A South African Journey

I recently travelled to South Africa to research a novel. This was a journey taken 225 years earlier by a European ancestor of mine who sailed via the Cape of Good Hope for the East Indies. This ancestor never returned from the East—in those days journeys of that nature, lasting several months, were undertaken once in a lifetime, and usually performed one-way only. Today, one-way was a 16 hour non-stop flight from New York.

The first thing that struck me was that this was a developed country, if development could be measured in materially progressive signs like transportation, commerce and communications infrastructure. But on closer inspection, the country’s social fabric, a mere 20 years after the dismantling of Apartheid, is still mired in dysfunction. “Townships” remain on the outskirts of residential suburbs, and are run-down shanties in the most appalling conditions, while the “white suburbs” are opulent, sprawling and gated. Coloured communities straddle the middle ground. The new South Africa, post Mandela and de Klerk, is not going to copy its neighbour Zimbabwe and steal from the rich to give the poor, I was told; there has to be a willing buyer and a willing seller when it comes to land transfers. But with buyers without the means to buy and sellers unwilling to part with hereditary land, the impasse of inequality continues.

Political awareness is high among the locals, and no conversation ends without some reference to race. I was quite surprised when terms like “black,” “white” and “coloured” were thrown about so casually. Street protests and demonstrations were rife, be it breakaway factions of the monolithic ANC or students protesting the raising of tuition fees.

And yet, when you leave the messy people issues behind, the land is ruggedly beautiful and ever contrasting. From the stunningly scenic Cape Town and its cloudy sentinel Table Mountain, where everything began (at least for the white colonists), to the Cape Flats and its crumbling townships, to the fertile wine country in Paarl and Stellenbosch, to Hugenot country in Franschoek, to the dry Karoo with its scrub vegetation, acacia and agave, and then down and across the Eastern Cape with its giant pine and imported gum trees, the land is ridged with progressive mountain ranges, creating micro-climates within their valleys. Finally, one comes across the tallest range, the Drakensburg, that straddles two other environments: the grassy high veldt and the dry low veldt, the latter being home to the country’s famed Big Five and a myriad of lesser quadrupeds—a must-see for the avid tourist.

The complexity of South Africa came home to me in Johannesburg, the City of Gold, built on abandoned mine shafts, with splotches of gold from abandoned mines still adorning its landscape. The city’s history is littered with the carcasses of those who died from poor mine conditions, arsenic poisoning being the main killer; it’s labour history bears many travesties, among them: how mine owners reduced migrant worker wages by 50% in 1902 and kept them frozen for 60 years! The city’s core is virtually abandoned to hordes of immigrants (mostly illegal) who have forcibly occupied areas like Hillbrow, while new business districts like Sandton spring up on the periphery of this sprawling metropolis of 10 million. And yet enclaves like Houghton, covered in a blanket of purple jacaranda flowers, are islands of opulence and calm. I felt at home in Soweto, Jo-burg’s own township, a city unto itself of 3million where shanties jostled with modern haciendas replete with BMWs in their garages. Life was on display in Soweto, from street performers to open air restaurants, to “buy your own shanty” sales, to the bullet-riddled house of Nelson and Winnie Mandela that opponents used to drive by and take pot-shots at while Winnie and the children were still indoors. And there were some overlooked marks of embarrassment too: forgotten street signs of a bygone era, reading “Whites Only,” or “Coloureds Only”.

As I left South Africa with a book full of notes, I realized that Apartheid was still alive, even if only as a socio-economic reality, blighting this otherwise energetic, rich and beautiful country. I also realized that it would take many generations before that legacy is finally eradicated, if ever. It certainly will not be in my lifetime.

Is it time for the next round of global teamwork?

So it finally hit! Or did it? The Pandemic, that all prophets of doom had been forecasting. And as predicted, the media began feeding on it faster than the virus eating at its victims. But this time, global panic never happened. Why? Well, for starters, haven’t we seen this stuff before? Aren’t we numb from 9/11, Anthrax, SARS, Avian Flu, forest fires in the West Coast, floods in the East, and the crash of the global financial system? Haven’t we been hit with umpteen computer viruses that spread faster than biological ones and yet the world’s computer industry and the Internet are still standing. And then there was that famous non•event Y2K…

The other reason that these doomsday scenarios have become manageable in recent times is due to the responses from governments and global regulatory bodies with tightly coordinated activities. 9/11 brought disparate warring counter•intelligence and police departments in America together under one umbrella, Y2K led to global information sharing, the pandemics have led to quick co•ordinated responses from global health authorities, and the financial collapse prompted global political leadership to circle the wagons rapidly with huge injections of fiscal support• great examples of teamwork and sharing in action.

But…but this only applies if you belong in the club of G20 and their associate nations. There are lots of other countries outside this orbit, and their citizens perish needlessly. Like the thousands caught between government and rebel troop crossfire on a strip of beach in Sri Lanka, the impoverished ones dying of AIDS in Africa, the starving in Darfur and the vulnerable left exposed in power vacuums caused by our naive interference in foreign countries that we thought would embrace democracy overnight. Can our political team managers, who have shown great stick handling in recent crises within our domestic shores, reach out to include these other less•mature players in the political game? Can they educate these callow peers that bombing civilians to smithereens or using them as human shields does not win one long•term political stripes; that blocking highways and inconveniencing fellow Canadians does not stop the bombing half a world away, that democracy means handing over control, not sucking it in, and that respect for the law is a pre•condition for any civilised and progressive society?

I think it is time to reach over the fence and impart some lessons learned • if indeed they can be taught.