Seeing Red, White, and Blue in the Rainbow Nation

                Upon landing in South Africa, it was immediately apparent to me that this young, influential democracy has tremendous ‘Western’ influences.  To draw this conclusion, however, I didn’t even need to make the trek halfway across the world.  That’s because the land of South Africa has a history of immense ‘Western’ influence beginning with Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to reach the Cape of Good Hope, landing around 1487.  Subsequent settlements, largely by the Dutch and then the British with the discovery of gold set the land up for a future of greed-fueled colonialism and unfortunately also doomed the natives and any non-whites or non-Europeans for a harsh oppression known as Apartheid.  Drawing on what we have learned in class and out of class from our readings, namely New News Out of Africa, Kaffir Boy, and The Economist article Chasing the Rainbow, it was clear that South Africa is a unique land that has an array of different cultures, skin tones, and religions, which led Nelson Mandela refer to the country he loved so dearly as the ‘Rainbow Nation.’  In addition to the European and general ‘Western’ influences, I was also able to distinguish purely American ideals, customs, and norms present and widely visible here in South Africa.                From picking up a local magazine on the first day in our Cape Town hotel, I was able to quickly come to a few realizations about America’s most obvious influence on South Africa: entertainment.  The publication, myweek, featured a Cape Tonian talent, Natalie Becker, on the cover.  The article discussed what she is known for in her home town, as a local television personality as well as a radio show host.  Becker’s passion is acting, and even in a country and economy as large and developing as South Africa, there is little ‘homegrown’ production of movies, music, or television, and therefore her dream is a constant uphill battle.  In the article, Becker talks in detail about how she has always wanted to act, “but the life of an actor in South Africa is very tough.”  And while she was fortunate enough to land four gigs in the last year, they were all relatively small roles and in American or international movies.  On my first day in South Africa, I had already learned a lot about the entertainment industry there and the harsh realities for the “local celebs,” as they were referred to, as well as the entrenched impact of American media in this foreign country.  It greatly surprised me that the only real way for South Africans to find work acting on a larger scale was to go outside the country, usually to America.  Then I was reminded of the famous actress Charlize Theron, who is a South African native, like so many other foreign talents had to come to America to truly find their fame.  I also was intrigued by one of the gossip magazines that someone had picked up on the trip which, like those in America, featured national celebrities.  Of course, I didn’t recognize any of those pictured, but it showed me that the country has people who are followed and admired for their fame, although not anywhere near on the same scale as in America.  The one exception was Charlize Theron, whom I immediately recognized, gracing one of the opening pages.  I thought it was very interesting that South Africans still followed her and felt such a sense of connection to Theron years after the actress left the country and moved to America, and really had pride in the actress, who was able to become such a big name in the states.Furthermore, I quickly discovered that nearly all television shows, movies, and music played in South African are American.  During the ‘Learner Husband’ comedic show in Cape Town, one couldn’t help but notice the constant references to American music, musicians, and other celebrities.  I also noticed and found it intriguing that in this continually-developing country, the radio was used first and foremost as a news medium, and to a lesser extent, a provider of music.  Whereas in America, FM radio tends to be marketed to music listeners, with some talk and opinion shows, though they largely appear on the AM frequency, which enjoys far fewer listeners.  From this observation, I would infer that the radio is still very much a relevant and popular source of news for many in the country, whereas television and internet, often referred to as ‘new age’ media, have yet to take off in many households.  Additionally, at the Ekukhanyisweni Primary School, every child I interviewed ranted about how Chris Brown or Beyoncé, popular singers in America, and how they aspired to sing or be just like them.  I was shocked to find out that for many of those students, these celebrities were hugely popular in South Africa; and were often the most some of the young students knew about the United States.  Furthermore, one thing I noticed every time I turned on the television was the (seemingly odd) selective censorship occurring on TV shows and movies.  For example, the word ‘God,’ would be silenced, while curse words were not usually censored and seemed much more socially acceptable from my various conversations and interactions with South Africans than in America.  I don’t know exactly what to draw from this observation, and maybe I’m judging too critically, but nonetheless I thought it was worth mentioning when the word ‘God’ being spoken was taboo but partial nudity on television wasn’t.Finally, as a political science major and American I was intrigued to see the excitement of seemingly every South African I came across with our newly-inaugurated President, Barack Obama.  Over my time in South Africa, it became customary to be greeted with a cordial reference to President Obama.  I was especially excited being that I worked on the President’s campaign and for the Democratic Party in 2008.  However, even putting all that aside, it was here in South Africa that I got a completely different view of really how influential the United States is in South Africa as well as numerous other countries.  While in Cape Town, I was fortunate enough to intern at the Democratic Alliance, a leading political opposition party in South Africa.  During my brief but extremely educational stint at the DA, I found many correlations between politics in America and in South Africa, with lots of American influence in political plans.  I saw firsthand how the DA is attempting to duplicate the success of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in the 2009 South African election where Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town, whom we met, is running for office.  Like the Obama campaign, the DA has launched an aggressive campaign to register voters, mobilize citizens to spread the word to their friends, and modeled many things, including Obama’s ‘O’ logo, along with widely using the terms, ‘change’ and ‘dream,’ along with the famous, “Yes We Can!” slogan and chant at Zille’s speeches.  Change seemed to be an especially important and recurring theme as the DA has been a leading opposition party to the ruling African National Congress in South Africa.  Moreover, politicos in South Africa monitored the 2008 US election
very closely, and my supervisor at the DA impressed me with far more knowledge and facts on American political efficacy than I was even aware of.
However, it wasn’t just those directly involved in politics that followed American politics or were ecstatic over the recent American election.  As I mentioned previously, virtually everyone I encountered and had the opportunity to chat with expressed their anticipation and excitement for a real change in American politics (and subsequently policies that affect the entire globe).  Additionally, I saw from many South Africans a distinct sense of pride that America, a country that once considered a black as 3/5 of a person has moved so progressively that it was able to elect a black man the leader of the country, and arguably the free world.  This sentiment was only reinforced when we were fortunate enough to hear the leader of the newly formed political party, COPE, and presidential candidate, Mosiuoa Lekota, speak to our class in at his church in Soweto.  Lekota explained how far the US had come from enslaving blacks during pre-civil war to oppressing them throughout segregation, where they were the minority in the country, to electing one to the office of President.  Lekota also explained the significance of the American Civil Rights movement, and its impact on Black Consciousness and eventually the collapse of the apartheid in South Africa.  Finally, all of this helped me realize America’s impact and importance in the global community, especially in this newly-formed, growing, and easily-influenced democracy.  After seeing all of the rekindled hope and opportunities that America has been given with its newest leader, I am truly proud to be an American, and glad to once again be respected and admired for our global influence, especially from what I saw firsthand in South Africa.

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