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Culture, Reality

Global Shorthand

by Laura Steiner / 14.08.2010

Stigma Friendly. Imagine an endless supply of Colombian blow at your disposal. If that’s what you’re into. Or inheriting Hacienda Napoles from your late uncle Pablo. Both sound like ways to climb up that stagnated Latin social ladder. But not all of us Colombians have access to infinite supplies of cocaine. Not all of us share a blood line with Pablo Escobar or Tony Montana. Some of us have ambitions beyond smuggling drugs into the US. I study at New York University and hope to graduate with a B.A. in journalism next year. I’ve been in South Africa for two months – primarily for the World Cup, and interning at Mahala as a sideline.

It’s funny – actually ridiculous – how the Colombian stigma follows me. The blood-coloured (no pun intended) Passport is pretty much a one-way ticket to any Terrorist watch list. But I’m speaking like a saint here. I brought my own fair share of preconceived notions to Cape Town. I expected backwards racism, barbaric crime and a country-wide HIV pandemic to name a few. You would expect globalization – that endless exchange of goods & services, people & cultures – to have challenged our national prejudices. ALL Colombians are not actually drug dealers. It’s basic economics: we can’t all work in the same business. Capitalism needs variety and competition. The same way that not ALL South Africans are racists. Didn’t Apartheid end in 1994? The people I’ve met here have honestly been some of the most welcoming I’ve ever encountered. Of course I’m generalizing. I chose a good time to visit your country. The World Cup was able to distort everyday South African reality for the international observer. Soccer made it possible for a month-long Mandela utopia.

Back in that heady FIFA month, I was chilling at a Waterfront bar getting ready to watch a game. Two locals approached and kindly offered me an extra ticket for the game. Drunk and happily surprised, I readily accepted. I’m very blonde by the way. On the drive to the stadium conversation was pretty null. I haven’t polished up on my Afrikaans lately and they weren’t too keen on English. But it was clear from people around them that they were obnoxious and racist. Regressive South Africans. They got really weird when I started talking to a bunch of Mexicans behind us. Shooting me looks and kind of making it clear that the free ticket came with conditions. I thanked them both and slipped away after the game. Was that mean?

In contrast, I went to a concert in Zula Bar in Long Street that week, and found a bunch of white kids jamming to hip hop. And everyone seems to have a coloured friend! So what’s up? Is your constant PC attitude just another way to defy all the shit that’s been said about your country? Or is this really truly a Rainbow Nation?

There is a basic undeniable racial harmony in South Africa. Superficially at
least. The WC closing ceremony saw crowds screaming Madiba! Even if he was dragged out of retirement and paraded – I was yelling. Being part of some great Pan African moment felt glorious. Yet bullshit at the same time. Welcome to branded reality.

In two days – once the International gaze turned away from South Africa – the media was awash with the specter of xenophobic attacks. And black guys started calling each other “prawns” and things got way too confusing again.

Stigmas have a frustratingly sticky degree of reality. Not all Colombians are drug dealers. But we certainly are the world’s number one exporter of cocaine. Not all South Africans are racists. But there are surviving racist residues. As in any country with a divisive racial history. We seem to use these reputations – criticize the world for labeling us, and we don’t actually have to cope with our lack of self-identity. Years of cultural imperialism – for you the British, for me the Spanish – for both of us Uncle Sam – have blurred our own sense of ourselves. We’ve already been (poorly) defined by colonial history, so why go to all the trouble of believing in ourselves. We’ll always be a bunch of racists or filthy drug dealers – it’s global shorthand, and we’re stuck in it until the end of time.

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