Mike Hunter's South Africa Journal from Summer 2005
Greetings. I write from Sheila's Johannesburg apartment on my last full day
here in South Africa. I've been on a 12 day whirl-wind tour of the country
with Sheila before both of us return to California. I'm hoping that if I
write something up now that I'll capture a better fraction of my thoughts.
The trip started with a brief visit to London to see my cousin Pat and his
family. I got caught up in a British Airways labor dispute and spent 48
hours there instead of 24. Inconvenient, but I was in good company. While
in London I went to the national science museum and the Greenwich royal
observatory, which were both fun. I met a South African couple in line for
the flight that ended up being cancelled, and we ended up calling each other
the next day with the latest rumors on the status of the dispute. I ended
up interrupting their dinner to tell them there was a flight leaving that
night for Jo'burg after all, and we both ended up making it.
I had an interesting ride from London to Jo'burg: I sat next to a black
Zimbabwean priest named "Pius" (didn't get the last name) who was returning
to Zimbabwe from having given interviews to the BBC in London talking about
the terrible situation his people are in under Mugabe. I'll look forward to
typing his name into google when I get connected to the internet. He was
putting his safety in peril to do what he was doing...it puts the
momentousness of one's vacation in the proper perspective. I asked him if he
thought about seeking refuge abroad, and he said he would never abandon his
country. He's got my vote.
I got my first feeling for race relations on the flight: In my fitful
sleep, I'd wake every few hours to look out the window and see the world
below. After the lights of the north African cost, I was surprised and
worried at the lack of lights across the continent. I guess it's easier to
look at one of those "earth at night" satellite photos and see Africa dark
than it is to actually see it first hand. Dawn came and we flew in over
some pretty dry country, but when it came time to land I started to see the
familiar signs of western civilization: Jo'burg decked out in freeways,
tall buildings, and houses with little yards. Pius turned to me and said
"People only focus on the oppression that the whites did; they're never
thankful for all the good things they've done. White people made all of
this. All of this advancement is from the whites." Maybe he was feeling
affectionate toward whites because I gave him half my sandwich (the
afore-mentioned labor dispute resulted in there being no food on the
flight), but his comment stayed with me through my trip.
Sheila picked me up and we headed straight out of town to Kruger National
Park. All within the first 8 hours of clearing immigration I had a lot of
data: My first impressions of race relations, landscape,
driving....Everybody knows Apartheid has been dead in South Africa for over
10 years, which is a truly momentous accomplishment, but it doesn't take long
after you get off the plane to see that economic disparity between blacks
and whites is alive and well. I remember us pulling into a gas station and
noticing all the white drivers being served by the black workers pumping gas
and washing the windows...I kept thinking what an outrage it was for them to
be my servant -- especially in Africa! I had this strange feeling that if I
thought too loud these thoughts that people would wake up and realize the
outlandishness of the situation, and that the city would be in flames in 30
minutes. I think I'm not the first white person to suppress these thoughts,
which is probably why it took so long to end Apartheid.
The drive to Kruger took us through some pretty lush areas. They seem to be
quite fond of Sugar Cane and Bananas. I found driving in South Africa to be
a good mix of developed-world rules and conditions and third-world organic
efficiency. There's a wide variety of speeds present on any one road; from a
half broken-down jalopy moping along at 55 Kmph to a Mercedes not content at
130. This makes for creative passing arts: Drivers maintain speed while
pulling mostly off onto the shoulder to allow for the driver behind to pass
more easily -- Never mind the well-marked passing zones. And when it's all
finished, the passing driver turns on their emergency flashers for a blink
or two as "thank you," and the passed replies with a flash of high-beams for
"you're welcome" (or "pleasure" as they tend to use here). I think the
passing customs are a good summary for South Africa in general: Folks of
different means and backgrounds crossing paths, desires expressed and sated
with a great mix of western ceremony and African ingenuity, with a very
healthy serving of genuine civility. I thought it was really great. If you
ever ride with me and you find me pulling off to the shoulder at full speed,
shake me a few times to make sure I'm not having a wistful flash-back.
The Kruger experience is probably best saved for the pictures rather than
being spoiled with more typing...I'll just relay that about 15 minutes into
the park Sheila said "look, an elephant!" and I scanned the horizon looking
for the creature, only to suddenly come across it 15 feet from the car!
The next stop was Swaziland. Swaziland is a separate country nestled
between South Africa and Mozambique. I'd heard it said that South Africa
isn't "the real Africa" because of how developed it is compared to other
places...Swaziland was somewhere in between. Sheila and I managed to get
pretty lost...at night...in a developing country next to the developing
country that I already thought was pretty wild. We probably wasted about 1
or 1.5 hours wandering the back roads, including an unintentional left turn
that Sheila and I will probably tease each other about for a while.
While in Swaziland we visited a national park, which was a bit more like a
zoo than a US national park, but a pretty great zoo as far as I was
concerned. I'll refer you to google images to find appropriate imagery of
"hippo" and "African wild boar." Swaziland also serves as a good excuse for
me to mention my genuine amazement at the multi-lingualism of the people
here. I'll again refer interested parties to google for a proper history
lesson, but just about everybody in the region speaks several languages.
The typical black park employee speaks English, Afrikaans, and one or more
local languages; a pattern that I'd find repeated throughout the country.
Even some of the whites speak a bit of the local African language, and
certainly every white speaks English and probably quite a bit of Afrikaans.
Afrikaans speakers were barely discernible in their English from "native"
English speakers. I'm cheating ahead in the chronology, but I'll mention
here that there's a significant Indian population here as well, who speak
Hindi (or perhaps a South Indian language) and English and some Afrikaans.
I think I've run out of sentences for this paragraph, so I'll close by
saying how amazing I thought it was that it would be expected that you could
open conversation with a gas station clerk in Afrikaans, English, or his own
language and he wouldn't miss a beat! Swazi wasn't a good language as
measured by helpfulness in Sheila and I trying to find the wildlife
preserve: I swore if we ever emerged from the maze that I'd warn the world:
Every town in Swaziland starts with M! It's voiced as an m-hum before the
rest of the name, but if you're trying to find your way, don't go by "the M
town." On our last night, we went to a dance being held at the park HQ,
which was a lot of fun. I got the feeling it wasn't just a canned
tourist-trap: Black visitors were sitting near the front and enjoying it
quite a bit, and even jumping in some times.
We left Swaziland and headed for the coast and Durban. Durban was a really
neat city; very beautiful and lush, awesome ocean for swimming. I hopped in
the water at the public beach with the local ilk, which was probably 95%
black kids and teens, and made friends with Erial (sp?). He asked me what
country I was from. I don't think he'd even heard me speak a word of my
American English; I think he knew I was a foreigner because I was swimming
in with him and his friends. While I'm thinking of it, I give South African
English the official runner-up prize behind our One True American English as
a fine accent. I had little trouble understanding anybody (idioms aside).
It's hard to describe what it sounds like; I don't think I can imitate it
very well, I'm sure you'll all be disappointed that I won't be putting on
South African impressions. It's like British English without the British,
or maybe what Australia and New Zealand have in common, and since they're
about 85% the same, there's only 15% left to describe it with....
We had dinner with the family of one of Sheila's coworkers while in Durban.
They were an Indian family and treated us to an Indian dinner in their
Indian suburb...we even went to the Indian grocery store to get some soda
("cool drinks" in South African parlance). When we arrived back at the
house with the soda and sat down for the main course, I caught a glimpse of
somebody else in the kitchen that I hadn't seen before. A black teenage
girl. It took me a second to realize her role was that of a servant, and I
had a funny moment thinking about the painting of George Washington's dinner
table and his black servants, and I fancied that we were at some kind of
reenactment. Sheila later said that she was able to wave hello to her when
we arrived, and I felt good that we'd been able to acknowledge her.
Sheila and I pressed on from Durban down the coast towards what they call
"the garden route." We had a particularly good hike at "Nature's Valley"
where we proceeded to get a bit off the path (unfortunately this ended up
being foreshadowing) and tried hiking through the jungle to get back to the
trail...we made it, but not without really angering some Rock Hryaxes who
gave us an angry stare, and didn't run even when we were 10 feet away. We
took many-a-photo of the waves crashing into the rocks and the resulting
brilliant spray, but I don't think the photos did a good job of capturing
Along this route I got my first whiff of rural South Africa. Jo'burg (and
Durban to a lesser extent) is a city with a siege mentality: High walls,
razor wire, multiple car defense systems (including paying a guy probably 5
bucks a night to stand around and watch cars on one city block). Rural
southern SA was much more sedate: Nice houses, little or no high fences...I
saw several "old-west" looking downtowns of a row of businesses with a
nice church at the end, and I got the feeling that it wasn't just being kept
that way to look nice; it was much more authentic than that.
Another thing I noticed on this part of the trip was the Kohisan people.
I'll again invite you to google Kohisan or San people for a proper
introduction, but there are two main branches of African people in South
Africa: The "Bantu" black Africans, and the Kohisan "red" bushman. You may
know them from "The Gods Must Be Crazy" or documentaries with people
speaking with clicks. They were historically beaten-up on by both the
Bantus and the whites (I got a chance to read about the history of the
different peoples on our long drives) sort of an interesting reminder that
there are usually more than two sides to any story (like the story of
colonization of Southern Africa, which a Kohisan would remember with two
different colonizers: Bantu and White).
Our trip continued on to Cape Town. As we approached from the East, we
would see signs that spoke of Kapstaad at nearly the same distance as Cape
Town...a lesser-known borough of Cape Town, perhaps? Or a large city north
of Cape? It took us a while to realize that it was Afrikaans :) It's a
good example of how seriously the preservation of Afrikaans is taken: Towns
very frequently have two names, even if they're translations of each other.
It'd be like non-Latinos insisting on Saint Francis instead of San
Francisco...it takes some getting used to.
Upon arriving in Cape Town, we had our first experience with crime: There
was a commotion of Native language and shuffling at the front reception of
the hostel we were checking into. It turned out some undesirables had
gotten in, posing as guests or perhaps drivers, and taken off with a German
man's bag. The happy ending was that the German gave chase and the guy
dropped the bag. The receptionist apologized for the delay in processing
and gave a vague apology for "those people," which we politely accepted.
It was another one of those moments in South Africa where race relations are
interesting to study: The girl behind the desk was "black" by the American
definition, but by the South African definition she was "colored," meaning
that she was somewhat light-skinned and probably of mixed descent. Under
Apartheid coloreds were permitted higher-class employment, and I wondered if
I was witnessing the shadows of that stratification. It's a brilliant move
on the part of an Apartheid state to create one or more buffer classes: The
blacks can be jealous of the coloreds, the coloreds can be jealous of the
Indians, and all the whites need to do is keep the Indians in check (that's
admittedly a huge over-simplification). I can't help but remember a rapper's
comments about the passengers on a slave ship jockeying for the title of
possessor of the handsomest chains. And it's also worth noting that this
problem isn't uniquely South African: Watch a rap video on MTV and see how
the light-skinned black women are the much sought-after fare.
I seem to be approaching the line between journal and race-relations
treatise, so I'll return to recounting our trip. Sheila and I went to the
Cape of Good Hope, which was a fun hike and yet another encounter with
mischievous Baboons: One was sitting on the trunk of a car and there was
quite a traffic jam of fellow tourists taking pictures of the spectacle.
The next day we took a day trip to South Africa's wine country and visited
several facilities. We made good small-talk of the fact that we hailed from
near California's wine country. I'll let you write Sheila for a verdict on
who's is the superior experience; I can barely tell red wine from white. We
left back for Cape Town's Table Mountain, a high mountain with a flat top
near the city center that offers spectacular views. Alas, we arrived too
late and the cable cars had stopped running (and it was only 5:20! The
siege mentality strikes again....) We decided that we would take out on the
climbing trail toward the top; surely we'd know to turn around before it got
too dark (darkness falling about 6:30). We blew it: We turned around
before reaching the top, but dusk set and a thick fog came in, and we lost
the path. We both worried at the sounds of rocks accidentally kicked a few
yards off the path tink-tink-tinkering down for an uncomfortably long time.
Between staying calm, good luck, and patience, we rejoined the trail (which
was well-defined going onward) and started back for the car. Another hiker
met us: He came to look for us after he saw the fog come in and figured we
might get lost. Thanks, Axel!
Following our brush with death on Table Mountain, our second brush came that
night and the following day: Flu. Sheila took ill in the middle of the
night and I started feeling funny the next day. This coincided with our
end-of-trip sojourn from Cape Town back to Jo'Burg, a 16 hour drive. Before
us was "the Karoo," South Africa's "Outback," which wasn't too unfamiliar to
us, having driven in Arizona and Nevada. It was an uneventful drive, and
Sheila and I arrived at our way point, Kimberly, both very weak. We secured
our room and went to bed (with tons of blankets to fight our chills) at
about 7 PM and slept until 8 AM the next day, with a 2AM break for eating
some bread and water. That helped a lot. I routed us through Kimberly so
we could see some Mining stuff. We ended up going to "The Big Hole," which
is an open-air diamond mining pit that opened in the early 1800's and lasted
a hundred years...it was neat. Unfortunately we didn't have time for the
underground tour, but it was probably for the best as we were both still
weak from sickness. There's something about getting sick in Africa that's
disconcerting: "Is it just the flu, or do I actually have Green Dragon Fly
Marrow Wasting Disease and I don't realize it?" I guess the trick of Africa
is living with the risk.
That ended our tour of the country. I helped Sheila run last-minute leaving
errands, including a visit to her office. On our way to the airport (the
astute reader will notice that I've actually silently switched from writing
from Sheila's apartment to writing from the air, in fits both over Africa
and over the Atlantic) we got gas (anybody remember what this sentence was
about in the first place? I know I had to look back to remember...) and the
attendant (sick and tired of the parenthetical yet?) noticed all our bags
and asked if we were leaving the province. Sheila said we were returning to
America, and the attendant asked what we were taking with us. That was a
fun chance to reflect on the trip. I know a lot of things flashed into my
mind: The scenery, the native culture, the subtle differences, the
poverty, the hopefulness. In the end we agreed on a simple answer:
Biltong, the South African beef jerky. We all had a good laugh.
It's only been 11 years that South Africa has been free of Apartheid, and
they're doing a great job at building a free nation unlike any other. Some
non-blacks I'd talk to would be quick to lament how feral and crime-ridden
they thought the country had become, and I wish I could have told them in a
few words everything I think now: I know there are problems now, but you
have the people and the spirit to succeed. What Pius said wasn't only a
statement about the past: South Africa is way ahead of the rest of Africa
thanks in no small part to the contributions of the newcomers. Now that
blacks have civic freedom, South Africa is in a position to use the energy
and skill of both the newcomers and the local people, and I feel good about
their chances for success. Keep an eye on this country. God Bless Africa!
Sheila's long-running South Africa Blog is here:
and Picture Gallery are here:
If you're reading this, you've either cleverly skipped to the bottom of
this long message or you've actually read the whole thing. In either case,
thanks for reading and best wishes!
Afterward (July 16, 2006)
It's been almost a year since I got back and wrote my letter. I wanted
to put my letter online after I saw this documentary about Zimbabwe from
Frontline. It's a great piece and it motivates me to put this on the
web in hopes that google will help people find it. Keep up the good
A few other funny things occurred to me about my trip while I'm gone.
Sheila didn't catch much of an accent while she was there, but when we were
going through a toll booth, I found that she had memorized greetings with
accent! "Hello, how are you? Pleasure!"
Another funny story was when Sheila and I went to dinner in Capetown. As with
all things in South Africa, there was lots more security than I'm used to,
so to get into the restaurant you had to click on a buzzer and they'd buzz
you in. Whenever I see a situation in which I'll have to talk, I start
preparing beforehand...so when I was getting ready to talk to the person on
the other end of the buzzer, my mind prepared "Hi, we're white, we'd like to
eat." I caught it before it came out, but that really was the situation and
how I felt about it; I'm white and therefore I have access to this kind of
stuff. Maybe if I were black but appeared rich they'd buzz me in too, but I
thought it was funny.
Last but not least: The McAfrika burger. A few years ago, McDonalds tried
to introduce the McAfrika burger in Norway, but was met with strong
resistance from internationally-minded organizations saying that's wrong
to exploit Africa by naming a burger after them when millions are
starving. At the time there were counter-protests by people who were
sick and tired of Africa only being associated with death and thought
McDonalds should keep using the name. I now believe in the McAfrika
burger. It is true that Africa has major problems that they need help
solving, but to say that Africa is the continent of sickness isn't just.
Africa is a great, happy place with proud people. Before I went I was
afraid of it, I feel differently now and I encourage you to feel good
about Africa too.