02 April 2011

Capturing South Africa

The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane last week was the warm temperature. It felt sensational and I smiled as I yanked off my coat and fleece. At the doors of the airport building were about a half dozen uniformed men and women ready with wheelchairs. These folks were pure African – Zulus. Yes, I had arrived on the great continent! The Johannesburg airport looks like all the modern, gleaming airports you see around the world (except in the US!). A large picture of a smiling, healthy Nelson Mandela against a map of South Africa welcomes you. Immigration and customs went quickly, efficiently and within an hour of the plane landing I was already in the arrivals hall where Pam, Keayen, and Kimi were waiting for me.

We hit the busy, crazy highway and I was once again immersed in the country of my birth. The Rivonia Road exit caught my eye and I was reminded of the freedom fighters. It was at a house in Rivonia that Nelson Mandela met with the banned ANC and Communist Party folks to plot their overthrow of the apartheid government. This is where they were betrayed and arrested, resulting in the famous Rivonia Trial which led to Mandela’s lifelong sentence.

As soon as we arrived in Pam’s suburb of Honeydew I was greeted by a flock of hadeda birds (ibis) – crying out like cackling witches – beating their large, brown wings as they swooped across the sky. Surprisingly ugly cries from birds that are actually quite pretty. Yes, the sight and sound of these birds are an integral part of South Africa’s fabric.

Driving to my sister’s gated community, we past trees whose branches were bent with the weight of the ball like nests of weaver birds – small, yellow birds that flit in and around their nests.

At the grocery store – PicknPay – a food lover’s paradise – it was so obvious I was in South Africa when I heard the mingling of South African English – delightful to my ears now – “yaw” (their version of yeah) – and Zulu with distinct tongue clicks, and Afrikaans. One thing that caught my eye was that all the kids – mostly white, middle class – were barefoot.

Johannesburg is pretty lacking in scenic beauty. It’s flat, flat, flat everywhere. The city lies on a plateau, as does most of the country, but it is at quite a high altitude. The air here is really dry. Electric storms in the summer are frequent. On my first afternoon there was some serious lightning and thunder. Folks here are used to it. All homes have lightning rods on the roofs.

After two wonderful days in Johannesburg, we drove to Mum’s place in Ladysmith, 250 miles away. Most of the drive took us through flat countryside, which was quite colorful from endless fields of pink and white cosmos. We used to call these Easter flowers when I was little, because they always appeared in March and disappeared before the end of April. About eighty miles before Ladysmith the western Drakensberg emerges from the flatness and creates quite a dramatic scene. This final stretch is quite beautiful.

Ladysmith. My home town. Did I really grow up here? The biggest change I noticed was an enormous sculpture of African style black elongated pots arranged in a pyramid at the entrance. It was quite eye catching and beautiful. Otherwise, the town remains sleepy and lagging behind the rest of the world by a few decades.

From Ladysmith all my family and I went down to the coast. We spent a few delightful days in Umhlanga, a beach resort in Durban. The balmy, humid days and fresh sea air was quite uplifting. Every morning we got up to see the sun rise over the Indian Ocean and jogged barefoot on the beach. Quite the perfect start to the day. Spent lots of time with my mum and had a relaxing time.

One striking thing during my brief visit was that the conversations weren’t fixated on violent crime as it had been in the last two decades. Even in the Mail and Guardian, the top newspaper of the country, crime coverage was surprisingly small. Most of the paper seemed to be about government mismanagement, the Libyan situation and South Africa’s ambivalence regarding its UN Security Council vote to authorize a no fly zone, and Japan’s nuclear energy plants.

Middle class South Africans have decided that in order to have “normal” lives they have to live in gated communities where they can feel free to leave their doors open and have their kids ride bikes in the neighborhood. My sister’s gated community is enormous. It has a golf course, a few lakes, parks, tennis courts, and a club house with terrific restaurant. Many of the residents drive around the place in their own golf carts.

During my entire time here the country was fixated on cricket. The International Cricket games were on and South Africa was hotly favored to win. Unfortunately, they got knocked out early in the tournament. My mum enjoyed the semi finals between India and Pakistan, which was a real nail-biter. India won and my mum was overjoyed. Right now everyone is watching the final between India and Sri Lanka. People here want to know if Americans would be following the final. When I told them Americans know nothing about cricket they were shocked. “But this means they are so isolated from the world!”

And so my visit comes to an end!