20 April 2009

An impossible task

The nine full days I spent in South Africa were so intense that unpacking them into a series of blogs will prove daunting. My last blog detailed our itinerary, which went off without a hitch. Our hostel reservations were correct, our route was almost unaltered (we switched our last night to the diamond mining capital of Kimberley). Therefore, not too much time will be spent on the nitty-gritty of the hours-long drives through South Africa countryside, although not at the expense of beautiful landscape photography coming shortly.

I think the best way of going about sharing my experience is to offer an analogy, which while rough and sometimes inconsistent will perhaps familiarize my (American) readers with South Africa. The analogy is this: South Africa is like the African America, not to be confused with "the African-American". By this I mean that it was colonized by white Europeans who, in the words of my wise professor RKK Molefi, "came preaching the Bible and when the Africans closed their eyes to pray, the Europeans took the best land." The native peoples and the European newcomers lived in precarious peace, interspersed by civil conflicts and British-Dutch military spats (not unlike the French and British on the other side of the Atlantic).

Those who couldn't handle the British coastal culture (read: New England), headed eastward (read: westward) and founded farms and ranches (read: Midwest and Wild West). They became people of the cattle, the African cowboys if you will. Whites thought themselves much superior than the natives and in a unique combination of America's policies toward Native Americans and blacks, simultaneously relocated them and made second-class citizens of them.

These policies of relocation and racism resulted in major protests in the townships (mostly urban, in the African context) and in 1994, political fissures in the apartheid government gave way to Nelson Mandela and his ANC party. Today marked the fourth election since the fall of apartheid and the ANC is likely to stay in power, mostly due to its large investment in improving the situation of the nation's blacks. Like African-Americans in the US, South Africa's blacks were consigned to designated township areas, usually the worst pieces of land in the country. Note: while this separation resulted from social pressures and practices like red-lining in America, they were official government policies in South Africa.

The dire situation of many blacks in SA (South Africa) can be traced back to the physical separation. What shocked me most was not the tales of the black and colored (official racial designation of mixed race individuals under apartheid) townships in Cape Town. Similar settlements are to be expected in any major city in the developing world, in Rio de Janeiro for example. It was the presence of townships in the middle of the interior, South Africa's "Wild West". Driving through towns like Craddock in the desert terrain between Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, we saw not only the heights of mountains and depths of arid valleys, but the high class of quaint European main streets and the dismally constructed, corrugated iron shacks in the surrounding shantytowns. It was like moving West Baltimore next to Ely, Nevada.

Our gas station attendant in Vryburg (in the north) told us he lived in the township there, but contrary to our perception, there was not much crime at all. It was merely that they were poor. Crime-filled or not, the shantytowns would make any Motswana cringe with good reason. The villages of Botswana may not have much materially compared to America, but are practically oases in the Kalahari next to what we drove past.

The combination of geography and economics is very evident in South Africa and cannot be overlooked, that is why I went on at length here about it. The next couple posts will offer my light-hearted and fun experiences of mine, including the life-changing ride on a bucking ostrich. Stay tuned for more about SA and lots of pictures!

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