South Africa (SA) did not feel like Africa, well at least not the Africa Mark and I experienced in 1993. During our last trip to the continent we volunteered for eight months in refugee camps in North East Kenya as well as at a leprosy hospital and a vet clinic in Addis Ababa. We drove on bumpy dirt roads, ate at street restaurants set up in shacks, used outdoor squat toilets and had access to very limited products. We were also visibly the minority wherever we went. Driving throughout this country, we were amazed at the infrastructure as well as the high quality restaurants, great places to stay and availability of goods. The highways were nicer than the ones I travel on to visit my Mom in Saskatchewan and they were significantly better than Westside Road (which I guess isn’t saying too much). There were funky coffee shops and trendy restaurants on every corner. In preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup many new coffee shops and restaurants opened. Apparently these places flourished because 40 more opened in Cape Town (CT) this year alone. Our dollar was extremely strong here, so we indulged in cafe lattes, delectable baked treats, artisan bread, and excellent food and wine. Shopping was readily available in malls filled with familiar shops such as The Body Shop, H&M, Zara… to name a few (not that we could fit anything more into our backpacks). The whole vibe felt very Vancouverish. SA is classified as a developing country but with our privileged white skin, it sure felt like a first world country to us.
We were met at the airport by friends of ours, Melanie and Maciej Hrabar, with bags of SA goodies that soon became standard fare for us while visiting. We had to pace ourselves with the rusks (biscotti type biscuit), chutney, biltong (SA jerky), and wine. Maciej was born and raised in SA and is of Polish/Afrikaans descent while Melanie is a Swiss friend who lived with us in Invermere several years ago. I’m always wondering what prompts people to uproot and leave their home countries. Maciej’s great grandfather was a cabinet minister in the Polish government who fled to Africa when the Nazis invaded. We have heard of many WW2 refugees of various descents in each continent we have travelled. Melanie works for an NGO based out of Switzerland called GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition) and Maciej is a financial consultant for corporations which basically means he sorts out their accounting messes. As a communications and international relations specialist, Melanie’s work takes her travelling to third world countries meeting with governments to introduce a product for malnourished populations in Africa, India, and Asia. Team “M” were our travel coordinators, tour guides, and cheerleaders while we were in Africa and our amazing experience was thanks to them.
Driving to our flat in Cape Town (CT) Maciej explained to us the various people groups in SA and the politically correct way to refer to them. There are black (Indigenous), colored (Indian and mixed), and white (mixed European- German, British, French, Dutch) people. We were amazed at the CT bubble with a majority of white people populating it and the Western Cape, as we were expecting to be the minority once we touched down on African soil. During the apartheid government there was a Group Areas Act that separated people based on their race. The act assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections of urban areas starting in 1950 and was not abolished until 1991. At that time there were laws to arrest non-whites for living in the “wrong” areas such as Sea Point, one of the most beautiful parts of CT, where we stayed. Elana Rosenfeld shared a book with me called Postcards from South Africa by Rayda Jacobs. It is a collection of autobiographical short stories about a “colored” Muslim woman, with a white father who was deported to Canada in the 80’s because she had an illegal “white card” that allowed her to get a better job and go in “white only” areas. Black people also had a pass book that they had to show to police on demand and were also arrested for being in “white only” areas. The result of this long history of legalized segregation is that there are still areas that are predominantly white, colored or black.
By the mid 70’s the apartheid government had created a racist state where black and white people were not allowed to marry, befriend, or live in the same cities. Ever watched the 2009 science fiction thriller District Nine? Well it was based on District Six which was a township in the middle of CT. During the 1970’s bulldozers came in and pushed over all of the shacks and houses in District Six forcing 60,000 colored and black people to relocate to the windy flats on the outskirts of CT. This area remains undeveloped today with only grass fields marking its original place. The government stated that the townships were slums, but really they didn’t want Africans owning land in the cities. Many white Afrikaans children grew up believing that black people were dangerous, communist, and atheist.
To add further tension to the situation, in 1974 the government legislated that English and Afrikaans would be the languages used to teach in urban areas because black children’s education was being paid for by white English and Afrikaans-speaking tax payers in those areas. (Today only 20% of the country’s population is paying taxes.)The teachers and students protested with a peace march that led to a police massacre of teenagers outside of Johannesburg in a township called Soweto. Police opened fire with no warning killing hundreds of teenagers. For many kids it was more about a day off school rather than a concern for their education, but watching friends die that day sparked a fire in the hearts of those that remained. Hector Pieterson, a thirteen year old boy, was shot and killed while participating in the march. A photograph of a young boy carrying Hector’s limp body, his crying sister running beside, enraged the world. The world pushed back by suspending SA from the UN in 1974, not allowing them to take part in the Olympics, international soccer, cricket or rugby (1964-1992) and placed an arms and trade embargo on them. Townships at the edge of all of the big cities still exist today and most do not have indoor toilets or running water, but they all have T.V. and of course everyone has a cell phone! Sadly, other than visiting with service workers, we never got to know any black people in SA. We tried to find a volunteer experience so that we could get to know some of these people, but nothing panned out.
The tension between races is slowly disappearing in SA. Several parents we talked to with teenagers said their kids had no concept of racism, a huge contrast from the generations before them. Public schools are now mixed and we saw many rainbow colored groups of teenagers hanging out. Unfortunately, there are still those who have attitudes of oppression and racism. Melanie told us a story of their gardener, a man from Mozambique, who worked for several years for people who had never shown him where the toilet was, never offered him a drink of water, and never paid him a proper wage. Many immigrants from poor neighboring countries are working for $25.00 a day, living in dangerous townships, and working under very poor working conditions. Unfortunately, they are more willing to work for cheaper wages than the black South Africans, much like the foreign workers in Canada.
Many of our SA friends who have immigrated to Canada have told us stories about how unsafe SA is, especially for the white minority. Crime rates are still very high in the country, but luckily we never experienced any unsafe situations. We were careful at night and avoided unsafe areas in the cities. It was difficult to get used to bars on doors and windows in every place we stayed. High security fences and locked gates secured all of the living spaces in the cities. (There were, however, no screens on the windows-no bugs!) I approached an elderly Afrikaans woman from behind, in a small rural grocery store parking lot, as she got into her car. I was waiting for her to close her door so I could hop into our van. She jumped and looked visibly frightened when she noticed someone standing behind her. I said “ Sorry, I see that I frightened you.” She replied “Yes, I guess I still have Joburg fear in me.”
Our first three weeks were spent in a beautiful CT apartment graciously loaned to us by Gina and Gareth Mannheimer’s parents from Namibia. It was located in Seapoint across from the Seapoint Promenade and a short drive to the FIFA stadium and the V&A Waterfront (think Granville Island). South Africans are proud of Cape Town because it is spectacular on many levels. Our friends live in Noordhoek, a small village half an hour out of Cape Town. Chapman’s Peak Drive to Noordhoek is one of the most stunning, scenic coastal roads we have seen including the Oregon-California Coast. The backdrop of Table Mountain with its tablecloth clouds, Lion’s head, and Signal Hill all added to the beauty of CT.
It took us almost a week to get over jet lag due to a 48 hour transit time from Miami to Toronto to Addis Ababa to Cape Town and a 6 hr time change. This was our toughest travel leg so far. Highlights of our first week were: sundowners and food fair at Cape Town Wineries, swimming with African Penguins at Boulder Beach, hiking the Silver Mine lookout over Cape Town, sundowner walks on white sandy beaches (walking the beaches is not part of the black or colored culture, so once again we were surrounded by white people), wine tour along the Stellenbosch wine route and, suppers with team M.
Naomi and Jacob were excited to have their friends join them in CT for the second week. Aviva Rosenfeld and Brody Gray have been on their own adventure, sailing around the world for nine months on a tall ship with Class Afloat. We watched them cruise into the V&A harbor with Aviva waving a flag in a motorized dingy leading the 70 meter long, Gulden Leeuw Dutch tall ship. It was an emotional site to see 40 young sailors perched high up on the masts waving to their parents who had travelled half way around the world to hang out with them for a week. They docked their majestic ship in the V&A harbour to stretch their sea legs, enjoy some fresh produce, lots of ice-cream, and take a break after a 33 day stretch at sea. Our kids hung out with several Floaties from various countries and a few became part of our crew for the week. Elana and Greg also joined us in CT. We attended a professional soccer game in the FIFA World Cup stadium, wandered into a Goldfish concert at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, surfed at Muizenberg beach, shopped at the Biscuitmill Market, ate and danced at a braai at Mzoli’s in a township outside CT, enjoyed sundowners at Cape Town Wineries ,plus ate a lot of great food! Elana organized a graffiti art tour in CT. Two travel designers pulled up in shiny new Land Rovers for our “urban” safari. The Land Rovers seemed like overkill in the city but they did come in handy when we drove over curbs to park on sidewalks or pulled a u-ball at busy intersections. In 2014 the SA government hired international graffiti artists to paint on several buildings in CT. Their art work made statements about many of the social and political issues that are a part of SA’s history.
The following week, we said goodbye to the Class Afloat, Elana and Greg and headed back to Muizenberg beach to try some more surfing. Towards the end of the kid’s lesson, we heard a loud siren blaring and everyone started leaving the water. We looked up to see the white shark flag flying. Needless to say no one felt like going back in the water after the sirens went off. Only one brave soul continued to surf, enjoying the waves all to himself, not minding the great white shark in the distance. It sure was an effective way to clear the water on a busy afternoon.
Our next adventure was road trippin’ along the Garden Route up the coast. We had a 9 passenger van that we sqeezed 11 in when the Floaties were in town. Again we marvelled at the beautiful highways and quaint tourist towns all along the route. Biodiversity is alive and well in SA. It is classified as a Conservation International biodiversity hotspot with more than 9000 plant species and 70% endemic to this area. SA’s fynbos is the world’s richest floral kingdom. I think this must have been the original Garden of Eden because it sure was spectacular with the variety of plants, birds, aquatic life, animals and insects. Highlights of our road trip were: a traditional thatched roof farmhouse stay, great white shark diving with 55 resident white sharks in Mossel Bay, bungee jumping from the highest bridge-bungee jump in the world- brave boys, cave spelunking in 1.5 to 2 million old Congo caves-where they had an old concert hall in the 1800’s- just imagine the acoustics, ostrich farms near Oudtshoorn (it used to be the fashion to have an ostrich feather in your hat in the 1880’s, now people love ostriches for their lean meat), checking out the Karoo, surfing Victoria Bay, hiking Robberg Peninsula, Natures Valley and Knysna forest.
The last part of our stay in SA was at a private game reserve called Olifants North. This park is a five hour drive north of Johannesburg bordering Kruger Park. Maciej’s parents were both architects who loved the bush. They designed a group of traditional looking huts that were supposed to be “one step up from the bush”, but I would say it was more like ten steps up! Everything was very comfortable and modern, far from roughing it. Our meals had to be planned in advance for our 12 day stay as the nearest grocery store was an hour away. With Melanie’s organizational skills and a good joint effort from team Zehnder we had some fantastic meals. We even had a bit of food left over. For a few days we shared the park with just two other vehicles which made for many “up close and personal” experiences with the animals. You could spot giraffes, elephants and zebras while soaking in the new infinity pool overlooking the park. We shared three huts and a main house with kitchen, living room and deck. The houses were right in the park, so wildlife could wander through at any given time, as was evident from all of the trees the elephants had pushed over in the yard. Our transportation was a 9-seater open air land cruiser with a tarp for sun protection. We had visits from civets and porcupines in the evenings and could hear the lions roar as we drifted off to sleep. Highlights were spotting 74 different species in the game park, watching three male lions, two females and three cubs at a wildebeest kill, witnessing teenage lions mating, watching giraffes drink at a waterhole, warthog families running with tails in the air, elephants pushing over huge trees ,teenage giraffes neck wrestling, roller birds, storks, owls, kingfishers, bee catchers, baby zebras, wild cape dogs, wild cats, leopards, night drives with a red spotlight, sundowner beer, and sunrise coffee with rusks. Unfortunately a rhino was poached in the park two days before we arrived. Rhino and elephant poaching are still on the rise despite anti-poaching units patrolling the parks. We think the rest of the rhinos must have been hiding because we didn’t manage to spot any. What a privilege it was to watch all of these exotic animals in their natural habitat.
We drove back to dangerous Johannesburg “ the city of gold ” which is the financial hub of SA. We picked a route through Pilgrim’s Rest to check out Blyde River Canyon and God’s Window. I had booked a tour of Soweto for the next day and Simon, a 72 year old black man born and raised in Soweto, was our tour guide. He drove us through all the areas in Soweto including Nelson Mandela’s House, the place of the Soweto uprising and the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum. Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela still live in Soweto. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to have two people who have won a Nobel Peace Prize living on the same street. We all left feeling like we had a better understanding of the apartheid years in SA.
Nelson Mandela is revered as an amazing human being for peacefully leading a divided nation to democracy after so many years of segregation. Anyone you talk to will say how much he was respected for his part in uniting this rainbow nation. He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for opposing apartheid. President de Klerk released him from Robben Island in 1990 at the age of 71 after 27 years in prison. He was married to “the struggle”, the fight to free his people from oppression. His loyalty to the ANC party cost him his family, his freedom, and his career as a lawyer. While in prison he learned how to speak and read Afrikaans so that he could speak to the hearts as well as the minds of his oppressors. Rather than being bitter, he chose forgiveness and modeled inclusiveness in his cabinet and staff. Three marriages and five children later, he died in 2013 at 95 years of age. His second wife, Winnie, was also very involved as a political activist, sacrificing much of her freedom for many years. In my opinion his wives were “heros” too for raising their children as single Moms. Nelson was the first democratically elected black president of SA in 1994, the first year black’s were allowed to vote. Many white people left in the early 90’s for fear that blacks would run them into the ocean, but Mandela was able to maintain political stability for several years.
Unfortunately, the political situation is not great at the moment. Jacob Zuma appears to be another “Donald Trump” with multiple charges against him for corruption, rape, tax evasion, as well as a lack of concern for the environment and women’s issues (he currently has four wives). People are disillusioned, but because of their political history, loyalty to the ANC runs deep, especially in the older generation. A few days after we left the country President Zuma axed nine of his cabinet ministers. The rainbow nation is once again out protesting in the streets asking for his resignation. If SA can stabilize politically, it will have it all!