South Africa: Day 1
In retrospect, it was an obvious mistake to prejudge a whole country based only on one familiar accent. But as it turns out that’s what I did.
My destination was South Africa, and the people I knew from there spoke in an accent vaguely reminiscent of certain British dialects, so I reasonably if wrongly assumed that South Africa would be more or less like Great Britain, with, perhaps, a bit of Amsterdam thrown in. I realized I had made that subconscious assumption only when it was challenged by the reality I saw: South Africa is much more Africa than Europe.
My journey began in New York with the usual ninety minute drive to the airport. I arrived early, as New Yorkers always do, because the possibility of significant traffic all but forces a choice between early and late. Fortunately, Virgin Atlantic took good care of me in their “clubhouse,” which I call an airport lounge. Then it only took a six-hour overnight flight to London’s Heathrow, a ten-hour lay-over, and a second overnight flight, this one eleven hours, to bring me to Johanessburg’s O.R. Tambo international airport.
Right off the bat it was clear that I was in a new place. The airport staff were almost entirely black (and “black” is the preferred term), and, well, African. Wearing African combinations of western clothing, they spoke to me in African accents that revealed African native tongues. They spoke to one another in languages I couldn’t positively identify.
As is often the case, I needed two things before I left the airport: a local SIM card for my phone and a supply of the local currency, rands in this case. The first was easy. The second almost didn’t work. For the first time since the Internet was born, I found that my ATM card didn’t work. My modest cash withdrawal was refused. Fortunately I saw an American Express office, but even there — even with an organization I have always relied on for western convenience and customer service — it wasn’t easy. There was paperwork and computerwork involved in giving local rands to a traveler from the U.S., but the workers were equally unclear on the procedures for both. Some of the machines didn’t work. Nothing moved quickly.
Perhaps an hour later, I left the airport and headed into Johannesburg.
Though it’s South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg isn’t the capital — or, I should say, isn’t one of the capitals, for the country boasts about three, even the number being a matter of occasional debate. Johannesburg itself is a huge sprawling mess of unplanning that arose in response to the discovery of gold there in the 1880s. But I didn’t see much of it on my first day.
Instead, I joined my fellow presenters and we drove out to my first real South African destination: Soweto. The name comes from “south western township.” It lies south-west of central Johannesburg. And it’s a “township,” which is to say, a black ghetto. The whites lived in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, while the blacks were confined to often undeveloped townships like Soweto — a racial division that was both enforced by law and augmented by other legal steps that kept the races apart.
Soweto was home to the famous “June 16” uprising of 1976, and literally home to Nelson Mandela, the man at the forefront of defeating the South African legal racial divisions. Mandela lived in Soweto for almost 20 years before a 27-year imprisonment, the result of his campaign to give blacks equal rights. After his release, he went on to serve as South Africa’s first black president. So to visit Soweto is to visit the past, present, and future of South Africa, all at once.
Unfortunately, I saw very little of the real Soweto. I visited Mandela’s former residence, now a museum, and walked around the adjoining streets. But they, too, were mostly a museum, with touristy shops selling pseudo-African art probably made in China, and touristy performers who were so out of place that even the locals stared.
Toward the end of our short visit to Soweto, a colleague and I approached a couple of local school kids with a single question in mind: What is it like to live here? We didn’t have time for the long conversation we wanted. And language and culture barriers made it difficult even to convey the question. But those very challenges tantalizingly hinted that we were right next to a fascinating story we would never hear.