One Week After South Africa

I never offered any sort of conclusion on my South Africa trip because the trip home takes 30 hours and I was sick for most of it. But, here it is, a few conclusive thoughts after a week of processing.

South Africa is a very, very interesting place. It’s a place of great complexity, first and foremost. The most familiar issue – that of race – is not just black and white. It’s black South Africans vs. black immigrants, black Africans vs. colored descendants of slaves, white South Africans vs. colored, white British vs. white. Afrikaans. Not to mention other small minorities like Chinese and Indian populations. So, it’s not just simple issue.

The history is complex, too. Not just one, but two colonizing forces, duked it out over the territories and dead bodies of more than a dozen native peoples. It’s not hard to see the privilege and the oppression where it’s clear, but it’s more striking to find it among unexpected story lines.

South Africa is a tense place, in a lot of ways, too. A place of heavy statistics. The highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS out of any country in the world. The country’s suffocatingly poor, almost 90 percent one ethnicity (black) and ruled by a parliamentary party that regularly receives upwards of 65 percent of the vote in elections. That’s no democratic margin.

But it is shrinking, and an official opposition party is emerging. These political developments, along with capitalistic ventures like foreign investment and small-business entrepreneurship and stronger, more widely available education, are the keys to opening doors for what many South Africans call the “New South Africa”.

There’s far too little hope in a lot of African countries, but in South Africa hope exists. People are looking forward there, not backward, and while the country moves along slowly, it’s moving. And that’s what counts. That’s what I value most about this trip, I think. I learned a little more than the average person about an astonishing young country, and because of that I’ll be able to watch it grow as I do. Throughout my life I’ll check in with South Africa. I hope to point to it when I’m old and say, “I was once just a 19-year-old in Pretoria, and things were not this good. Look at South Africa now. Look at what it’s achieved. They said they would, and they did. Look.”

The next few years are crucial, though, and I hope the government and civil society make the right decisions for their country.

Last Days, Leaving Tomorrow

Nothing of note, really, so I’ll fall back on my trusty steed – a list of things I’ve done in the past few days:

  • Visit Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in more depth. The mountainside gardens, home to over 8000 species of plants, many of which ONLY grow in South Africa, was a much needed break from the city sites
  • A driving tour of the entire cape from the richest to the poorest neighborhoods and other sites in between like the Cape of Good Hope (the south-western most point on the African continent)
  • Wine and cheese tastings at world renowned wineries, one which is pioneering fair trade wine-making in South Africa and treating its workers really, really right.
  • Great White cage diving where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean, seeing African penguins, and driving home with a penguin in the car

Tomorrow begins the long journey home. I’ll be traveling for around 30 hours once again, so I assume I’ll have enough in me for a nice retrospective post in a few days.

The “Other” Cape Town: Poverty and South African Socialism

“I take my students there and I tell them, ‘Look, this is the enemy. These are the people who took your land and your money.”

This is Mr. Hendrix on trips with his students to the wealthiest schools. I must be quick to add that this isn’t entirely representative of Mr. Hendrix, principal at Trafalgar High School in District Six, but he wasn’t quiet about his socialism. Today was filled with that sentiment, and if nothing else it was refreshing.

Hendrix grew up at the school and is now on a trustee panel that owns the land once reserved for slaves, then whites, and then the genesis of ethnic relocation that so characterized apartheid and its parallel resistance movements. His commitment to education as a means of freedom is more than admirable, inspiring even. But his “active opposition to economic development is unreal” as one member of my group quietly mentioned later. Hendrix refuses bids from businesses who want to develop the prime land and claims he has yet to receive a cent from the post-apartheid government. Although he respects Mandela, the sellout in his eyes has missed the mark in ’94 when he allowed the wealthy elite to “lock up” their wealth in trust funds. A true socialist, his presentation to us ebbed and flowed with well-educated jabs at capitalism and nebulous and seemingly fabricated conspiracy theories.

Later in the day we went to the District Six Museum. Our tour guide, Tahir Levy, is a Muslim who’s grandparents were from Malaysia. The Jewish last name is most likely from the then-slave family’s owners a century-and-a-half ago. That was a bit rough to swallow but there’s no value in denying the truth. He is somewhat of a radical socialist intellectual as well, having been thrown out of his Parliament seat thrice already for spouting off about the ANC’s failures.

The day continued much more quietly with driving tours of the Cape Flats (the colored and black informal settlements, on two different sides of the highway) while our tour guide, a gang member-turned small businessman regaled us with stories of his life growing up in the Flats. To think this man once committed crimes and survived addiction to raise three children and fight through to a successful marriage was pretty astounding. He even helped the restaurant serve us lunch when we stopped.

We finished up with Bo Kaap, a predominantly colored part of town, beautifully painted and on a hill-side. It’s a pretty upscale-looking area, but nonetheless poverty is still noticeable.

Today drove home some of the issues I’d been ignoring. Until today, I really believed South Africa was moving in the right direction. Since 1994 the government is providing housing, more previously disadvantaged people are getting jobs (slowly) and at least on paper, the country is incredibly progressive. Hearing the calls of corruption regarding the ANC and how they’ve lost their way was even fortifying in that way. But today I heard from an entirely new side of the South African political story, one ironically manned by the old ANC guard.

Born of true socialist tendencies, as many anti-colonial independence movements were, South Africa’s struggle against apartheid is by no means over and it’s certainly found a new home in the extremely impoverished youth of the townships. Yes, some are being educated and I believe in that more than any other form of initial empowerment. But I fear they’re only learning of the mistakes of the past and not the power of the future. Each time we dug deeper with the socialists today they never had an answer, except that capitalism wasn’t it and that the chance was missed in 1994.

I don’t claim to be an expert in politico-economic happenings, but it seems like some people who are in control have nothing more to say than things are bad now and someone else missed the chance to make it better then.

What about doing something to make it better tomorrow? Fortunately, I’ve also run into many people and organizations working to make that difference, so I value today most of all as a reality check.

Table Mountain National Park

Finally, some more outdoors. I missed it terribly.

We whole-heartedly committed today to climbing to the top of Table Mountain – hundreds of stairs, essentially – and descending Skeleton Gorge, ending in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

I saw cycads there, though that means more to me than it probably does to you. Besides the fact that they’re just a old as dinosaurs, cycads carry another special meaning for me.

I took the climb really slowly and we lucked out with the weather so it was worth every moment. Meditating on each step and remembering the glory of a job well done, the summit’s reward 3000 feet up was definitely enough to justify my semi-unnecessary preparation. I bought snacks and brought clothes specifically for this one hike. Hey, I enjoy it.

The descent, more treacherous and about twice as long as the stair-master up, gave me a few more issues. Some rolled ankles and even a slip down a slight waterfall, but nothing unbearable. Sorry, mom.

Tomorrow we’re going to see “the other” side of Cape Town – Bo Kaap, District Six and one other place that I forget now – so I should have plenty of hard-hitting observations then.

For now, dinner and sleep. I’m tired!

Old City Parts and Gender-Based Violence Org.

I forgot to mention that a full rectangular honeycomb sits fresh and ready for breakers-of-the-fast to carve into each morning for breakfast here. Yeah, it’s nice.

Our day began as many do here, overcast and a bit cold, which added to the aura of the Company’s Gardens (the Dutch East India Company). We strolled through one of the oldest parts of town, stopping by what must have been an at least 200-year-old synagogue, a church just as old, if not older, a museum at a former slave lodge, ending our morning journey at a market square. Rainy-day prices abounded and since we were pretty much the first customers, we had our pick of the place.

I haven’t learned a lot about Cape Town, but I’ve certainly noticed the history still around today. Dutch architecture is prominent – gables that resemble the popular Dutch hats of the 1650s – as well as some northern, high middle ages/early Renaissance tropes, like engaged buttresses and large-stone masonry. I have to say, even with the little art history I’ve studied, traveling to other countries has taken on a whole new meaning; art history is a great lens to view new places because it brings me in contact with what I think are two of the most crucial elements to understanding a place.

After lunch in the square, we went to the Mosaic Project, an organization that does a ton of great work – outreach, clinics, training sessions, working in the legal system – with men and women regarding gender-based violence. About 40 women and three men greeted us singing, “May Mosaic always be strong.” Each one discussed what they did for the organization. Some worked in schools with the “silent victims” of gender-based violence (children) while others worked with men to counter the deep-seeded cultural practices of gender-based violence. The guys in the room explained, for example, that men often don’t deny beating their wives, they just don’t think of it as wrong. What men say, goes. And men don’t cry. And women can’t counsel men. And all these other issues that weren’t surprising but still incredibly unfortunate to hear.

What did cross my mind, however, was a big, simple, thing: every single person in that room, with the exception of the executive director and ourselves, was black. And I have no doubt they served almost entirely if not entirely black communities. I couldn’t figure out how to phrase it, but I wondered, what about the white communities? And the colored, and Asian and Indian communities? We can only see so much, of course, but if I could spend more time here, I’d dive further into the complexities that define post-apartheid South Africa.

For example, while gender-based violence may be openly accepted in black communities, is it so taboo in white communities that women are silenced? Or consider this: how does India culture, heavily informed by stratification and status, influence the empowerment of victims of gender-based violence? Is it even an issue? These kinds of questions, of empowerment in a time and place consciously attempting to reinstate dignity to so many who lived without it, in a number of communities, each with their differences yet all South African, are the questions that will open doors to the next phase of South African society.

I think I’ll be keeping tabs for the rest of my life.

Robben Island and Other Observations

Our breakfast was an all-you-can-eat, five-star buffet but we got strange looks and a few of us were even told we weren’t guests. It’s definitely been different here, with all the focus on tourism and service, than in Pretoria, and for that, I’m thankful. I’m glad we spent a lot more time in Pretoria, and that we went there first. I feel like we saw a bit of South Africa that the other patrons here – mostly white tourists, many from North America – haven’t totally seen.

Of course, I could be tooting my own horn too much. Who’s to say these aren’t people who do great work in other communities outside of Cape Town? Maybe they’re just taking a break. Anyway, our lazy Sunday took us to Robben Island, most famous for its role as the apartheid-era political prison that held Mandela for 18 of his 27 years in prison. The island community and prison is well preserved. The tours were brief, though led by an ex-political prisoner named Sparks.

Some very interesting things I learned about the prison include:

  • The prison had its own soccer league that was a forum for the hundreds of imprisoned intellectuals to create the world they hoped for. It was governed democratically by a system created and sustained by the inmates and included courts to hear formal complaints and recognition for on- and off-field performance.
  • The island has seen slaves in quarries, lepers in churches and WWII fortifications along with political prisoners
  • 180 people live on the island today. I even saw a post office which prompted me to imagine addressing something to Robben Island and how cool that would be.
  • Due to the prevalence of university educated prisoners in the political prisoner section of the island, as well as certain privileges afforded to certain applicants, many political prisoners, who were illiterate or ill-educated upon entering prison, left the prison with college degrees.

As our time winds down I find myself reflecting on the bigger picture here and I think I’ve got some interesting things to note. But, that’s for a much later post. In the meantime, I’ll just keep my eyes open for more interesting observations.

In the CPT

Not much to report today…except that we flew to CAPE TOWN!

It’s very different here. First of all, there are clouds. Moisture. Greenery. Plus, this area is at least 200 years older than Pretoria as far as colonization development.

Weirdly, we’re staying right on the ocean, at extremely nice amenities, so my perspective is a little…off, but I already notice many more white and colored people (colored being an official classification in South Africa, not a racist slur) and fewer black people than in Pretoria.

This place is extremely commercial and caters so well to it’s tourists I feel like I’m at Miami or Clearwater Beaches. It smells like the Florida Keys, though, and its water is as cold as the Pacific (ironically).

Tomorrow we’ll be off to Robben Island, South Africa’s most infamous political prison for freedom strugglers like Nelson Mandela, and eventually we’ll hike to the top of Table Mountain

USAID and Alexandra Renewal Project

Today’s visit to an American government agency turned out to be a lot more engaging and future-pondering than yesterday’s. The United States Agency for International Development works mostly in Africa and we met with some of the team from the southern African region. Most were young and pretty witty; the discussion time was fun and engaged. I’ve noticed that language is a big part of U.S missions to other countries and whether or not we were hearing economics or social lives, we seemed to always hear very specific diplomatic language.

“Even here at USAID, we’re diplomats first and health officials second,” one of the presenters told us. He then proceeded to explain how over 95 percent of their spending in HIV/AIDS related (great continuity from yesterday).

I’ve sort of begun entertaining the thought of working for USAID or some U.S. government agency abroad. I think about family, of course, and the impacts transiency, but each person we’ve run into in this field has been from a fairly different background. It makes me think I may actually have a future after college. Furthermore, most of these people were working in the private sector but not entirely happy; a lot of them seem to have been drawn from good money to work for a fulfilling life. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but private sector clearly pays better than government jobs.

We spent the afternoon with the Alexandra Renewal Project which “is fundamentally changing the physical, economic and social environment of Alexandra, a township in South Africa. It is a joint urban regeneration project between all three tiers of government, the private sector, NGO’s and community-based organisations.”

We drove through the township’s tight corners and dense population areas (770 people per hectare) in a charter bus. I think only Mandela walking the streets would have drawn more attention. We even got off at times, which I was torn about.

I’m glad we got to get out into the air, the sounds, the sights, even the same level, that the residents experience on the daily. Traveling in that bus is too separate. But I also felt like a sociological voyeur. We were walking the streets – some people in our group were taking pictures, something I almost asked them not to do – averting our eyes, for some reason, and staring out at shacks and bricks.

At one point we were standing on a bride, all 16 of us fanned out, looking out over corrugated iron informal housing and I could only imagine what we must have looked like to the residents of those shacks. All of us, up there, standing and staring and pointing. I had to move away from the group a little bit. I didn’t want to be associated with that kind of cold and privileged objectivity. I struggled to think of something I could do that could counter us just staring out. And then it hit me: wave.

I waved in the general direction we were looking and to my surprise, white teeth flashed from a hundred yards away and about thirty arms shot up into the air. From then on, I just kept waving smiling at everyone we passed in the bus. They were already looking in, so I decided why not break the barrier as I looked out. I wanted to engage them in their own home, not just look back, so I felt it was the least I could do.

Center For The Study of AIDS and the U.S. Embassy

Did you know that South Africa has the most cases of AIDS within its borders than any other country in the world? Just over 10 percent of the population – five million people – are infected.


Our informal sit down with two of the leaders at the Center for the Study of AIDS  at UP revealed more information about the AIDS epidemic than I ever imagined possible in a three-hour session. These two regular guys told us about student-staff campus outreach marketing and how they really liked to pun on the overall more highly educated crowd at UP. They told us about not being on board with circumcision campaigning because it’s too simple.

“It doesn’t address the deeper cultural issues of power and gender,” one guy told us. “In many cultures here, circumcision is a sign of transition into adulthood, and it of course altogether neglects women.”

I’m pleasantly surprised with these types of highly cognizant tropes that I’ve encountered so far in the most educated circles. Granted, I’ve spent most of my time at a pragmatic, if not liberal university, but at least there’s movement from somewhere to return dignity to all.

Actually, that’s one of the tenants of the new constitution. Apparently, South Africa adheres to one of the most progressive, if not the most progressive constitutions, in the world. On paper, at least. And that’s quite refreshing. It also leads to necessary subtle actions because of the discrepancy between what’s written on paper and what’s practiced on the ground. One of these subtle approaches is a sort of post-modern, multiversal approach by the CSA, one that incorporates the medical approach to HIV/AIDS education, but does not rely on it. Their main driving force is to address the sociocultural factors of HIV/AIDS. Stigma in health professions, ignorance, self-protection, transmission on college campuses – these are all factors that fall by the wayside when the research funding comes flooding in. As the first institution of its kind in the region, and having made significant progress in just a dozen years, I’d say the CSA is on to something.

And now onto the latter half of the day, the Embassy of the United States of America. I may have mentioned before that Pretoria, as the administrative capital of South Africa, is home to many if not all the diplomatic missions to South Africa. I’ve walked by embassies from Italy, Mauritania and Rwanda, as well as Iraq, Iran, Syria and China.

Ours is the biggest and most imposing looking of them all, except maybe China’s which looks like the Imperial Palace, except made of concrete. Classic China.

In any case, we met and talked with three members of the embassy – one South African who consulted on South African history, one so-called “generalist” (her card says first secretary), and one student on a fellowship. We asked about WikiLeaks and President Zuma’s meeting with Colonel Gaddafi, but we also asked about what it was like here during the World Cup and asked for some good bits of the diplomatic social life. I kid you not, quiz night with the British High Commission was rated among the very top, right next to embassy softball and money laundering.

I’m definitely kidding about that last part, but definitely not about the first two.

It was interesting to discuss the role of the embassy now knowing more about the history of South Africa. I always knew it diplomacy was for the owls, but I now really understand how fluid a diplomat must be. For example, U.S. diplomats pretty much always go to bat for U.S. businesses in foreign countries, but what happens if many in the country’s ruling party want to nationalize companies, as is the nature of some rhetoric here?

At the end of the day, I realized that for the first time in my lifetime, I’ll be able to watch the development of what was a once destitute situation. Among the many things I’m thankful for about this trip, the tales that I will tell of “how South Africa used to be” when I’m 80 are my favorite.

Let’s see how this whole democratic transition thing turns out.

Bend Over Boutique

That’s what our bus driver called the countless street corner vendors we saw today in Johannesburg and Soweto.

We bussed to Johannesburg this morning at 7:15 a.m. (as promised) and on the way we picked up Israel, our tour guide (an ethnic Zulu, though not one of the big ones, he was sure to point out). We spent the morning at Constitution Hill, which is an old Boer-turned-British fort, turned eventually to a political prison. The likes of Winnie Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi reluctantly called its bricks home, spending years at the highest point in Joburg. The space is very well preserved and our tour was excellent. It wasn’t hard to imagine life as a political prisoner, arguing over who staked a claim to the single apple tree in the single patch of grass in the whole female complex, for example.

South Africa’s highest court sits in a much newer building which actually incorporates part of the old prison, which is incredible. In fact, I think South Africa certainly does reclamation art and symbolic structure well. Everywhere we go there seems to be some sort of well thought out, quite poignant memorial, or piece of art or something of that sort.

After the former prison, we drove into Soweto and had a delicious buffet lunch of curry, pap (which is like grits), pasta and salad at a surprisingly well established food joint. I guess after staring out the window at the shacks and dirt streets for the past week-and-a-half while we drove past townships and slums, I just thought it would be worse to go into one. Thought I felt sheltered getting on and off the bus at various places like Mandela and Tutu’s houses, and a museum commemorating the Soweto student uprisings, I still pierced a bit of my misunderstanding and injecting some true knowledge. The streets are paved, with robots (traffic lights) and the school children wear uniforms.

In reality, I’ve come to conclude so far, South Africa is certainly not that different from much of the developed world in some big ways. Industry, consumerism, classism, urbanization, big and private businesses – it’s all here, and it’s all pretty conspicuous.

One of my fellow travelers remarked the other day how glad he was to be here in South Africa because of all the countries he’s been to, he’s known the most wrong information about this one. I think I have to agree.

A final note: I gave a guy 20 rand to videotape him contorting his body, and I realized it might not be that bad to do. We learned that these people who stand on corners and sell something, sell anything, as in whatever skill they have, they try to sell it. And I can’t argue with trying to make a living, so it’s the least I could do. Most of the time.