Touched by the soul of South Africa

As small as the globe has become, as deluged as we are with events brought to us daily in the news, we tend to live in our own safe bubble in blissful ignorance of how people really live in other countries. Until we go there.

I began reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, on the plane. But I was still unprepared for the scene when we arrived in Johannesburg and saw through the windows of the bus how poor the poor people are, how rich the rich. Our guide explains that the new government is only 12 years old, and the changes that still need to be made in this experiment in racial harmony will take time. Democracy was achieved in 1994 with the first multiracial elections, but freedom is still elusive: poverty, unemployment rates of 48 per cent and the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world stalk South Africa. Seventy-one per cent of the 900 million people on the African continent are under the age of 25, and most live on $1 a day.

Our hotel is in Sandton, an upmarket area where new high-rises, some only a year or two old, bank Nelson Mandela Freedom Square along with trendy restaurants serving Thai, Indan, Italian and Greek. We could be in downtown Edmonton or Vancouver. The business sector, even the stock exchange, has moved here from Johannesburg’s downtown, where later, our bus glides silently past smashed office windows and trash-littered streets.

The real heart of the struggle against apartheid is in Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship), South Africa’s largest township, historically its most political, most violent and most dynamic. It was here in 150 square miles of shanties where three or four generations lived in two-room shacks that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) learned that if you want change, you do it yourself. Soweto was rebuilt in the mid-’80s with rows of manicured brick and stucco townhouses where middle-class black residents, mainly professionals and government employees, are considered “rich.”

Across a scrub plain is an informal settlement, rows of shanties strung together with tin roofs held down with suitcases and tires. There is no running water, no electricity. Still, the place bustles this Saturday morning with communal life. The government encourages industrious entrepreneurs who set up businesses on the corners. We watch one man fixing the alternators on a car, another fixing tires. It’s a loud, industrious – and optimistic – atmosphere, with a sense that despite poverty and disease, there is too much to be done to waste time feeling resentment about how long it took freedom to reach them.

It is here in the suburbs of Soweto that the ANC was born, drafting the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, the oldest settlement in Jo’burg, where plans are in place to clear up the shanties in preparation for the 2010 World Cup. Shanty residents are more confident now their relocation will be logical and kind, unlike the days of apartheid when a family would be told to move in the middle of the night to a new township far from the city or workers came home at the end of the day to find not only their shanty but their entire neighbourhood bulldozed down.

In the suburb of Orlando in West Soweto is Nelson Mandela’s house on Vilakazi Street, where he lived with his first wife, Evelyn. Down the street is the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who still lives here. Imagine one street home to two Nobel Peace laureates. To the north is Hector Pieterson Square, named after the 13-year-old who was shot dead in the 1976 student riots protesting the ruling that all children had to learn Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language of the apartheid government. Today, there are 11 official languages in South Africa, and with mixed marriages and more interaction, children learn to speak all the languages but unlike apartheid days, they have the freedom to choose.

We join locals at Wandie’s Place, a local shebeen (tavern) and pack our plates several times from a buffet of hearty flavourful tajines, bobitie, fragrant mashed maize and pumpkin, mealies (cornmeal), wors (sausages) and cold local beer.

After lunch, we file silently, subdued, into the Apartheid Museum through two separate entrances, one marked Whites Only, the other designated for Non-Whites. It’s an emotionally unsettling walk through the history and horror of apartheid, and it feels similar to visiting a holocaust museum. We learn that officials classified people as white, black or coloured and measured the width of a nose to determine a person’s status or stuck a pencil in their hair. If the pencil stayed, they were classed as black; if it fell out, coloured. Coloured in South Africa is not politically incorrect; it simply means mixed.

Throughout all of South Africa, we are reminded of a threat more deadly than apartheid, as highway billboards shout “HIV loves skin on skin” and “HIV loves sleeping around.” According to the 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, Africa remains the global epicentre of the AIDS pandemic. An estimated 5.5 million people were living with HIV in 2005; 18.8 percent of all adults are living with HIV.

It was important to have seen this side of South Africa, to start the trip with a look at the juxtaposition of the hope and passion that lives imbedded in the hardship of poverty. I felt humbled by the passionate struggle for the freedom to simply live peacefully with other nations in a country meant to be theirs. And I feel a niggling sense of responsibility and guilt for being blithely unaware of the impact of an era of shameful white supremacy.

The next day, we travel east to Kruger National Park, and I begin to see why the struggle for this country was so important. The province of Mpumalanga is a visual feast of wildlife, waterfalls, lush pine forests and bumper-crop plantations.

The landscapes change daily with breathtaking vistas of a rich agricultural land not long after we leave the industrialized area around Jo’burg. Masses of wild cosmos and prickly pear cacti march along the highways, and Cape Dutch gabled farmhouses with thatched roofs nestle in an expanse of green valleys. More than 66 per cent of the 40 million people in South Africa depend on agriculture for a living, and we pass rolling fields of cabbage, swede (turnip), peppers, spinach and, of course, maize, the staple crop. Permanent pasture land comprises 60 per cent of the land, and merino sheep, cattle and springbok (antelope) graze contentedly in the fields. Occasionally, we see a vervet monkey along the roadside. We pass through manicured towns, looking tidy and new, such as the trout-fishing towns of Dullstroom and Lydenburg. We stop at immaculate highway service centres where the ubiquitous Wimpey’s is ready with fast-food offerings, and we line up for, without a doubt, the cleanest washrooms in the world. They’re managed by friendly service people who scour the toilets the minute a stall is vacated and replace fresh flowers daily.

White or black, we find the South Africans warm and friendly. Those who speak English do so with thick Australian-sounding twangs, often difficult to understand, perhaps because of the tie to the Afrikaans language. We learn that Africans caught in the apartheid uprisings of the 1970s and who are now in their mid-30s did not learn to speak English.

The state-of-the art North American-looking service centres seem to have been plunked down into a landscape where stately black women walk along the highway with bundles on their heads, babies on their backs. It’s a rite of passage they learn as young girls, graduating from small bundles to eventually being able to carry a heavy jug of water on their head. Some, they say, can weave a basket while walking with these considerable bundles.

On our way back from Kruger, we drive through a fertile valley to the south in Mpumalanga past orange groves, banana plantations and rows of date palms, sugar cane, peach tress, lychee nuts and tobacco fields, the results of an enviably long growing season around in the steamy subtropical lowveld along the Crocodile River.

Some farms, if it can be proven they were once owned by a black family, can be taken back by the descendents. Sadly, new generations who have not grown up with farming don’t have the experience or training to make farming a success.

We begin the climb through the mountainous Highveld of the interior plateau, where pine forests tumble over the dramatic Drakensberg escarpment and the effects of water, wind and erosion on the sandstone cast shadows of gold, green and red with the setting sun. The peaks of the Drakensberg (meaning Dragon Mountains), part of a world heritage site, form a series of ranges and cover 243,000 hectares in a jagged green sweep. We can imagine that the Dutch pilgrims, the Voortrekkers, on a quest for new lands in the 1800s must have marvelled at the stunning configurations of the Blyde River Canyon with the intricately carved Bourke’s Luck Potholes and the majestic Three Rondavels, an outcropping of sandstone cliff worn by time to look like round huts. From God’s Window among the pine and gum forests and plunging waterfalls, we look out over the Lowveld plains below, where we will stay before our safari into Kruger National Park.

The weather has changed dramatically from the escarpment where frost is common even in summer to the Lowveld where you need to bring your sun hat and repellant.

Kruger National Park is 22,000 square kilometres, the size of Belgium, and has 16 different ecological systems (each with its own geology, rainfall, altitude and landscape). Like any safari, it’s important to get there early before the residents retire to the shade, so we’re bundled into our safari Jeeps in the dark. The sun perches in a red globe on the horizon, ready to blast the day with light, and we dodge elephant patties on the road that winds through terrain ranging from flat plains to gently rolling scrub-covered hills with rocky outcrops. Kruger is home to more than 800 species of wildlife and, of the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffalo and black rhinos – we are up-close-and-personal with a lot of elephants and close enough to rhinos and Cape buffalo. Along with the hippo, the buffalo are the most dangerous animals in South Africa. We greet lots of giraffes, warthogs, impalas, Marabou storks, lilac-breasted rollers and hammerheads but not the elegant and elusive leopard. Like any safari, spotting the animals is a game of chance, but the wilderness setting and the sounds and scents of the bush with its close to 2,000 species of plant life, is thrilling in itself as we bump along in the open Jeep.

That night, we are invited to Shangana Village, where we meet the chief and the sangoma (medicine man) and are entertained with full costumed ceremonies and frenetic dancing depicting their history. Beautiful voices are raised proudly in song with the national anthem. Their singing and the pounding of their feet match the passion of a thunderstorm that rumbles and crashes outside the enormous tent.

We gather on stone benches in cave-like outdoor dining areas for appetizers of roasted corn, grilled impala, crocodile and worms (I pass on the worms). A simple, delicious dinner is served from black cast-iron pots – a savoury beef stew, cabbage, mashed pumpkin, maize, sweet potatoes and salad followed with pineapple and cantaloupe on skewers for dessert.

We fly from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth and drive to Knysna, which means Place of Trees on the southern coast. Knysna has the largest area of indigenous forests left in South Africa. Looking like a newly minted Australian frontier town, it was voted the best town in South Africa – difficult to dispute, with the Featherbed Nature Reserve (named for the calmness of the tidal lagoon, similar to a grandmother’s feather bed) blanketing a cliff across the estuary. Houseboats glide along the lagoon, and cormorants pose serenely along the rocky beach. A steam train glides through on its way to the towns of George and Belvidere, where three million oysters are harvested annually.

This is also the home of the Knysna sea horse, an endangered species traded to Asia for medicinal and aphrodisiac use as recently as 1993 and now protected in the lagoon. This entire area, part of the Western Cape, is a World Heritage Site with the smallest but richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms. It boasts 24,000 plant species (more than all of the rest put together. We bump along in tractor-driven wagons through milk wood forests to the sandstone Knysna heads, rock formations at the top of Featherbed, considered a natural heritage site. A spectacular vista of the Indian Ocean sparkles below a bright sky, and our guide promises it will look the same when our great-grandchildren come to visit. Across the channel, a scattering of stucco and glass houses perch on the cliffs, and the ocean seeps foamy waves into a channel that is considered one of the most treacherous in the world. Lloyd’s of London will not insure boats seeking passage here.

Still, we imagine living in a clifftop house here as we sit in a tavern arbour, surrounded by Buchu bushes (like wild sage) and magnificent crotea (the national flower) and dine on a memorable buffet of curried fish, smoked salmon, butter-tender calamari, Thai chicken, the freshest mussels ever, a peppery arugula salad, rare roast beef and cold pale chardonnay.

One of several food moments to freeze in my memory.

The following day, we set out on the garden route, a narrow strip stretching along the Southern Cape coast, a “natural” garden route with ancient mountain forests of pine, bluegum, stinkwood, eucalyptus and alder as well as low-growing masses of protea.
With the Outeniqua mountains to the north and a rugged coast with wide expanses of surf-kissed endless beaches to the south, the garden route is a favourite for cyclists and hikers. They bike through lush forests, explore caves, freshwater lakes and waterfalls, and traverse mountains to discover unique plants, maybe even come across a wild elephant, a leopard, a vervet monkey or a rock hyrax, a small animal similar to a groundhog.

Our guide is an elegant, soft-spoken coloured woman (“a little Malay, a little Bantu, a little white,” she says), who tells us that until the ’80s, everything was segregated. As a young girl, she brazenly walked one of the pristine beaches forbidden to all but whites. She explains that the Khoisan (bushmen) were the indigenous people here, and a rare few still live in South Africa in one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures. The Khoisan mixed with the Bantu from the north before the Portuguese, Dutch and Germans came, followed by the British, who brought Malaysians with them as slaves. By 1956, as apartheid took hold, there were five classes in South Africa: Bantu (black), Indian, Malay, coloured and white. The Dutch burghers, according to their Calvinist conviction that they were God’s chosen people, separated the races, perpetuating their belief in racial superiority on what they considered was their “promised land.”

We detour north through the Outeniqua Pass to the Klein Karoo Plain (meaning “little arid land”), wedged between the green-blanketed range of coastal mountains and the Swartberg mountains to the north. Watermelon, peach and hops farms with whitewashed Cape Dutch houses as well as cattle, sheep and ostrich farms dot the Klein Karoo, a treeless, somewhat undulating plain where the Olifants River once teemed with wild elephants.

Further to the west along the Breede River Valley are vineyards where a quarter of the country’s wine production concentrates on port and good brandies.

The primary source of income for the town of Oudtshoorn is the ostrich, a monogamous bird that can run 60 to 70 kilometres an hour and lives for 40 to 60 years. They weigh 90 to 120 kilograms and produce 20 to 30 kilograms of meat. An egg weighs 1.5 kilograms and takes one hour and 15 minutes to hard boil and can feed 18 people. We dine on fresh green pea soup, lush vegetable-packed salads, jasmine rice, scrambled ostrich eggs and tender ostrich steaks that taste like beef but with less fat.

We arrive in late afternoon in Cape Town, South Africa’s jewel, tucked under Table Mountain with its face to the sea, etched along windswept, sun-drenched bays and harbours with the continent of Antarctica only 4,300 kilometres away. A cosmopolitan city, it has adopted the richness and complexity of a series of previous residents: Dutch, Malaysian, French and English. In style, it is a combination of the best of Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco with its stunning steep-hilled streets, its upmarket Georgian and Victorian mansions, remnants perhaps of the apartheid era when 13 per cent of the population held all the wealth.

Whether it’s a cable ride to the top of Table Mountain for a panoramic vista of the city, a visit to a bustling downtown open market (where I buy things I don’t need from bright-smiled hawkers who plead, “How much you want to pay?”), a trip to see the penguins at The Boulders, a beach area near Simon’s Town, or a few days touring the wine lands, Cape Town takes at least a week to see.

The spectacular landscape continues down the peninsula, where the drive is reminiscent of the California coast as we pass elegant beach houses, cyclists and joggers pushing themselves up Sentinel Mountain along chiselled vertical sandstone cliffs and along vast white surfing beaches, bordered with eucalyptus, blue plumbago, acacia and masses of Erica bushes resplendent with white blooms. Because it’s part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, something is blooming in every season. Occasionally, we spot zebras grazing in a field, and when we stop for lunch at the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, a baboon swoops down from his perch on a high jagged rock mass to snatch a bag of chips from the hands of a burly tourist sitting at a picnic table. It’s here on a rocky point that the Indian and Atlantic Oceans kiss in front of the peninsula’s rocky spine. Geographically, the two mighty water masses actually meet at Cape Agulhas National Park east of here, but we’re happy to accept geographic licence as we stand on the edge of a cliff watching the sea hurl foam and kelp onto the rocky beach.

But the landscape is not without scabs. Like Jo’burg, the Cape has its informal settlements of cardboard and corrugated iron shacks, where there is no clean water, no power and where homes get washed away in the rainy season.

The morning we are to leave, I read in one of the city newspapers about flying coffins, a term used to label some of the unsafe airlines in Africa, which are not allowed to land in international airports in Europe. I am relieved that South African Airways, which is taking us back to Johannesburg, is not one of them.

I wonder that this country is called “the rainbow nation,” when I observe that all the jobs, even in the service industry, belong to whites. I see more of a rainbow nation on the Toronto subway going to work every morning than here. The blacks in this country of food and wine are not the winemakers or the farmers. But their patience and hope are inspiring and palpable. And patience is paying off as jazz artists from the ’60s and ’70s, who had to go underground during apartheid, have surfaced and are enchanting the world with their notes and lyrics. Miriam Makeba is scheduled to give her final performance before retiring in Cape Town just days after we leave.

It’s a country of paradox with a sophisticated infrastructure and yet it’s a developing country struggling with poverty and disease. We have much to learn from these people who have too much to do to dwell on the horrific injustices of the past. I was humbled by the people I met: the security guard at a shopping mall who didn’t snarl directions to the American Express office but took me there; the bank teller who left her cage to help me use the ABM machine.

I press my last 10 rand into the hand of an airport cleaning woman. Her eyes shine as she squeezes my hand and says, “Thank you. God bless.”

Bless you back.

For information on touring spectacular South Africa, click here.

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