The Complexity of Resilience in Post-Apartheid South Africa

from Johannesburg, South Africa.

I’ve come to South Africa on a mission to explore resilience: What does it look like? How is it defined? What cultivates resilience? My learnings have taken me on a circuitous path and then back to conclusions that I described in Onward. The conclusions I come to are the same, but there’s new texture and layers to them.

Honor the Pain and Acknowledge Adversity

Resilience is the ability to bounce back after challenges, to face adversity and emerge stronger than before, to experience suffering and thrive in its aftermath. Resilience is not just surviving, although it’s possible that the resilient are broken and whole at the same time.

Here in South Africa, the adversity is all around. Inescapable. Omni-present. To find resilience I must look through a thick layer of suffering. It feels dismissive to try to look too fast, to want to see resilience before honoring the struggles. The two—resilience and pain—are so intricately connected, inseparable.

Understand Context

My journey began in Cape Town, South Africa, a beautiful coastal city nestled into the base of stunning mountains and surrounded by parklands, vineyards, and beaches. And a city with stark racial segregation and economic inequity. To understand this at all, you must have a basic understanding of apartheid. In his brilliant memoir, Born a Crime, (I highly recommend listening to it) Noah describes apartheid this way:

“Apartheid was perfect racism…Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control…In America, you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

Apartheid’s end is marked by the election in 1994 of Nelson Mandela—the first election in which everyone could vote, the first election of a black South African as president. While the laws and political structures of apartheid were dismantled by 1994, the majority of South Africans have yet to experience economic justice. South Africa has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. Approximately 60% of the population earns less than $7,000 a year, whereas 2% of the population earns over $50,000 per year. And wealth and poverty fall along racial lines—70% of South Africa’s land is owned by whites, who make up less than 8% of the population.

In a Cape Town neighborhood, I saw palatial seaside homes, their wealth obscured somewhat behind walls and electric fences, but imaginable all the less. And then, in the townships—the outlying parts of the city where blacks and “coloureds” were forced to live, were miles and miles of shantytowns, homes made of sheet metal crowded onto muddy streets, an outhouse toilet shared by hundreds, homes with roofs made of asbestos. I know: you can see this kind of discrepancy between rich and poor all over the world; I see it in my hometown of Oakland, California. But the extremes in Cape Town were dizzying. What is political freedom without economic justice?

Black South Africans talk about the overt and implicit racism they still experience. Derogatory terms have slid just below the surface, and have been replaced by phrases like, “You people,” communicated in a tone of voice that conveys distain, disgust. Unemployment for black people may be as high as 45%. Getting a job or loan is much harder for a black South African. Schools in black areas are a far cry from what they are in white areas.

Again, all of this exists in the U.S., but the difference here is that the formerly oppressed majority has been in power for 24 years. You’d think, you’d hope, that some of these historical wrongs would be set right. But 24 years is not much time, I suppose, and there’s still more to this story.

See the Big Picture

Here’s another piece that you have to understand about South Africa’s recent history. When Mandela won the election, there was widespread fear that a civil war would break out, that the transition from the white dominated government would be violent, that blacks would seek revenge for the hundreds of years of injustice. The apartheid state, which formally institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in 1948, was brutal. The police state used torture, terror and outright assassination to control the population. Black South Africans were treated worse than animals, their every movement controlled.

In spite of almost 50 years of institutionalized brutality, and the decades of injustice that preceded the official apartheid state, the transition was peaceful. Mandela and other leaders called for unity and forgiveness, and this beloved leader, who had spent 27 years in prison, was so respected and admired, and such an eloquent and powerful force, that he was listened to. The whole story is far more complex, of course, than what I’ve just painted—all stories are complex—so I encourage you to learn more about this history.

Slow Down

After a week in Cape Town, including many days in the townships, I hit pause on my search for resilience. It’s there, and it’s here in Johannesburg where I am now, but there’s also so much pain and injustice. It feels wrong to leap to seek out the stories of resilience before acknowledging the suffering. And yet, I also feel reluctant to tell stories of suffering—those aren’t my stories to tell. I’ve found myself stumbling for words, feeling constrained by the politics of privilege to write about what I’m seeing. At the same time, I’m torn because I also feel a responsibility to share what I see, what I hear—for I have the power and privilege to do so.

Speak Your Truth, and Listen

I’m struggling with how to depict resilience without casting a shadow over the ongoing suffering, without romanticizing and glorifying resilience—because survival is not necessarily resilience. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m seeing resilience, or survival, or just suffering. I wonder also about my authority to declare something, someone, or some action as “resilient.” Perhaps what I’d call resilience is just survival. Perhaps I don’t recognize resilience in this context.

And so, I will write my truth—which is all I can do. To share what I see through my eyes and what I hear through my ears. My intention always when traveling (as well as at home) is to stay open, to stay curious, to be aware of my assumptions and cultural perspectives, and to seek to learn. I try to connect with people who live here, to learn their names and listen to their stories and to share some of those with you. Which is why I hope you’ll listen to them.

  • Here’s Athia speaking about teaching children about growing food in a Cape Town township.

  • This is Calvin Moloto describing his work in a community garden in Soweto.

  • Carlo Fabre reflects on the power of music education


  • Lonwabo Mose and Zukisa Nyandane sing the South African National anthem.

  • The Young Ideas perform traditional music of the Cape Malay.

  • Mama Refiloe talks about the healthy eating revolution she’s leading.