Happy New Year
Durban, South Africa
31 December 2003
It's been well over a month since the last web entry and everyone is
wondering when something new will appear - and why it's taken so long. Well dear reader, here is something new and the 'why' is simply that this country confronts one in so many new and challenging ways that I've
found it difficult to distill complex situations into a ten-minute read.
The Republic of South Africa is a relatively
young country in terms of its constitution and political regime. Just less than ten years ago the new order was instituted after the long - and often painful - wait for the demise of apartheid. Overnight,
terrorists became presidents and finally, after hundreds of years of violent oppression and segregation, equal rights were had by all - black, white, Indian, Afrikaner, Anglo, and coloured (of which I
believe there were ten legally established distinctions). As distant outsiders looking in from page 3 of the international section it was easy to assume that here was 'the
change' that was needed! The sun would shine, the children would sing, and the lion would lie with the impala, so to speak.
But somehow this egalitarian vision hasn't quite reached the general population. Oh absolutely, blacks have more jobs these days and are clearly in control of the government. But which
blacks? Mandela and Mbeki are from the Xhosa tribe in the Transkei region. Ask a Zulu from KwaZulu-Natal about the government and you're likely to hear stories of nepotism and
corruption, and a disheartened outlook for the future. Or read in the paper about a 'coloured' person in Cape Town who was rejected for a South African Airways job because she wasn't a black. The coloureds, it
seems, were too dark during apartheid and now, post-apartheid, aren't dark enough. Ask an Afrikaner about the new order and, with a stoic face, you'll hear of the fairness
of the new system and the advantages of equal rights for all. Probe deeper and you'll learn that white professionals have gone ten years without a promotion and that young
whites seeing no hope of employment are leaving the country.
But the new system has to be better than the
old. Besides it must take time to undo the vast social and economic gulf that formed in those years.
And South Africa is the wealthiest country on the continent. It has huge natural resources in
the form of gold, platinum, diamonds, coal, timber, and more. It boasted (in 1995) a per-capita income typically ten-times higher than other African nations. One could be
forgiven for thinking that the time and resources were in place for 'the change'.
But instead, upon landing in Richards Bay - about 90 miles north of Durban - the first
thing one hears about is the rampant crime. "Don't use an ATM machine." "Don't
walk anywhere at night." "Never walk alone." "Don't carry your wallet." "Don't go to certain parts of town." And my favorite, "Roll your windows down a half-inch when
driving. That way the glass is less likely to shatter when struck."
And it's not just the industrial-focused Richards Bay. In Durban, no one (or more
specifically, no white-one) should go anywhere at night. We're told over and over. If you absolutely must go out, drive or take a taxi.
It seems to be good advice. All you have to do is look around. Shops have metal gates that are opened electronically when the shopkeeper can see who's pressing the buzzer. Security
guards on streets, around banks, shops, apartment buildings are heavily armed and outnumber any police presence by fifty-fold, at least. Handguns are carried in open view by a surprising (to me)
number of shoppers at the mall, and I hesitate to guess how many are secreted out of sight. Banks have double "air-lock" style entrances.
And it doesn't stop at the end of the work day either. Apartment buildings are locked, guarded, and lower windows barred. Homes are either surrounded by razor-wired walls
or part of a securely fenced and (privately) policed neighborhood. In rural areas, farms are encircled by electrified fences and gates are locked at night.
And it's not just my unaccustomed-to-the-ways, tourist eyes. A friend living in Johannesburg changed apartments six times in a short period after being burgled at
each. People exist, it seems to me, in a state of siege. From the guarded confines of the office, one commutes - with windows properly set - to the guarded confines of home
stopping only at the correct stores in between.
Well, that is to say, the people who have
been integrated into the western economy anyway: whites and Indians for the most part - both overwhelming minorities in this country - and a few blacks. Meanwhile, the bulk of the population seems to live
outside the economy. Oh, there's plenty of work, to be sure. Take 'domestic help' for example. Tons of people working in that line, making 500 rand a month! (That's about $72 a month, just in case you don't
have your Wall Street Journal nearby to check the exchange rate.) And we've had plenty of offers of help for cleaning our boat too. Fifty to seventy rand seems to be
the going rate for an eight-hour day. ($10.) And if neither of these occupations appeals, you can always make a living as a professional 'dumpster diver'. These folks
root through the detritus of society one rubbish bin at a time pulling out glass, cardboard, and plastic which they can take to recycling centers. These guys (and gals)
make upwards of 180 rand a month, PLUS they have the benefit of free food and used clothing! Want to sign up?
Hey, we've seen some poverty along our travels too. Take Vanuatu for example.
Subsistence living is the norm there. Madagascar? Pretty much the same thing. But in these places, the economics seem to treat everyone pretty fairly. There is a small
relative difference between the haves and the haven'ts. It's easier to accept this.
But none of this prepares you for the disparity that is South Africa.
Driving along the motorway in Durban, you pass the Gateway Mall - proudly, "the largest mall in the southern hemisphere" - while around the next turn lies one of the
many living hells we've seen. Spread across a hillside and down a ravine are tin, plywood, and cardboard hovels ("shack" is way too generous), each smaller than a
garden shed and standing shoulder-to-shoulder; no spaces between, choked with trash and decaying garbage; dirt floors, dirt paths turning to mud in each rainstorm; no
electricity, no clean drinking water, no sanitation (None! Think about it!). Rubbish of all kinds collecting in piles around the lower "homes". Hundreds of families living
here. People. Human beings - you know, the 'you and me' kind?
Oh, it's easy enough to drive past,
especially at motorway speeds. The visions flash past so quickly you hardly notice the half-naked, sore-riddled children and the anonymous adults in torn, dirty, and deteriorating clothes. And thank god
you can't see the individual faces! Imagine the pain, humility, and utter hopelessness of living in these places. Imagine the social depths of this life - alcoholism, routine beatings, child
abuse, AIDS rampant. And pervading it all, the realization that this is it, this is all there is and will be. You'll live here, raise
your children here, and die here. And for all you know, so will the kids - if they happen to outlive you.
Well, you can't imagine it, can you?
So you roll up the windows, lower your eyes to the road, crank the AC, and instead let Sarah Mclaghlin fill your safe cocoon with words about the world's inequities with a
beautiful voice and a haunting melody while the reality of this desperation fades to a palatable background blur.
But South Africa intrudes anyway. Slowed traffic. Blue flashing lights. Police waving
cars through slowly. And the dead man in the middle of the road. Too close. I see the face.
And it's just one of 40 million.
Oh yeah, almost forgot - Happy New Year.
Copyright 2003, Jeff Williams, All Rights Reserved