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Friday, October 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

South Africa has lessons to teach

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

A group of girls on their way to school in Soweto stop to say hello. They walk from their neighborhood to school in a richer area.
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NWsource: Travel

I have to admit right off that I was nervous about visiting South Africa. I expected to see, hear or experience things that would anger me, and I really didn't want that. I was going as a tourist, not a journalist. I wanted to enjoy myself, but my main reason for visiting was to satisfy my curiosity about the place, or at least to attach something real to the images and feelings a distant following of events there had generated.

Travel isn't just about finding a nice beach or a gift shop or snapping pretty pictures. Sometimes people travel because they want to learn and to experience something different, and then maybe find a nice beach. South Africa, for me, was education, sometimes with discomfort, but with enjoyment, too.

What I knew before leaving home was that South Africa has a raging AIDS problem, deep poverty and unemployment and great wealth. I'd read about the lingering wounds of apartheid and the almost miraculous way the country turned in a new direction. All I'd read suggested that hope and despair co-exist in a land of striking physical beauty.

I didn't expect to come to a deep understanding of South Africa. I'm still trying to figure out the United States, and I've lived here all my life. But experiencing a place gives you something more solid to hold onto than reading about it or seeing it on television.

What I can tell you about with some certainty are my reactions to the place, my interactions with people and my musings.

My wife and son traveled with me, or I with them, actually. This trip was mostly for our son. My wife and I traveled in East Africa and West Africa before he was born, and when we talk about that he always asks why we didn't wait and take him, too. He's 12 now, and that seemed like a good age for a major trip; old enough to get a lot out of it, but not yet averse to traveling with his parents, or too teenage-cool to be impressed.

Contemplating race

The small Robben Island cell in which Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years of imprisonment.

We decided to take him to southern Africa, partly because it would be new for us, too, and partly because of the lure of South Africa 10 years after Nelson Mandela's election started that nation down a new and exciting path.

South Africa's wounds are fresher and its mix of people more complex than our country's — South Africa has 11 official languages — but we are both trying to overcome racist legacies.

South Africa was actually the fourth country on our itinerary. We visited Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, spent 10 days on safari in Botswana and another four days at a safari camp in Zambia.

We encountered South Africans along the way. It seemed that in those countries the people who ran restaurants, lodges and tour businesses were often white South Africans, or New Zealanders, or Europeans, but white not black.

So I had plenty of time to contemplate race in Africa before ever arriving in South Africa.

Our first night in Zimbabwe we ate at a small African restaurant. A couple at a nearby table struck up a conversation. We told them of our travel plans, and they lit up when we said we'd be in Cape Town in a couple of weeks. That is where they live, and they invited us to visit them.

But as nice as they were to us, they were equally unpleasant when they dealt with the restaurant staff, lecturing and reprimanding them, demanding that the cook come and sit for a lecture on the proper way to fry potatoes. They yelled at the waiter and manager about the bill. "These people all try to cheat you," they warned us. Only it turned out the couple had made a mistake. They apologized, then went on to argue about the payment method.

The staff tolerated all of this with what for a black American in this age would be intolerable subservience. The kind of behavior my parents' generation in the South was accustomed to. "Never argue with white people," my mother always told me.

Eager for a fight

A boy runs down one of the colorful streets in Cape Town's Malay Quarter, the Bo-Kaap.

And this was Zimbabwe, where news stories give a person the impression whites live in fear for their lives.

On safari in Botswana, our group included three young men from Belgium and a young woman from San Diego.

We all noticed that some people on self-drive safaris were rude, sometimes insisting we make way for them on narrow rutted roads. Usually they had South African plates. A white South African driver yelled something at our guide and angered all of us.

I started wondering if that was what I could expect in South Africa. When I fumed about the passing insult, our driver said they (white South Africans) do that all the time and he just ignores it. South Africans, he said, are too eager for a fight — black and white ones — so it's best to leave them be.

I said I was looking forward to one of them talking to me that way. Immediately, I recognized how silly that sounded. What was I going to do, beat up all of them? This was his world and he knew better than I how to negotiate it.

I thought about the generations of my own family who stepped off sidewalks and averted their eyes lest they offend some white person. I thought about the many times I've gone out of my own way to make sure I didn't run afoul of a white person.

Why would I think things would be different here? I was even in that moment wondering if my expression of anger had frightened the Belgians or the young woman from San Diego. And I chastised myself for worrying about their reaction.

The young woman had spent a lot of time in South Africa. Her father owns a house there, and her brother works there. As if reading my mind, she said South Africa wasn't any different from the United States. Some people would accept me, and some wouldn't.

Careful with your hand

Cape Town's Victoria and Albert Waterfront is a big tourist draw, with Table Mountain in the background.

We planned to tour two very different cities in South Africa, Johannesburg and Cape Town. I had read that Johannesburg was the place black Africans loved to visit, and Cape Town was a Mecca for European travelers.

Nelson Mandela has a home in Johannesburg. It is the city adjacent to Soweto, the black city whose young people gave the freedom struggle its big push in 1976. And Soweto is the home of the Apartheid Museum.

Cape Town is known for its beauty, a stunning city set between the Indian and Atlantic oceans, with the incredible Table Mountain adding drama. It is blondes on beaches, snazzy sports cars and world-class restaurants. It is a piece of Europe or America set down at the southern tip of Africa.

Their descriptions fit them, but they are also more complex than that.

We spent a couple of nights in a Johannesburg hotel across from a shopping mall, like our Southcenter, but with even more melanin. Then we spent two nights in Soweto at a bed-and-breakfast run by Lolo Mogodi-Mabitsela. We used a space heater at night when it got chilly.

We stayed for four nights in a bed-and-breakfast in Cape Town, which was run by Aissa Parenti and her sister. It was set into a hillside with stunning views of the city below and the Atlantic Ocean. There was a pool, a full English breakfast each morning and a complimentary bottle of wine in our room. At Lolo's we had hotdogs and eggs for breakfast.

The Cape Town B&B felt like being on vacation, cushy and nice. The Soweto B&B felt like staying with an aunt. Our son played on the computer with Mama Lolo's grandson while we talked about all kinds of things, including South Africa's transformation. The Parenti sisters never brought up social issues, and neither did we.

Our guide in Botswana had some advice for me when we talked about race and South Africa, "Don't stick your hand into a hole looking for a black mamba."

I deal with race often in my work, but I was on vacation and determined not to put my hand in the black mamba's hole. Mostly I took his advice and just observed.

Everyone trying to move up

Poor people in townships are starting small businesses.

We toured Soweto on a Tuesday and Johannesburg the next day. Our guide was a man named Themba, who works for Jimmy's Face-to-Face Tours, one of the pioneers of Soweto tourism. Themba was the color of oak, very short, energetic and opinionated.

Soweto has 4.5 million residents and a 40 percent unemployment rate, Themba told us. It has three kinds of neighborhoods — rich, middle class and poor. Almost no white people. Blacks are moving into formerly all-white areas, but few whites move in the other direction.

People from the wealthy areas of Soweto send their children downtown to white schools, he told us. People in the middle-class areas send their children to schools in the wealthy area of Soweto, where they fill the empty seats. Everyone is trying to move up.

We met lots of people who are excited about the country's possibilities. Despite the distance it has to go, there is a palpable pride in having won freedom and in being in power.

Mama Lolo's

The woman who runs our B&B grew up in one of those two-bedroom houses we saw on our tour, without running water or electricity, but now she owns her own home and she runs a business that has been written up in The New York Times. People come from all over the world to stay with her in Soweto. She'd like to coax more of her white countrymen to come, too, and more are starting to.

Lolo was a teacher, a principal and finally a school inspector before she retired, got restless then started this new business, something she could not have done before apartheid began to die.

Her house looks like it could belong to one of my relatives, someone who has just moved up. Her furniture is ornate, the bed covers are colorful. Our toilet seat has a doily on it that makes it difficult to keep the lid up.

There's a sitting room, but the furniture is all covered in thick plastic, so it doesn't feel like anyone should be sitting there.

Family members tend to cluster in an upstairs room where Mama Lolo's grandson sits at the new computer doing his homework. The cozy dining room was where we spent most of our communal time.

Tuesday evening's dinner was huge — mealy pap, which is a fine version of grits, creamy spinach and onions, rice, spicy chakalaka (beans, grated carrots, green chilies) to spoon over the bland mealy pap, beef stew, potato salad, fried chicken, fruit punch and tea. For dessert there was fruit cocktail over ice cream.

Both nights, after dinner, we sat in the dining room talking. Mama Lolo always had something to add to what we'd seen during the day.

She's in her 60s, but like a lot of black South Africans she's wasted no time taking advantage of new opportunities. In the '90s, when home loans were made available to black people, Lolo bought her house. And when tourists started passing her home after democracy came, she found a way to capitalize on that traffic.

Empty skyscrapers

Wednesday morning, Themba drove us back into Johannesburg to have a look at the city.

Themba says his relatively light color has given him advantages. His father petitioned successfully to have the family reclassified from black to colored (the South African term for mixed-race). They moved to a better place with colored schools, so he got a better education than his black peers, but he remained close to his black friends. After he married, he moved back to Soweto, where he feels most at home.

He lives in an upper-class neighborhood, (the class scale for black people doesn't quite line up with the scale for white people) but he believes there are still limits on how far he can advance. Maybe, he said, he'll move to the United States, where a person with drive can advance.

Downtown Johannesburg is a forest of skyscrapers, not particularly different from a large American city, except I didn't see any white people, at least not at first.

Themba told us a lot of those skyscrapers are empty, that as the change approached, whites fled from Johannesburg. After democracy, black people moved into the city, but many businesses were gone for good.

Themba drove us across the new Nelson Mandela bridge to the Braamfontein neighborhood, colleges, the civic center, hotels, and further on a formerly all-white area where Nelson Mandela has a home now. The houses were large, the lawns neat and the fences high.

People drove past, white people in BMWs and Mercedes and Volvos. It could be Mercer Island.

Black people are slowly integrating formerly all-white enclaves. We pass an exclusive prep school, and I see a couple of black kids running around with the other boys on the playfield.

Each site I see suggests a different future for South Africa.

The Apartheid Museum

To make a point, the entry to the Apartheid Museum in Soweto sorts visitors by race.

In the afternoon Themba dropped us at the Apartheid Museum.

It's one of the best museums I've seen. It deals with a painful past in a way that is both honest and healing. It dispenses with both mythology and judgment and tries to offer understanding of a complex history and context for a complicated present.

The tickets we were issued declared each of us to be either white or black. Two narrow entrances, one marked whites and the other non-whites separate people entering the museum. The separation was only temporary, eventually we come back together. Point made.

There is history on all the various peoples who make up South Africa, and the exhibits that take you from a time when they mixed together, to segregation, and then to apartheid.

Fear and greed are in the driver's seat for most of that journey.

I watched a silent movie called, "They Build a Nation," about the Afrikaners. It looked like "Birth of a Nation," and turns out it was produced by an American.

I read about the ways in which the Afrikaners were horribly mistreated by the English, and I couldn't help but empathize with them and understand how they could create a system as cruel as apartheid.

The exhibit doesn't ask you to forget, but it does ask you to understand so that you can move forward.

The museum is more a celebration of the triumph of justice than a lamenting of injustice, though it sugarcoats nothing that happened in the past, it always points forward.

One of the last exhibits consists of full-sized photos of all kinds of people in line to vote. Campaign posters are all around and the future is opening.

Just past that, before you leave, newspaper pages from the current day are displayed. The day we were there, The Star had this headline: "Poverty frustrates upliftment through education."

Keeping it real.

Outside the door there is a garden to wander through and contemplate what you've seen, to think of "the beauty of this our country to think of what has gone before and what is still to come." The past, an inscription says, is painful to some, liberating to others, but it is something that must be confronted in order for there to be progress.

It's that attitude I want for my own country. Acknowledge the past, celebrate the good and recognize that we need each other. In South Africa, whites have the money and now black people have political clout, so it's clear to reasonable people they need each other.

We lingered so long, the guard actually locked us inside the grounds after closing. He was apologetic and even ran to the nearest street and got a taxi for us.

The jewel of South Africa

We flew to Cape Town the next day. A young white man met us at the airport. I wondered whether he was uncomfortable with the situation, but he didn't seem to notice anything unusual. He grabbed our bags, and off we went. He gave us his card and said he'd be glad to take us around if we wanted.

It would have been interesting to hear his version of things, but we had a guide lined up already.

Cape Town appeared first as shacks lining the highway, but changed its clothing when we hit the city proper.

Cape Town is a jewel. People sometimes compare it to Seattle or San Francisco, but it is more dramatic than either. About 3 million people are nestled between the Atlantic Ocean on one side, the Indian Ocean on the other and it has Table Mountain, not off in the distance, but right there.

We stayed at the Bluegum Hill Guesthouse, a favorite of the travel consultant who booked the safaris we went on before we got to South Africa.

Bluegum is in a hillside neighborhood and there was a tremendous view of Table Bay from the poolside deck, and of city lights at night.

It is elegant, but not stuffy. The owner, Aissa Parenti, and her sister are welcoming, two young women in jeans who'd fit in back home. The people who cook, clean and garden are black. The sisters pitch in to get things done. The next morning we headed out on a tour with Faizal Gangat, the Cape Tourism Awards tourist guide of the year, and owner of Cape Capers Tours.

Gangat started Cape Capers because he thought established tour companies were giving short shrift to people of color and their stories.

Cape Town is much older than Johannesburg, which burst to prominence with the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand. While Cape Town is old — some call it the mother of South Africa — it is also different from other places.

Gangat told us there are four townships outside Cape Town that were built to house African workers for the city in buildings that are little more than shacks. He drives us to one of the townships, where the government is trying to make improvements.

A big Coca-Cola sign says, "Welcome to Langa."

"It's starting to look and feel and seem like a place where human beings live," he said.

For the first time ever, black people are able to own land, and they are proud of their homes. He points out little touches added to the modest homes: flowers, a paint job.

There are programs to train workers for business and industry and the government is building community centers in each neighborhood so that people can find the services they need easily.

We stopped at the Tsoga environmental resource center, where people are encouraged to recycle and are taught how to raise their own vegetables.

One of the staffers, a resident of the township, gave us and a several other tourists a tour of the neighborhood. Over the space of four or five blocks we go from modest homes, to clusters of old government buildings full of tiny apartments, to sheds.

That afternoon, Gangat dropped us off in Cape Town at the District 6 Museum, which commemorates the destruction of a mixed neighborhood in the heart of Cape Town.

The neighborhood was declared a white area in 1966 and bulldozed. It had been one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods, coloreds, blacks and Indians all living in the same place.

I read some of the inscriptions in the guestbook.

Someone from Maryland wrote, "As an American Black I can relate to your continued struggle. Your work is an inspiration to all who come to learn."

A family from London: "As Jews, we have found this museum so very moving. Come back here and rebuild your lives and re-create what you have lost."

Another visitor wrote, "Cape Town and Ireland have so many similarities."

A white American wrote, "God knows how much the U.S. has to learn from you."

We need each other

We walked around the downtown and made our way to the Malay neighborhood for dinner as the sun was setting. It was a perfect time to walk along streets where every house is a different Easter-egg color, purple, turquoise, green, yellow, blue.

The next day, we connected with a different driver, Alfred Wagenstroom, for a tour of the Cape of Good Hope.

It was dinnertime when we got back. One of the sisters at our B&B suggested a beachfront restaurant where we could catch the setting sun.

The restaurant felt like a piece of Southern California. All of the waitresses were young and hip looking and most were blond. All of the other customers seemed to be white, but the service was friendly.

I might have been less comfortable if I'd been in the United States. I didn't get the sense that I get in this country when I'm around white people who aren't used to being around black people and their discomfort transfers to me. I guess if you live in Africa you ought not to be uncomfortable with black people.

Someone suggested that most of the white South Africans who don't want to be around black people left when the government changed. Or they're living in gated communities and isolated towns.

People kept telling me that people in South Africa realize they need each other. I don't think most white Americans think they need black Americans — which makes for a significantly different dynamic.

And there, white people don't get to tell the story anymore, they have to share in the telling of the nation's story, share in saying what is true and what isn't. It isn't a matter of letting someone else have their way once in a while to be nice, but really recognizing finally the legitimacy of the other person in the room.

It's not all rosy yet, but it really has no where else to go if the place is going to prosper. We can put off justice here, but there it is a matter of survival.

From prison to freedom

On our last day in South Africa, we went to Robben Island and visited the prison (now a museum) where Nelson Mandela spent most of his years in prison.

While we were there, our guide pointed out a small cave at one end of the quarry where prisoners worked. The prisoners used it as a toilet, and it smelled so bad guards wouldn't go near it.

The prisoners used the cave as a classroom and as a place for political discussions during their lunch break. The guards figured they were just sitting there being lazy.

That's the thing that impressed me most, that the prisoners served their time with purpose. None knew when or if they would get out, but they spent their time working toward that day. In fact, they agreed not to try to escape. Toward the end, when international pressure was building on the apartheid regime, Mandela was offered his freedom more than once if he would just approve of some of their policies. Of course, he declined.

When freedom came, the prisoners had already drawn up plans for the new government.

Everywhere we went, people of color wanted to tell their stories. They were all proud of what has been accomplished so far and hopeful for the future, despite, or perhaps because of all that they have been through.

Alfred's family (they're colored) was among those thrown out of District 6. His life has been severely restrained by apartheid, but what he told us was that if Mandela could forgive, he could forgive.

If South Africans can embrace their future without closing their eyes to the past, perhaps we can, too.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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