It’s a few weeks since I have returned home from a visit to South Africa, having accompanied a group of 44 Trinis on a 13-day 3000-kilometre overland odyssey that started in Johannesburg and ended in Cape Town. Images of a fascinating, ethnically diverse and stunningly beautiful, but still troubled, post-apartheid land, I find difficult or nigh impossible to expunge from my mind.
The earth from the land of mankind’s earliest ancestors has taken hold of me and is loath to release its grip. That we had been in real time in the grass lands of the Highveld not far from the golden yet God-forsaken city of Johannesburg, where two years ago palaeontologists found remains of Homo Naledi, a new species of human ancestor, has fired my imagination. If their research is correct, it will confirm that South rather than East Africa is the cradle of humankind and all 44 Trinis of whatever hue, texture of hair or ethnic origin had truly come back home.
As happened on our first visit in 2012, we arrived in Johannesburg at the height of the southern hemispheric winter but we were not to be met by heavy snowfall on this occasion. I recalled the excitement this had generated the last time among those travellers who were experiencing snowfall for the first time.
Largely for logistical reasons, our route to South Africa this time took us through Sao Paulo, Brazil, instead of through London. For us there were indeed savings in time and cost by our accessing South Africa via South America. A cursory glance at a world map shows how relatively near apart both continents had geologically drifted from each other some aeons ago.
Twenty-two years after the birth of a new, rainbow inspired South Africa, endowed by Nelson Mandela and fellow visionaries with arguably the most progressive and democratic constitution in the world, we had arrived to witness a nation in distress. In Parliament, another vote of no-confidence, the sixth since South African president Jacob Zuma’s assumption to power, was in the offing. On this occasion, defiant Speaker Baleka Mbete had agreed to a secret ballot, a move that was threatening to split the ruling party, the African National Congress, apart.
As leader of the ANC, the party that liberated South Africa from apartheid and as leader of the Zulus, the largest ethnic group in the country (roughly 25 per cent), Zuma’s shenanigans had become an embarrassment to many, including members of his own tribe.
Yet despite the gloom and doom in the politics and in the economy (in fact the devalued rand was of some benefit to us) our journey across a significant part of this nation of 55 million inhabitants, in a coach expertly driven by Clemens from Malawi and superbly guided by Reinette, former teacher of Afrikaner origin, was far from hellish. With first class infrastructure, South Africa’s tourism product can compete with the best in the world and, from what we’ve experienced in 13 days, it’s no surprise that it recently eclipsed gold as an earner of foreign exchange.
Arriving early in Johannesburg on July 21 from Sao Paulo and clearing customs by 10 am gave us a whole day to play with. We were too early for check-in at Hotel Aviator, so after consultation with our guide Reinette, a peremptory change of plan was devised. Our scheduled day of rest after crossing the Atlantic was not to be. Instead we made straight for Pretoria, one hour from the airport, to visit the Voortrekker monument, which was declared a National Heritage Site in 2011. This would have allowed us more time to visit the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg and the township of Soweto on the following day.
At first I cringed at the thought of starting a grand tour of South Africa with a visit to a monument which was built to commemorate the Boers, descendants of early Dutch slave-owning settlers and farmers who fled the Cape after slavery was abolished in 1834 by the British Parliament. They went in search of a new Promised Land in the highveld of the Transvaal or subtropical Natal away from British law and jurisdiction, eventually engaging their fellow colonisers in the Anglo-Boer wars at the end of the 19th century.
History also records that these pioneers, with strong religious convictions and superior weaponry, engaged in many battles with the Matabele, the Zulus and other Bantu tribes, dispossessing them of their lands and subjugating many to forced labour. I sensed and I understood the discomfort being felt by some members of our group as we entered the monument.
A not unfamiliar story of transplanted Europeans, a powerful minority with a distinct language (Afrikaans is one of the 12 official languages of South Africa) competing for the space of native peoples was being told on huge panels of bas relief sculpture (friezes), dramatically placed on the inner walls of the 40-metre high monument. Conceived of and built in an era when the majority of South Africans had no voting rights and were victims of systematic discrimination by the state, the fact that it still stands as national heritage site is testimony to man’s capacity for healing and reconciliation in a world torn apart by bigotry.
The story of man’s inhumanity to man reached its culmination for us the following morning when we visited the Apartheid Museum. Opened in 2001, this first world museum uses photographs, text panels, film footage and human stories to tell the tragic history of how an abhorrent system of state-sanctioned racial discrimination (apartheid) was used to keep a minority regime in power. Told objectively, without hate, malice or rancor, the work of the curators of this
treasure house offers a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples wherever they are.
Next stop Soweto, where in 1976 the anti-apartheid struggle took a new turn when secondary school students in the black township fought a bitter battle to resist the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in the school curriculum.
Meanwhile, our attention is drawn to the phoenix rising from the ashes on the coat of arms of the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the third largest hospital in the world. South Africa is really a land of superlatives and stark contradictions. Miles and miles of galvanised iron shacks that are home to rural migrants to the ghettoes of Johannesburg stretched within shooting distance of fine, landscaped homes with swimming pools in Sandton and Pretoria.
I am to learn later that the double-barrelled name of the Soweto hospital covering some 173 acres pays homage to Chris Hani, prominent ANC activist of the MK (military wing of the ANC) who was assassinated in 1993 while he was involved in negotiations in the run-up to a new constitution and to John Baragwanath, a young Cornishman who migrated to South Africa from England in the 19th century to make his fortune in gold mining.
Traversing the land on first-class roads and bridges made possible by the billions of rands from the mining of gold and diamonds presented a veritable feast of food for the eyes. From the vast plateau of the Grand Escarpment (1500 to 2000 metres above sea level) that is the Highveld in the province of Gauteng, we descended into the lowveld of Mpumalanga, crossed the province of Kwazulu Natal into the Eastern Cape and entered the garden route of Western Cape (the Little Karoo where the first Europeans encountered the Khoisan, the first native peoples), veered off course a bit, to the southernmost tip of Africa (Cape Agulhas) and entered the winelands before reaching our final destination, Cape Town. En route agriculture abounded.
With acres and acres of grain, citrus, pineapples, sugar cane, you name it, and miles and miles of land given to cattle ranching, sheep and goat rearing, South African farmers seemed to be in the world’s major league. I have no statistics to prove anything except that the South African Independent newspaper reported on July 29 that 10 million tons of foods produced in South Africa are being dumped annually.
Meanwhile, my mind continues to be boggled by images of the Big 5 (Leopard, Lion, Rhino, Cape buffalo and Elephant) in the world-renowned Kruger National Park. By the cascading falls (Blyde River Canyon) and mountain gorges of Mpumalanga, a “window to God’s Kingdom” says the metaphor. By memories of the night we spent on an Ostrich Farm in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape. By the crocs and hippos on the St Lucia Estuary. By the sumptuous meals we enjoyed at top of the line eco-lodges (monkeys stealing scraps from your plate and all) in Hazy View and Hluhluwe. By the diverse marine life in the Ushaka aquarium in Durban. By ultra-modern first world cities and idyllic provincial towns that disguise a deeper social and economic malaise.
Boggled too by the feeling that you are in India as soon as you enter the main Durban market near where Mahatma Ghandi cut his lawyer’s teeth in the early 20th century. Equally mind boggling was my hike on a winding, shaky board walk through indigenous forest to see the Storms River Mouth Cave (a Khoisan Heritage Site) on the Tsitsikamma National Park on the Cape Coast, as was whale spotting in Hermanus and the prospect of penguin watching in Cape Point.
What is the future of South Africa, no one knows for sure? While common sense cries out for a more egalitarian and just society to be fast-tracked, this fascinating land will continue to be my and many a world traveller’s dream destination.
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