Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Monday, September 26, 2011

9/26/11: 1984 to 2011, a taxi tour through time

I sit here listening to ‘Exile on Main Street’, the highly-acclaimed yet relatively little-known (and recently re-mastered) album by The Rolling Stones, one that Andy, Mac, Dan and I listened to often back in Syracuse. Having been in South Africa a few days now, I find myself reflecting back upon our hours ‘demonstrating’ against apartheid in the mock shantytowns built on the campus of Syracuse University. It was a long time ago, and I keep wondering if we truly understood the consequences of what brought us there. Certainly we knew the rather obvious injustices occurring as a result of the apartheid government’s ongoing legally-dictated segregation, constraining any but whites from voting, etc. Nelson Mandela had at that point been imprisoned three months longer than I’d been on this earth, and President PW Botha had only then begun to hint at the reforms that would ultimately remove from government the mere 16% of the population that held 100% of the power in South Africa. The international sanctions of 1984 against the government of South Africa were starting to take effect, causing the rand to collapse, leading to an official state of emergency that would be in effect for 5 years more, long after we’d graduated from college and entered the workforce. Probably the only thing that drew our young attention spans back to South Africa was the freeing of Nelson Mandela in 1990, though it would take an additional 4 years before a draft constitution was written in 1993, followed shortly thereafter by the first public elections allowing blacks and coloureds to vote, despite the two groups being the 85% majority in the country.

‘Coloureds’, you say, isn’t that rather racist commentary on your part? Well, not really, as the term is used freely here to describe the difference between ‘blacks’, and those of mixed race-background, be it white, Malaysian, etc. Our taxi driver for the day is Richard, a self-affirmed ‘coloured’ in his late forties who currently lives with his mother, having now waited 14 years for the government to provide the home that was promised as a result of the first elections back in the middle 90’s. His assertion is that the ‘black’ ANC government isn’t doing enough, is corrupt, is unable to fix the problems resulting from decades upon decades of apartheid.

Richard either cannot--or refuses to--explain the expensive BMW’s we see driving though the Gugulethu township where we ate a BBQ lunch at Mzoli’s, a popular eatery for blacks and whites alike. Although invited, Richard refused to join us, instead remaining with his car for reasons unknown to me. At first I assumed his reasons to be related to protecting his car, wanting to leave us alone, or some such other reason I could imagine. After some thought about it, I now wonder if he wasn’t quite comfortable there, as it wasn’t a ‘coloured’ township we were in, but a ‘black’ one. Upon first parking, a black woman in the car behind us appeared to want him to move so she could park where we had parked; he had an amiable conversation about it, refusing to move, politely suggesting that she should could park a dozen meters ahead, where there was ample room. She disagreed, but Richard did not move.

Having now had more time to reflect upon this ‘minor’ occurrence, I now believe we were actually witnessing South African racism as it exists today, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, as in the case of the xenophobic altercations that are now becoming so common in the western Cape and Johannesburg. Despite South Africa’s extremely polar distribution of wealth, it is still far, far better off than most other African countries, and thus people are immigrating from countries like Zimbabwe in huge numbers. Given the fact that unemployment nears 30%, the locals consider these ‘outsiders’ to be taking their jobs, and various forms of resentment are manifested on a daily basis. Although Richard is not an ‘outsider’, racism in South Africa remains, albeit with a different face, more subtle, perhaps less resolute than before.

As we departed Gugulethu en route to Spier winery, the views from Richard’s car were astounding, puzzling, and depressing. Any of us ‘demonstrators’ back in the mid-eighties who thought that the end of apartheid would naturally right the wrongs of nearly 50+ years of formalized apartheid rule were mistaken. Sorely mistaken. In fact, many here posit that any but the upper class here in South Africa are no better off financially than the years prior to 1994, and perhaps many even worse off. Of course, ridding their world of the oppressive rule that so suppressed the majority of the population here in South Africa was necessary, but I don’t think anyone could foresee how difficult it would be to right the socioeconomic disparities that had accrued. How do you provide for virtually half a country who remains well below the poverty level, some 30% of which make less than $1 per day? How do you now stop paying unemployed women to, in effect, have children? How do you pay for building housing with running water and sewer? How do you get people to take advantage of what little housing has been built, given that these small homes must be paid for in full at the time of habitation, albeit at a mere 25% its value? How is it that people living in plywood and corrugated metal homes are supposed to have 25,000 rand to take possession, let alone 1,000 rand, or 500 rand, or…

The extreme disparity in income levels amongst the population of South Africa is indeed a very, very significant issue, one that virtually obviates the success of any given solution to any specific problem, due in large part to how widespread the poverty is. The classic chicken-and-egg scenario, if ever there was one. I’ve neglected to even address the HIV issues here in South Africa, practically ignored by the government until only a few short years ago. Ghana has been able to make significant advances in curbing the spread of HIV amongst its population, and with far less resources than South Africa has. South Africa’s rather low 0.5% population growth rate belies not progressive planning on the part of the government, but an insidious HIV pandemic that has yet to be curbed, remaining at 15% the total population.

How do you house people that aren’t able to pay for it? How do you provide decent-paying jobs to people with little or no skills? How do you educate children in the townships when the government depends on only 9.1% of its population to provide 50% of its tax revenue? Somewhere the cycle has to be broken, but it’s so hard to envision where the catalyst to do so will be found; I now seriously doubt that the country has the resources to do it without help from the outside, and political infighting within the previously-dominant ANC suggests that further chaos may be in store for the government here. Now stop and consider the fact that other countries (most notably those in east Africa) face far more dire realities than those of the people here in South Africa, and one is left with a feeling of helplessness beyond comprehension.

So, do you care about the experiences my family and I had today at Spier Winery, seeing cheetahs and holding hawks and owls, having an absolutely wonderful lunch in a treehouse at ‘Moyo at Spier’, or the fact that the boys and I finally obtained ping-pong paddles so that we could let loose once back on the ship? I’ll leave that rather incongruous set of experiences to some of the pictures that follow, as no number of my images could possibly be worth the thousand or so words I’ve written above, regrettably.

The Black Vulture got impatient if the handler didn't kick the food out every thirty seconds or so.

Birds bllink with their inner, nictitating membrane, which moves horizontal (very rapidly, I might add).

The Secretary Bird was mimicking killing a cobra with a kick that sometimes penetrates the leather glove the handler is wearing.

Yes folks, that's a fifty-billion dollar bill from Zimbabwe.

Our wonderful treehouse lunch at Moyo at Spier.

The view off the back of Spier's property.

The women's bathroom didn't have such a creative treatment on the door.

1 comment:

  1. Kate O'MalleyMay 27, 2014 at 6:06 AM

    I love this post, the photos and the descriptive observations. Incongruous, yes.


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