On Racial Segregation and Culture Shock in South Africa

So far, when writing about my travels in South Africa, I’ve touched on shark cage diving, swimming with penguins, and safaris. But today I want to talk about something a little more serious.

While in South Africa, I stayed at a farm, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It was unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. In Canada, the average farm is about a hundred acres. This one was eight thousand acres and was surrounded by neighbouring farms, making it seem like the land stretched on endlessly. There was no cell service, the next farm was 9 km down the road and the nearest hospital was two hours away. In a big old farmhouse, with skeleton keys for every door, and a lack of communication with the outside world, it was like stepping back in time.


Farmland stretching on.


But there was another reason it felt like we had time-travelled. The farms we visited were staffed with black servants, while the owners and our group of visiting Canadians were white (minus myself; I am Chinese). At breakfast, when the other guests and I went to clear the table after breakfast, we were told, “The maids will get it.” When the boys asked for an iron to iron their dress shirts (we were going to a wedding), they were told, “The maids can do it.” It was quite a culture shock. All of us guests, from modest homes in Canada, were unused to having staff around to help out with any household chore. And because the maids were black, dressed in traditional attire, and lived on the farm in separate, inferior housing with the male farmhands, it felt like we had stepped back in time.

It wasn’t just at the farm, either. The segregation of race and class was evident everywhere we travelled in South Africa, from the farms to the big cities to the townships we passed on the road. It was hard not to be reminded of apartheid, the political system that ruled South Africa from 1948 – 1991. Apartheid, in case you don’t know, was a system that institutionalized racial segregation. It enforced racial hierarchy, giving preferential treatment to white South Africans. (You can read more about the timeline of apartheid here.)

But though it was everywhere, at the farm the segregation felt the most apparent because we experienced the segregation in race and class firsthand. At the wedding, when speaking with a South African guest about this culture shock, he laughed and confirmed he had never ironed his own clothes – and never would.


On the road in South Africa.


It’s been weeks since I’ve returned from South Africa but I haven’t stopped thinking about this segregation. My thoughts on this are confusing, because while the wages are low and it feels like this system is enforcing racial segregation, the staff of these farms are still in a much better position than others. With a high level of poverty and unemployment in South Africa, they are relatively fortunate to be employed on these farms. And it’s not as if all the black people we saw were farmhands and maids. There were educated, wealthy black South Africans as well. Furthermore, I’m not trying to say that white South Africans are bad, racist people. It’s not my intention to bad mouth the farm owners who so kindly let us stay with them, and as a sidenote, were absolutely lovely. After all, they have employed their staff and they pay them wages. It’s not exactly unfair.

And I know it’s not just South Africa. I have relatives in Hong Kong who grew up with Filipina maids, which is very common in Hong Kong because labour from the Philippines is cheap. Similarly, in Vancouver, I see Filipina nannies taking care of white children every day. And while we have not had apartheid, Canada has had its own racist laws and policies in the past, such as residential schools.

So why did South Africa feel different? From the start it had felt like we had stepped back in time. I know I wasn’t alone on these thoughts, because other Canadian guests voiced the same opinion. Perhaps it’s because the segregation was just so much more widespread, and because the system of apartheid really was not that long ago. Or maybe it was the combination of the segregation and being in the middle of nowhere in an old farmhouse. Either way, it’s something I haven’t been able to stop thinking and wondering about since. Even though apartheid was abolished twenty-two years ago, its legacy was still evident everywhere we went in South Africa.


  1. says

    I grew up in South Africa and I now live in California. Every time I go back I experience a similar type of “culture shock.” South Africa has come a long way, but is definitely still recovering from the damage of apartheid.

  2. says

    In the United States we struggle to this day with race issues that stem from our slavery belief that technically ended with our Civil War,yet, we continued the belief long into the middle 1900’s. Therefore, as an American it would be hard for me to judge another Country struggling to overcome their race issues and I hope and pray their journey is less cruel than ours but fear it won’t be since ours still ongoing to this day.

    • says

      Impressed by your honest reflection on this Lucy. Amazing how our own past and experiences growing up impact our own perspectives. Glad I was brought up in multicultural family, as it means I personally have such difficulty understanding why anyone would treat another as less.

  3. says

    Wow, great article! I noticed this a lot as a nanny (au pair) in Paris. Almost all the nannies at the park with me were North African or from South East Asia. At first I didn’t understand why so many black women had white kids (usually it is the other way around in the US), but then I realized they weren’t the moms, they were nannies like me. Fortunately, being a nanny in Paris is a pretty good job, even though it remains pretty segregated. This kind of begs the question: do we segregate ourselves or is there another force (like history, social pressure, etc) at work? Tough to say.
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    • says

      Interesting question Vanessa. And glad to hear your international nanny experience was good, as I don’t believe that is always the case. Very much depends on the family that you are working with.

  4. says

    Great post, Megan.
    I had a nanny and I live in a country that still has maids, or helpers as we call them, but the color situation in South Africa made me uncomfortable. It could be because apartheid is still so fresh in my mind.

    One morning in Durban, I sat at the breakfast table and cried when I noticed that the woman who was serving us at 6:00 a.m. was the same woman who’d served us the night before around 9 pm. Suddenly, the thought that had been playing in the back of my mind the entire time I was there pushed to the front and hit me like a ton of bricks: that could have been me! I had a hard time holding back the tears.

    I also thought of the situation in the US. Unfortunately, the economic playing field will probably never become level for black South Africans.

    • says

      Oh that poor woman.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I so hope that one day race will not be an issues, the world over, but I fear that is still a long way off, as is a sexist free world.

  5. says

    Really interested post.
    It must be because – in the grand scheme of history – 22 years ago is rather fresh in everyone’s memory. I live in the Okanagan and there has been an increase in Filipina maids and many Mexicans who come up to pick cherries and apples for cheap. It was odd at first seeing this – I felt at odds about it.
    It’s definitely a difficult topic to tackle and you did a great job.

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  6. says

    What an excellent article! I think you said it all when you spoke of the young South African you spoke to who confirmed that “he had never ironed his own clothes – and never would.” I think it is different from other countries because back in 1994 we really thought we were going to change the world and that an end would come to the inequality in South Africa. But South Africa somehow veered off course – there are very few people dreaming of the eradication of poverty, of a South Africa with a huge middle class where the vast majority of citizens are educated and don’t work as servants or gardeners. Most just dream of maintaining the status quo and would never, ever iron their own clothes.
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  7. Shelley says

    You need to remember that you were on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I live in South Africa and while I can’t deny that apartheid has caused extreme racial oppression, you have clearly not seen enough.

    • says

      Hi Shelley, thanks for your comment. I wasn’t trying to say that all of South Africa was like this but rather that this was my experience on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Being on a farm in the middle of nowhere definitely made the segregation more noticeable and heightened the culture shock we experienced. It’s an experience that others may or may not have experienced visiting Cape Town or other common destinations in South Africa and I wanted to share my experience. While I did travel to other parts of South Africa also, you are right to say I didn’t see enough as my time in South Africa was limited. I hope to be back to South Africa one day and see more of your beautiful country.

  8. Cheryl says

    Great article, Megan! I live and work in South Africa; in the International Development sector and have spent considerable amounts of time (a decade) in the US prior to that. As a person of colour, the entrenched, lingering apartheid after so many years is disheartening. What’s even more challenging is an unwilling to engage (intelligently or at all) with white privilege, the legacy of apartheid, building bridges and understanding from the white sector of South African society. In my humble opinion, black South Africans did much to forgive and not mete out retributive actions after apartheid ended. White South Africans on the other hand are not interested, by and large, in seeing black South Africans as human beings who are not sub-par to them. I would love to study and understand the prevailing rhetoric regarding the ‘black other’ that the apartheid era social machinery churned out, because maybe it would help me understand the white superiority that goes unquestioned by the majority of white South Africans. And don’t even get me started on the victim mentality now that policies of redress have been put in place to try and right some apartheid era wrongs.
    Imagine a country where 95% of the population’s taxes go towards building the dandy lives of 5% through deliberate state policies? Imagine that this 95% were deliberately held back through shockingly poor education systems designed just so they would never amount to anything more than a maid? Imagine that the 5% amassed ridiculous amounts of wealth because choice jobs, education were reserved for them (trust fund baby anyone?). Now imagine that this took place over several decades and multiple generations of the 5% could build social and economic capital. Now imagine the end of that era and the headache that is trying to bring the 95% to respectable income and education levels.

    What you saw Megan; very much a real part of South Africa. And sadly, it is in the best interests of this isolated farm community and others to pay less than a living wage on the basis of skin colour: more for them!

    • says

      Thanks for sharing the reality of this Cheryl from someone who is actually living in South Africa. It makes me so sad and sick to hear that is still the case in South Africa. I do hope that someday that will just be a bad nightmare from history, and that society in South Africa will change for the better, truly treating all as equals.

  9. Chanel says

    There is still a prevailing attitude of white superiority in South Africa for sure. Blatantly using racial epithets as if it is as harmless as a nickname is a common occurrence there too. The country will never be a nation as one if people do not swallow their pride and respect each other as human beings and recognise the suffering that was endured in the past.

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