names of European decent. The other interns were passionate in saying “these must fall” about the light poles and garden, which is a catch phrase from the student movement here “fees must fall”. At first I was shocked because the area is architecturally beautiful, but where are the Zulu names and the Indian names in that memorial? Surely they were fighting in the wars too and this is an unfair representation.

Colonial message on the gates to the war memorial

The young adults here are passionate about decolonizing South Africa and making it a better place. They are the first generation that is too young to remember what the segregation was like for them, but they know the first hand stories of their parents and grandparents very well. Their ferocity to reclaim and make South Africa better is unparalleled by anything we would see from the general young adult population in Canada. At times, it seems a bit naïve and entitled that they want so much and have yet to put in the work hours and tax money to contribute to bettering society. However, I know that is my old, Canadian perspective coming through. Perhaps it is their passion and energy that will push this country forwards. The country is only in the process of decolonizing and still needs to develop in a way that embraces both traditional and other existing cultures of South Africans.

The war memorial in front of Durban City Hall

One of the areas that needs improvement on the part of South Africans is that they have reclaimed the country but have yet to gain a sense of ownership. The city is not kept clean or safe  by the citizens which causes a lot of work for the municipality to maintain it. I have also noticed that people here ask “where are you staying?” not “where do you live” and refer to their homes as where they “stay”. This is odd to my and emphasizes the lack of ownership because how can you take responsibility for a place if you are only “staying” there. The eThekwini municipality is aiming to be the most liveable and caring city, not the most stay-able and caring city. I think this liveability will truly start to work when South Africans not only reclaim the country, but also take ownership of it.

The efforts to decolonize South Africa have also caused me to reflect on the minimal efforts to decolonize Canada. It is something we have done a terrible job at thus far as a nation. Only recently have we begun to recognize our Indigenous peoples as valuable piece of our cultural fabric as a country. But most individuals have not adopted this mind-set, nor are they aware of the traditional cultures whose territory we occupy. In the Greater Vancouver Regional District we are in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people. I doubt most of the population could tell you that, and I only mastered how to say their names a year ago. I would love to see Canada embrace our indigenous people and move forward as a multicultural country as South African is trying to do. Why do we live in the province of ‘British Columbia’ and not ‘Coast Salish’ or ‘New Nations’ as the #RenameBC movement suggests?

I am looking forward to learning more from the local interns as far as their history, perspective, and knowledge goes. Maybe I will even come home with some of their ferocity to reclaim BC for both our traditional and multicultural heritage.


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