South Africa Journal: Boxing Day Beachmageddon!

Boxing Day, December 26, is traditionally a day for black and “coloured” (i.e. mixed-race) South Africans to head to the nation’s beaches. That tradition has remained strong, twenty years after apartheid, even though the segregation laws that helped foster the custom were long ago wiped off the books. (Under apartheid, “non-white” populations were moved to township areas usually far from the beautiful coastline, and were usually not allowed on beaches reserved for whites.)

White South Africans tend to keep their distance from the beaches on Boxing Day. The traffic, the chaos, and the exuberance of families who may not see the beach the rest of the year is a bit too much to handle, for some. In the resort town of Plettenberg Bay, a group of local white residents quietly organize a traditional cleanup effort after the holiday rush has ended. On one beach, that tradition faded a few years ago when a freak storm washed the entire shore away.

Yesterday, my family and I headed to Boulders Beach, a national park where a large group of penguins formed a colony several years ago. While enjoying the clear, relatively warm shallow water, you can literally swim with the penguins. The beach was packed, despite Christmas Day being a bit early for the rush. Most of the families were coloured, and many were Muslim. The few whites seemed to be foreigners: Americans, Israelis, a Dutch family from Hong Kong.

Today we are joining family friends at Clifton Beach, one of the most beautiful in the world, at the feet of Lion’s Head, one of Cape Town’s signature peaks. Clifton used to be reserved for whites, and remains largely white throughout the year, despite public transportation being available. The city is more integrated than it has ever been, especially in the center of town, but some old patterns live on in the less sinister form of traditions–crowds, traffic, chaos and all.