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South Africa: A troubled but vibrant country, not a place of racial warfare

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I returned to South Africa two weeks ago after a six-month hiatus in Canada. Within days, national and international media sported headlines of Julius Malema, the leader of the ANC Youth League, and his inappropriate singing of "kill the Boer." Just days later, Eugene Terreblance, leader of Afrikaner Resistance Movement, well known supporter of the Apartheid regime and advocate for an all-white South Africa, was killed on his farm by two of his black workers. The two events coupled together created a media frenzy of statements that South Africa is imploding, that racism is rampant, and that the country is no better than it was under Apartheid. Columnists have predicted retributive killings on both sides.

I received calls and e-mails from friends and family worried that I was trapped in the midst of bloody warfare, asking if I felt safe, positing that the "situation must be tense." When I met with two friends from Europe over the weekend, one asked me-in all honesty and sincerity-if I thought there could be "racial warfare" in the coming months and years. My first instinct was to blame these overly simplified statements and concerns on the people who voiced them, assuming they weren't well read and were coming from dated notions that Africa is a backwards, violent continent, where anything goes. But as I read more news from the West, it became clear to me that the international media had done such a poor job of depicting the Malema and Terreblance events that it was no wonder those outside thought that the country was going to hell in a hand-basket. The media's coverage has been outright irresponsible, and is indicative of the way Africa is covered as a whole. We rarely read of the country and continent's music, food, environment, people and ideas, distracted as we are by tales of poor governance, wars, and starvation. By telling only of sensationalized figureheads and truly dramatic dire situations rather than nuanced stories that reflect the real South Africa, international news is responsible for perpetuating racialised stereotypes of Africa and Africans. Moreover, it does not depict the vitality, ingenuity, perseverance and change stemming from the continent and the country.

More often than not, news of South Africa focuses on violence, corruption, and inequality. In many ways, such stories are reflective of reality. Muggings and murders take place more frequently that anyone would like to admit along the city streets of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. Rape rates are astronomical, the highest in the world. Most residents shuffle streets with eyes peeled, more aware of their surroundings then they would ever need to be in Maputo, Zanzibar, Paris, or New York. Last year, South Africa surpassed Brazil in becoming the world's most unequal society. After the Terre'blanche killing, Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg, speaking on Democracy Now!, compared South Africa to the U.S., in which some people live very well and others in extreme poverty, and in which racism still runs rampant. Hailing from the U.S. but having lived in South Africa for nearly two years now, I can say that this comparison is apt. But while Americans tend to hide from this inequality, shrugging it off with notions of being the best country on earth, South Africans do not shy away from economic and racial realities. Regardless of who you speak to, it is acknowledged that racism is still prevalent, that economic apartheid persists, and that any notion of "Black Economic Empowerment" speaks to only a very few. The lack of education, security, and services plaguing the majority of South Africans is apparent, and cannot be denied: even in the beautiful oasis that is Cape Town, visitors and residents must drive past several townships from the airport to town, their eyes unable to miss the vast expanse of tin shacks and water filled with rubbish. Even the least observant notice an increase in wealth and whiteness as one nears the renowned Table Mountain and glistening seas that surround it.

Embodied within South African pride and nationalism is a serious sense of self-criticism. Americans and Canadians who come to the country find this bluntness refreshing, even helpful. No one posits that the place is perfect, for the statistics are too revealing, the poverty too all-encompassing. It is my understanding that this inherent self-criticism and willingness not to skirt from the obvious is central to the future of South Africa. While South Africa's post-Apartheid political leaders have done far less than is necessary to address the country's needs, none can turn a blind eye to them. It is apparent that this place has a plethora of problems, and that violence will continue until they are addressed. This acts as a stimulant for action of some kind, rather than complicity and complacency that has become the norm in North America.

I heard of Terre'blanche's killing while at a friend's house for Easter Sunday. The picnic was filled with young women from all parts of Africa who came to the country to live, work and study. Upon hearing the news we were all shocked, briefly discussed the event, and then moved on to other topics: Islamaphobia in Europe, the dire state of public health within South Africa, America's health care reform, the previous evening's jazz festival. There was no talk of violence or fear of retribution, no discussion about how this country was going downhill, no fear of an imploding, unsafe South Africa. Because for those of us who live here, South Africa, with all of its troubles, is home. Apartheid ended in 1994, and sixteen years later one can walk through the streets of the country's biggest cities to find people of all ethnicities, nationalities, and religions mingling in bars, restaurants and markets, working and living together. It is not a place to be feared or to lament, but rather one of energy, opportunity, ingenuity, culture and beauty.

I do not write this to say that we should forget the violence, inequality and many ills facing South Africa today, nor that we shouldn't criticize where criticism is due, or work hard to change the troubles set so obviously before us. I am also not disregarding the severity of Malema's remarks, or the Heil Hitlers that emerged at Terre'Blanche's funeral. But just as the extreme right-wing Tea Party in the U.S. or the Marijuana Party of Canada do not represent the entire populations of either country, these extremist factions and personalities are not truly representative of South Africa. The country is burdened, and can be sad, but it is also changing, and needs the support of the international community to do so. Painting it as a toxic, irreversible sinkhole is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. Rather than focusing on a quack few, it is the media's responsibility to bring the true news of South Africa, and the continent more generally, to the world. To do any less is racist, unhelpful, and simply poor journalism.

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