Bangu Masisi saw apartheid both coming and going.
Though the first edicts for separation of people by color that were the cornerstone of the South African apartheid state were passed by the National Party in 1948, it took a while for the structures of apartheid to penetrate the rural areas.
“I didn’t experience apartheid growing up as much because I come from a remote place,” said Masisi, now the president of South African Tourism North America.
“I didn’t come from a township or big city or where they had the mines. I come from the Free State, where it was more farming. My grandparents had farms. The village where we lived was very small. We didn’t even have a tarred road. The main street of the town was a dirt road.”
While growing up in the apartheid state, most of its effects were remote, at least at first.
“My parents were both teachers,” she said. “I didn’t grow up hungry. We had everything. We would take what we needed from the farm. Growing vegetables was easy.”
Then, in the ‘60s, apartheid reached the local school system.
“At that time, education changed completely to bantu education,” said Masisi. “They separated the white from the colored. My best friend (both of our dads were teachers); all of the sudden we were separated as friends. We had to go to different schools. Because we were neighbors we couldn’t wait to come home after school so we could be together.”
Apartheid lost that battle.
“We’ve been friends ever since,” she said.
The white supremacist government managed to hold onto power for two more decades, but its hold became ever more tenuous. In 1990, when the apartheid government negotiated with Nelson Mandela for his release from prison and the establishment of democratic elections, Masisi was among the millions of South Africans of all colors who were overjoyed.
“We waited so long to belong,” she said. “When it happened we just couldn’t wait for our chance to cast our first ballot. On the first election day, there was talk that there was going to be a disruption, but there was no way any sort of thing would disrupt this because we had been waiting so long to be able to vote.”
As much of a nightmare as apartheid was for South Africa, Bangu remembers the times fondly. The nightmare was never powerful enough to have undue influence over her life.
“Even during apartheid we used to have fun, in our own way, in the little place where you belonged. We created havens. That’s where the shebeens started, in homes so the guys when they came back from mining they could come home and stop by the bar. Music was always there, the music of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. There was always music.”
Living under a controlled media South Africans were cut off from the world in some ways, but in their bubble, they built a uniquely rich culture, fueled by the country’s great diversity. That culture is now the country’s greatest asset in the world tourism market. Today Bangu Masisi is in the business of bringing that culture, and South Africa’s other assets, to the attention of Americans.
The South African government is becoming increasingly aware of how important tourism is to its economic health, and is increasing its investments in promoting it.
That enterprise is, overall, very successful. In 2016, the U.S. market pulled ahead of the German market as South Africa’s number two source market. The U.K. remains the unchallenged first place contender.
South Africa is building its tourism fan base as first-time visitors become return visitors, and the awareness of the country’s unique combination of wilderness and urban culture spreads.
“We are especially well known for safari,” said Masisi, “but we also want to highlight our variety. South Africa is much more than just safari. And it’s no longer a once-in-a-lifetime destination, because once people have been they know they have to go back.”
Millennials have discovered South Africa and are making their mark on its tourism industry.
“We’re seeing a lot of return visitors. Most of the new visitors now are millennials. They are the largest percentage of new travelers.”
South Africa’s market research has shown that people are traveling younger than ever before, and they are prioritizing the investment in travel over purchasing consumer goods, buying experiences, not things.
Millennials are discovering that a trip to South Africa is not necessarily as expensive as they might have thought. For one thing, there is the exchange rate. At 13 rand to a dollar, it gives Americans tremendous buying power. As recently as 2011, a U.S. dollar bought only seven rand—and South Africa was considered inexpensive for Americans then.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive,” said Masisi. “Our three and four-star hotels are better than anywhere else in the world. Millennials can afford that. You don’t have to go to the most expensive lodges.”
It has also become a popular practice to combine high and low experiences, such as staying one night at a guest house and then splurging on a luxury game lodge. Airbnb has become a force in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Another stimulus for South African tourism is that the country is now seen as a safe destination and an alternative to Europe, where some are uncomfortable traveling to because of a string of terrorist attacks in recent years.
Safaris are still the country’s main draw for first-time visitors, and Masisi believes the safari experience in South Africa is the best on the continent.
“A safari in South Africa is very different than a safari Kenya or Tanzania because it is up close and personal,” she said. “When you are observing the Great Migration in East Africa you see the animals from far away. In South Africa, you are in a jeep tracking animals. You still see them in the wild but mostly up close.”
The big surprise for first time visitors to South Africa is the discovery that even if you are going to look at animals, it is the people who show them to you and facilitate your experience. Ultimately, it is the people who affect you the most and leave the most lasting impression.
“Another thing that makes South Africa unique is this mixture of first and third world,” said Masisi. “There is the authenticity of South African people. I always say to people if you go to South Africa, have one of your experiences be to go to a local place or local tavern and you will enjoy the experience more than if you are on your own.
“South Africans are so diverse that even if you go to different regions, you’ll still experience their warm welcome. In the culture where we come from we don’t call anyone a stranger. Everybody is family. That thread is still very common in South Africa. It’s easy to make friends in South Africa. They’ll invite you to dinner at their house or say next time when you come please come in and chat.
“I’m glad that having lived abroad so much that when I return, I see that spirit is not going away. It’s still there.”
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