On She Goes

Race, Trump, Apartheid: A Trip to South Africa

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, but a complicated time.

Nora Taylor
Nora Taylor
August 29, 2017
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It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. One of my best friends from college was marrying her partner in a vineyard outside of Cape Town. Given the dollars and hours it would take to get there, it felt foolish not to expand it into a longer trek around South Africa. I had two full weeks to wander the country before ending my trip in Cape Town for the two-day ceremony. I had envisioned the trip would be filled with baby elephant and giraffe sightings, wine, and finding myself, while sporting all of the best “Losing You” looks. In this ideal version, I’d make this trip with a group of Black women, my brother, or just one best brown friend, and we’d be silent at all the same moments, speaking in shorthand about what we’d witnessed. But as it happened, I was the only woman of color on this trip with my college friends. The wedding was around the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration, a complicated time politically (understatement of the year) and personally. But knowing that I blissfully would be off the grid on inauguration day offered some solace.

My friend Caroline and I started our trip in Johannesburg, a place where we had been told time and time again to be hypervigilant and always on the lookout for petty theft at best, violent crime at worst. Instead, Johannesburg felt comfortable and familiar in certain places, like a sprawled-out Brooklyn. We would walk into restaurants and shops and theaters and see all of these beautiful Black and brown people.

A view of Johannesburg.
photo by Nora Taylor

We wandered through the Apartheid Museum so slowly that we had to race through the last few rooms before they kicked us out. When you enter the museum, you are given an identity card which tells you which entrance you’re allowed to walk through. This fell squarely within the limited knowledge of what I knew of about apartheid: white, black, separate and not equal, then fast-forward to Nelson Mandela. Deeper into the museum, you learn more about daily life under apartheid and the years of resistance that led to the seemingly miraculous change of government. I was overwhelmed by the extreme brutality and the violence against protesters that had unfolded in my lifetime, and how had I known so little about what it had taken and what it had cost to get Mandela elected and to get people free. The videos and photos of protesters being shot, chased, and hauled into tanks felt unreal and unsettling in a new way. Could I, would I be able to put my body into harm’s way like that? Would I be a part of the resistance or would I hide in the privileges afforded to me?

In this ideal version, I’d make this trip with a group of Black women, my brother, or just one best brown friend, and we’d be silent at all the same moments, speaking in shorthand about what we’d witnessed.

In the name of saving data and our sanity, Caroline and I largely removed ourselves from the goings-on back home. We had spent a lot of time in Ubers, chatting with South African folks about our plans and where we coming from, and almost always our chats would turn to Trump. The conversations were good-natured, funny, and enlightening. Oftentimes there was a world-weary passing of the torch: “Your new president, he’s a crook. Our president, Zuma, he’s a crook.” But overall, I felt a calming disconnect from the inauguration, the punditry, and the self-congratulatory Facebook posts from friends who had sat out the Black Lives Matter marches but were suddenly on their way to the Women’s March in DC.

Storms River National Park
photo by Nora Taylor

We took a night to just sit in our hotel and tune in to the news, check our email, and read updates from our friends. It was next to impossible not to watch the organized, generally affable march and hear from my mom about how nice it was to step away from the marchers when she got tired and go to brunch with an old friend, and compare it to the bloody and incomprehensibly brutal response to protests against apartheid. There was always the gnawing question: If this administration comes for my rights, how far will I be willing to go to protect them? I was feeling tired, raw, and helpless, and I decided that I would just retreat back into myself, turn off the noise, and have a nice time: self-care through willful ignorance and gin cocktails. And I mostly succeeded.

When I finally met up with the rest of my college friends in Cape Town, it had been a long and emotional week and a half. Cape Town is beautiful, but the aftershocks of apartheid felt frighteningly visible. We were served almost entirely by Black people, and we found ourselves being repeatedly directed to the same mostly white neighborhoods. At the time, it felt like the racial divisions were so obvious, so codified, that it seemed insane that this could be a modern city and that we’d been told before our trip that South Africa was reconciling with its past. Now, it feels naive to have expected so much from a place I knew so little about. Knowing that the progress in our country was so paper-thin, so fragile, it was naive to be shocked that Cape Town hadn’t somehow righted itself by the time I got there. I thought that the recentness of their violent history, their legalized oppression, and reshaping a country under the watchful eye of cable news might have created a city where the demons couldn’t be swept under a rug, where “post-racial” wasn’t a cure-all for people who would rather not talk about race. Maybe I just wanted it so badly because I wanted there to be an escape, that if things got as bad with Trump as I had worried they might, that there would be this beautiful oasis that I could run to—and in true lazy American fashion, do so without learning a new language or giving up my major creature comforts.

There was always the gnawing question: If this administration comes for my rights, how far will I be willing to go to protect them?

The day before the wedding, I took an Uber to meet my college friends before we trucked out to the vineyard for the wedding festivities. My Uber driver, Calvin, was a serious but friendly man. When I absentmindedly asked if he was a Cape Town native, he sternly but generously corrected me: “That means something different here. I know what you mean, but don’t use that again.” In my haste to get where I was going and fill the awkward space of a car ride, I had forgotten about all of the language around race and identity.

Bo-Kaap, Cape Town.
photo Nora Taylor

From there we talked about Trump, systems of power, and how sometimes the exploitation of people of color seemed inevitable, but you can’t give into that belief. He pushed me to finish my thoughts. When I said that learning more about apartheid when Trump was taking power had felt oddly relevant, he asked me how. He wanted to know what it was about apartheid that made it feel like it could happen under Trump. I told him that I thought it would bring out the worst in white people.

He turned to me and said, “White people will never look out for you.” Nobody pushes me in conversations like that; nobody in my life gets messy like that. It felt like one of the more rigorous 10 minutes of my adult life. I felt tethered to this man, his hard questions, and his refusal to let me get away with the platitudes. I was able to spool out all of my anxieties about what was to come—that it wouldn’t be fine, that we were in danger.  I was so grateful for that time, alone with another person of color after a week with my white friend, for better or worse.

Nora with friend Caroline is at the Addo Elephant Reserve.
photo by Nora Taylor

We arrived at my destination and what I had been dreading for the drive turned out to be true:  my college friends were waiting for me at the curb, and I’d somehow be exposed to Calvin as a phony. As we got out of the car to grab my bag from the trunk, I tried to turn away from my friends. As they called out to me one, two, three, four times, I continued to pretend that it wasn’t my name. I stood at the back of the car, trying to finish my conversation undetected and unnoticed while my friend kept yelling at me. Calvin looked up, saw my friends, clocked what was happening, and swiftly said, “I won’t keep you any longer.”  He handed me my bag and shook my hand. We were no longer confidants exchanging notes on our shared oppressions; we were just two people making a transaction and going about their days. In all likelihood, that’s all it really was for him: I was just a customer, and we were having a conversation, but in those moments I had made him my safe space. I wheeled over slowly to my friends. “We were just trying to see if you needed coffee before we hit the road.”

The wedding was lovely. It was truly beautiful, and I was happy to be surrounded by so many people I love in a gorgeous Indian and Western ceremony. Friends of the bride and groom came from all over the world—even India and Paris—to dance (in my case, terribly) in the Saanji one night, and demand Beyoncé songs on the second. There were wine tours and long heart-to-hearts, drunken Hamilton sing-alongs, and a late-night trip to Domino’s. But when I think of this trip, I think a lot about that final ride and that moment on the curb. It was a complicated moment where things became clear, both a memory and a guide for moving forward. When we plan a trip, we always think we’re going to be our best selves: happier, content, and respectful. But every so often a trip leaves us raw, drawing out the feelings we deeply want and need to confront in our day-to-day lives and pulling them to the forefront.