By Sandy Grisham
We flew or sat in airports for 41 hours before disembarking in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Weary” hardly describes what we felt, but meeting our friend, Ivor Jenkins, perked us up. We were friends from our time at the Kettering Foundation, a think tank that promotes democracy and equality of opportunity for all.
Ivor had been planning an extensive itinerary for us, knowing we might not actually get back here ever again.
We began with a tour of the sights: the Union buildings and gardens, and the Voortrekker Monument. The first site celebrates the early 20th century union of the several states under the British constitutional monarchy, leading to the national name “Union of South Africa.” The second was erected to honor the courage of the Dutch settlers who migrated to the northern parts, the interior, of the southern tip of the African continent. Both of these are places where you saw mostly white folks, and understood mostly the white history.
We then lunched at a wonderful place that made me feel I had dropped into the set for “Out of Africa” – I kept looking for Robert Redford, but he didn’t appear. Vaughn dove right into the culture, ordering spring bok, and pap (a version of grits but with lots less water … it was nearly solid). I had peanut and shrimp soup. Man, we were into this place.
The afternoon was spent with a different pair of guides: two people who had grown up in the townships of South Africa. These are the places where Africans (blacks) were forced to go when the nation adopted the policy of apartheid in 1948. Taking possession of not only the lands, but also the businesses of black families, the whites herded them onto what seemed like “reservations” and basically, left them there. The same quotes emerged: “Equal education,” “Being with one’s one kind;” you know them. Result: segregation, poverty, low education levels, high crime, high unemployment.
Brief history lesson
Fast forward to 1976, and when the schools were forced to begin teaching in Afrikaans language, the children and families revolted. We later stood on the site where Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old was shot and killed, only the first of many. The problem was the African students did not speak or understand the language of the whites, and were not given instruction in that language. Anyway, tensions continued to build up throughout the ’70s and ’80s, until finally in 1994, the transition took place. We in the U.S. paid little attention to it, except to note that the African spokesperson, Nelson Mandela, and his white counterpart, F.J. de Klerk had come to an agreement to end the official policy of apartheid. Sorry for this history lesson, but it is necessary if one is to learn, as we did, from those who were born and raised in the townships.
Driving through one of the townships, Mamelodi (population 800,000), I was sickened by the poverty and the conditions that accompany it: squalor, no sanitation, filth, shanties 6’ x 6’ housing families. And it gets cold here! My response was one of utter despair. What accident of birth put me in a place where good health, education, nice clothes and home were indigenous to my world, and these two people showing us around had been raised with none of that readily available because their skin was a different color?
Driving out of Mamelodi, we headed down the same road for about 3.5 miles to our gated community with $1 million plus homes where we were staying. What’s wrong with this picture?
Famous diamond mine
The next day we visited the diamond mines. Of course, that mine provided a living for a large number of workers, but those numbers are diminishing as machines take over. One of the largest diamonds in the world was mined here in the early 20th century, and now graces one of the crowns of the Queen of England. And Liz Taylor’s famous diamond gift from Richard Burton came from this mine, too. After a two and a half hour tour we knew why the price of diamonds is so high. (Footnote: They are still a girl’s best friend. I told Vaughn I had room for one in my suitcase, but he didn’t believe me.)
We have since been to the Cradle of Humankind, another World Heritage Site that centers on the discoveries of the earliest man/woman to roam the earth found to date. We have eaten in a variety of local restaurants, and in general enjoyed the company of natives here – black, white, and mixed (they call it “African,” “White” and “Colored”). We sat in a box at a rugby game between the Blue Bulls and the Australian team. I could get addicted to rugby. They say the game is 80 minutes long, and they mean it. No time outs, brief half time, and in 80 minutes they are done.
We took a trip to Soweto Township where the riots that led to “the transition” (a sterile word for a bloody and turbulent time) in 1994 began, and made visits to the home of Nelson Mandela as well as Bishop Desmond Tutu. Believe it or not, these two Nobel Prize winners lived on the same street in the township. What an irony – honored by the nations, and living in the wretched world of apartheid.
What a puzzling place South Africa is. I don’t think I can ever “know” it, but I find the enigma of it compelling.
Sandy Grisham and her husband, Vaughn, live in Oxford. She is filing a weekly report from their around-the-world trip. The Grishams are retired educators.