On the bus and off the bus Today was our first full day here in South Africa. We woke up way to early due to jet lag, and exercised perfunctorily at 6 am. Then breakfast with the tour group, the meetings began. We gathered in an air-conditioned, paneled conference room indistinguishable from any other. First came a 'welcome to South Africa' talk by the local representative of People to People. Her opening Powerpoint slide, promising to "inform" and to "reduce anxiety" was not auspicious, bet her speech was actually very good. She was pretty frank about the inequality that persists despite the handover of power in 1994, and also about the scope of the HIV/AIDS problem. All that, plus the Voortrekkers, the Boer War, the pass laws, and the bannings, in 45 minutes. Not bad at all for an official spokesperson. I'd have added the cattle panics of the 1850's and the current epidemic of witch-burning, but time was limited. Of less value were the next two meetings; one was an orientation for both "People to People" groups: our employment law group and the counselors and therapists group. Then we had a second meeting, where the same logistical information that had been handed to us at the airport when we arrived, was laboriously explained again, and crowned with a round of introductions, which we'd already done at dinner last night. Finally at 10:30, us guests were set a liberty for 30 minutes, and boarded the bus at 11:00 to head to Pretoria.
Rather than peacefully reading my Financial Times as the freeway rolled by, I instead gave some quick lessons on using digital cameras: Having traversed South Africa's commercial megalopolis, we arrived at our first touring destination, the Voortrekker Monument.
This intriguing Fascist-era monument was built in gthe 1930's by Afriakaaners celebrating the great trek, wherein they left the Cape and took over land to the east, which entailed several wars with the indigenous Zulu population. It is built from traditional local stones and contains an elaborate frieze, done in marble in Italy. I chose to see this elaborate pile of masonry as an intriguing piece of art created by a local ethnic group that just happened to have commandeered enough resources to build this thing, some of the other guests were understandably discomifted and wandered away from our guides lecture: After climbing the 250 steps to the top of this grim cathedral of nationalism, I rejoined the crew and got back on the bus, and on to lunch at the lovely flower-bedecked "Blue Crane" restaurant in Pretoria, where I sipped ginger beer and at Boersvoer (farmer's sausage) while herons came up to the rail and asked for food.
At least we got to hang out as a multi-racial group of American professionals, and be waited on by a racially mixed staff; but the bubble of privilege is starting to suffocate some of us inmates. Back on the bus for a brief ride through leafy Pretoria, to the Union Building, the official seat of government, built in 1910 by the British to celebrate their "settlement" with the partially defeated Boers.
The same folks who gave you concentration camps plonked this building down in the highveld: During our 30 minutes of liberty I wandered the garden in the warm spring sunshine, and bought a nice piece of cloth from one of the placid, friendly street vendors. Back on the bus, the jet lag hit me. I dozed intermittently in the brutal air conditioning. I dreamed of faux pas, official and otherwise, until a quick thunderstorm piqued my interest. I stayed on the bus when the lawyer-guests were dropped off for a cocktail party. Alcohol is not scarce in my life, and I wanted a moment or two of liberty. Returning at last to the hotel, I walked all of two blocks to the local mall.
We're in Sandton, which is a mega-suburb of hotels and offices into which downtown Jozi has emptied itself over the last decade or so. A cross between an American edge city and a business enclave like Manila's Makati, Sandton makes up in visual banality what it lacks in soul. But I would take my little dram of sterilised liberty where I could find it. Boldly crossing two whole streets with only a stoplight to protect me, I wandered the Village Walk mall. First up, a cafe where I asked for a coffee to go. I feared being awkward, this was a restaurant not a Starbucks. But when I sat down to wait, I noticed a card on the table advertising that they offer coca leaf tea as a health beverage. I asked the server about it, and guess where I'm going first thing tomorrow! On the lower level were some restaurants: Italian, Indian, and African, so I asked the people African place, "Hombaze", about their menu and promised to bring my friends later. I then noticed a vitamin shop. I asked them what do they have to bolster a tired traveler? But the aloe drink they offer is for detox, and the vitamins are no different from the ones I brought along anyway. I asked for massage cream but she said I'd do better elsewhere. They engaged me in conversation rather than trying to sell me stuff I didn't need, and we talked about different venues for local music. I'd like to go to Alexandra some time, but I don't know my way around. "We could go with you but the shop closes early". And thus began the type of gradual bargaining that could get us some locals to hang out with, had we a few more days here. As it happens, there was no live music within ten miles that I could determine by local inquiry, or on the Web, but for two white guys doing acoustic blues, a half-hour cab ride away. This was our only non-scheduled night in Johannesburg, so live music was not to be. But I felt much better for having had some non-scripted conversations. Mary came back from her rushed touring, lengthy meetings, and cocktail party, and I tried to recruit some of the colleagues for a meal at the West African restaurant I'd located at Village Walk. But the few attorneys that wanted to go out at all were aiming for a steak house. Mary and I went and had a Nigerian chicken dish with bitter greens and palm wine, and that was that for today.
October 12: Soweto Shining
Thursday's tour of Soweto was much better than Wednesday's "Voortrekker fest". First we toured a local orphanage.
The staff were obviously used to welcoming foreign visitors, and I'm sure this is a model charity. I feel skeptical about the charity industry, and this bias of mine has been reinforced by my reading of Paul Theroux's "Dark Star Safari" where he constantly vents at the charity and NGO industry with its brand-new white Land Cruisers and decades of failed projects. Our guide also emphasized giving in kind rather than giving money should we feel moved to support good works over here. Nonetheless, I was glad to see some kids receiving good care.
I was pleased to be able to donate the boxes of latex examining gloves as part of our gift exchange for the People to People program. The People to People tour members are so insulated from the country that it might have been difficult to actually find recipients for all the great stuff we'd brought.
But I didn't see failed projects in Soweto, I actually saw hope. These disused power plant cooling towers are now historic landmarks by a quirk of the law and are now murals.
We proceeded to several destinations in what must be the nicest neighborhood in this sub-city of between 2 and 3 million. Certainly the Mandela Museum, Winnie Mandela's compound, and the Hector Peterson Museum are not typical, and some shantytowns remain as well:
What we saw from the bus window included lots of government-subsidized new construction, and lots of modest homes that have been transferred to their residents at a modest fee. Former transients with pass books are now proud homeowners. Yes, the ANC might be wasting some money, but they aren't wasting all of it.
At the Mandela Museum we were greeted by a young Xhosa man named 'Samora', and yes he's taken the name of Mozambique president Samora Machel, assassinated by the apartheid government in 1986. Nelson Mandela is now married to Machel's widow Graca. They live in dignified retirement in another Jo'burg suburb. The museum is just his very ordinary Soweto home, stuffed with memorabilia: honorary degrees, photos taken with Fidel Castro, his boxing belt, and other cool stuff. Winnie's house is a fortified compound. From what I hear, her story could be seen as a true tragedy. Years of guerilla struggle turned her in a ruthless and charismatic leader. But she could not adjust to coming up from underground and into a new legalized political situation. Her personal involvement in the murder of an eleven-year-old child who was alleged to be a police informer alienated much of the good will she had outside the country. But she remained powerful within the ANC until her recent fraud conviction. She is now awaiting sentencing and can no longer serve as a government minister.
We had lunch at Wandie's, where we enjoyed beef stew, pumpkin, greens, pap, and other traditional dishes. A black guy was explaining to two white tourists the benefits of the local !konbi beer that he was drinking. It's a kind of sour yeasty slurry which is low in alcohol and rich in nutrients. I'd heard of the stuff and was delighted to finally be in its very presence, and to talk a waiter into bringing me some, to the curiosity, amusement, and horror of my fellow tour members. Not bad. I like yeast.
The final chapter of the Soweto tour was the Apartheid Museum. The architecture and exhibits are truly moving. They gave lots of history about the pass laws, Group Areas Act, arbitrary detentions, banning, and so on. There was quite a lot about the political struggle of the 1960's through 1990's that ended apartheid. Not surprisingly the in-country activities of the ANC got a lot of coverage, yet foreign protest movements seemed well enough represented as well. History is written by the victors, and this lot are not so bad. Our guide Beverly, a liberal non-Afrikaaner white, additionally emphasizes the role of the collapse of this Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990's. This reduced the financial support for the ANC, and also reduced the U.S. government's anti-communism excuse for supporting the apartheid government.
That night our tour group went to dinner at Moyo's, one of the few lively spots in downtown Jo'burg. I was intrigued to notice how much more positive the white people in our group were, compared to our black compatriots. I see the ANC as a New Jersey or Louisiana-style political machine, perhaps a bit corrupt yet nonetheless redistributing wealth. On the other hand Glenda, from the Virgin Islands sees the squatter areas, and observes that the huge piles of mine tailings next to Soweto must surely be causing disease and pollution. And Betty got the scoop from her cab driver on how racism means more and better fares for white drivers. At dinner, I alternated between two conversations. On my left, my wife was swapping accounts of biased judges and evil sexual harrassers. On my right, I was getting acquainted with Janine, whose story of her 7-year-old's school travails reminds me of our own daughter's story. I note the irony that here in South Africa I have a lot more interaction with African-Americans than I do in my daily life in San Francisco. And by the way, aren't there any black tour guides on this trip? I may be dense, but this was hard to miss.
Finally we came back to the hotel and had a final beer with some of the lawyers that Mary spent the day with. They'd visited a local labor court where an arbitrary judge made an "outrageous" ruling [that the CEO had to meet with the worker]. But here in South Africa, the "outrage" was pro-worker instead of pro-employer. Not all of our U.S. employment law colleagues could see this as a good thing. I allowed myself to be distracted by some drunken young white folks at the next table; we bellowed Boy George lyrics to each other.