Over the past 15 years Merushchka Govender has witnessed how the perceptions of South Africans travelling abroad has changed.
South Africans, we’re a motley bunch. We come in all colours, flavours, shapes and sizes, and often the rest of the world is surprised by this. We’re a nation of contrasts and contradictions, diversity and depth. We have one of the most obese nations in the world, whilst still producing some of the world’s greatest athletes. We’re definitely not homogenous and rarely fit stereotypes. Often the world seems a little baffled by us.
I’ve been travelling for the best part of two decades now. I took my first solo travel trip in 2003, spending six weeks backpacking in Southern Africa from Joburg to Malawi via the Mozambique coast. On my first solo travel trip, I met up with three young women at a backpackers hostel in Vilanculos – two Swiss and an Australian. We ended up travelling together for the better part of a month, taking local minibus taxis, staying at beachside hostels, hitch-hiking and camping in new friends’ backyards. Being the only person of colour in our little travel crew, most travellers and locals we met en route assumed I was from anywhere else but South Africa – the US, Australia, the UK, even Mauritius. Over those epic six weeks, I did not meet one fellow South African person of colour traveller.
One fine day at Lake Malawi’s beautiful Cape Maclear, our all-girl travel crew hitched a ride into town on the back of a pick-up with a group of white South African guys. The guys were clearly interested in my Aussie friend and couldn’t resist gossiping about her in Afrikaans – there were definite sexual connotations. When I replied back to them in Afrikaans, they were utterly shocked and embarrassed. They eventually apologised, their excuse being that they didn’t expect me to be South African, nevermind understand Afrikaans. Being a South African person of colour, backpacking in the early noughties was definitely an anomaly.
Perceptions of South Africans travelling abroad are changing slowly. Historically, it was the privilege of white South Africans to travel. It took me a while to realise that outside the developing world, geography is often taught in a Western colonial way. On some of my travels, to developed countries, people could hardly place South Africa on a map. Was the geography taught in SA schools better, or was I just a nerd?
My first solo travel adventure in Southern Africa was immediately followed by a six-month trip to Australia. In Sydney, I caught up with another Aussie – let’s call him Joe – who I’d met travelling in Malawi. He invited me to a friend’s birthday dinner at a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in old Chinatown. His friends were a fairly diverse bunch of university students in their early 20s, and I assumed they were pretty open-minded and worldly. Wrong.
Upon arriving at the restaurant, Joe jokingly introduced me as his “African sponsorship child”. As a broke backpacker travelling on the rand in Australia, I did feel in need for some sympathy, but this was taking it too far. Some smart-ass girl thought it would be funny to put a ten-dollar bill in my bra. Another person commented on how good my English was, and so the African sponsorship child joke continued throughout the night. At least it got me a few free drinks. I laughed to hide my embarrassment. I was as educated as these kids and probably more well-travelled than them.
I find it interesting how perceptions of South Africans, if there were any to begin with, with have changed. When I first started travelling internationally, most people associated South Africa with Mandela and apartheid. These days when I travel and say I’m South African, people often mention Trevor Noah. Legend. Mostly though, people still associate South Africa with Madiba, our greatest icon. I’m cool with that, as long as I’m not referred to as the Africa sponsorship child.
Travel writer Meruschka Govender – aka MzansiGirl – describes herself as a travel activist, experience seeker, and tourism thinker who is an Afrophile at heart, loving African travel, music and festivals.