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December 19th 2007 by Tina

Posted under Africa & South Africa

Johannesburg, our final South African destination, is reputed to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Our guide book warned “to be very careful of your personal safety in Johannesburg”. While we had already traveled to other notoriously dangerous cities, such as Nairobi, we were still apprehensive about visiting a city where the white minority confine themselves to suburban shopping malls and their homes which are so heavily guarded with tall walls, barbed wire, security bars and surveillance systems that you feel an eerie sense of criminality lurking about, whether real or imagined.

We had pre-arranged a ride from the bus station through our hostel and were picked up quite tardily by a young man in a white Mercedes van. During the ride back to the hostel, I asked the driver if Johannesburg really lives up to its dubious reputation. He replied that it is safe…as long as you stay within the areas that the hostel staff specifies. He then shared a story about two male travelers who had recently stayed at the hostel. The staff had warned them not to venture outside the “safe” areas but they chose to disregard that advice. The hostel manager received a phone call at 2:00am from the police department requesting that he come down to the station and pick up two young men in their underwear. The two had been mugged and the perpetrators took EVERYTHING but their skivvies! Thankfully, the two idiots escaped with their lives – some are less fortunate. Johannesburg records more deaths each year by murder than by car crashes.

As we rode through downtown Johannesburg in the safety of our vehicle, I couldn’t take my eyes off the streets. I recall thinking that it didn’t look that dangerous. My imagination had conjured up an entire Hollywood cast of unsavory-looking characters uninhibitedly toting guns, chains, brass knuckles and big knives, ready in a moment’s notice to wreak havoc on anyone foolish enough to present himself as a potential target. What I saw instead were poverty-stricken human beings living life in their own neighborhood. My first impression was of uneducated young men whose rough edges and disheveled appearance would likely preclude them from ever earning an honest living outside of the hard labor pool. But first impressions can be deceiving. Still, I wasn’t about to get out and ask them if they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal Savior.

The hostel was nestled deep within a labyrinthine complex of heavily fortified houses. We entered the complex through a narrow alley separating two rows of modest homes behind walls and gates with barbed wire so jagged and extensive that it felt like we were entering a prison. Most of the walls also displayed signage of one or another armed response company – privately owned armed security companies that, judging by the number of similar signs around town, are making a killing! No pun intended. One thing was boldly apparent – these people are serious about their home security!

It was getting dark by the time we’d checked into our room and a heavy rain had begun to drench the city. We had spent over twelve hours traveling from Mozambique that day. Most people, me included, would relax, settle in, and go to bed early after an exhausting day like that. Not my husband! Instead, my never-do-tomorrow-what-you-can-do-today, can’t-sit-still-for-five-minutes, always-needs-a-project, sweet, adorable spouse gets this hare-brained idea in his head to walk to the grocery store. And worse…he puts on his best angel face to try to convince me to accompany him. I must admit that, after three years of marriage, I am still not immune to my husband’s charms. I strongly considered walking at least twenty minutes each way in the dark and pouring rain through the unfamiliar streets of Johannesburg! Granted, the store was supposedly in the “safe” zone but there was seriously nothing that we needed before morning. Thankfully, I came to my senses and tried desperately to bring Aaron to his. Perhaps it was my matted, greasy hair or my oily face from twelve hours of bus transit but my womanly guiles failed me. He was determined. I sent him off with a loving “Don’t call me to pick you up in your underwear at 2:00 in the morning from the police station. I’ll be asleep.”

He was gone for almost an hour and each minute of that hour felt like an eternity. I was sick with worry but tried to fill my head with positive thoughts as the rainfall crescendoed into an intense downpour. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then fear for your lover’s safety transforms you into a love-crazed maniac! When he walked through the door, soaked from head to toe, I squeezed him harder than the day he proposed.

The next morning, we decided to spend the day doing touristy things, namely a township tour and a visit to the Apartheid Museum. We made the arrangements through the hostel and were collected shortly thereafter by our tour guide. He had a very thick accent and was difficult to understand but he conducted our township tour with educational commentary and endearing enthusiasm.

Townships were created during the Apartheid era when oppressive European settlers, mainly from the Netherlands and Britain, displaced hundreds of thousands of native Africans from their centrally located homes to shanty towns on the outskirts of the city. Black people were allowed to come into the cities to work in the goldmines, as day laborers or in a servant capacity but they had to live in one of the established ghettos, called townships. “Soweto”, which is an acronym for “South West Township”, is South Africa’s largest township community and one of the largest ghettos in the world. Though the scars of Apartheid have begun their arduous healing process, the ghettos are still painfully overcrowded and, with few employment opportunities, many township residents still find themselves living in squalid conditions.

It was rainy that day and we spent the majority of the day viewing subdivisions of Soweto through the window of our van. Our guide was a resident of Soweto and provided valuable insight on the history, politics, education and living conditions related to township life. In one neighborhood, there had been a huge street party two nights prior and the residential streets were covered in jagged shards of shattered beer bottles. Scattered groups of men worked slowly to sweep up the glass but there was a good three block radius of unbelievable disaster zone. Our driver cringed as we listened to glass crackling under the tires.

As a part of the township tour, we also took a guided walk through one of the subdivisions of Soweto. Our driver stayed in the car while another local guide walked with us along a dirt road through rows of makeshift homes. Many had small vegetable gardens. One woman was sweeping diligently what might have been a front step but instead was the section of dirt road in front of her house. A group of little boys walked ahead of us, only mildly curious about two of what must be a parade of foreign tourists. Our guide explained that only about twenty percent of the township residents are employed due to poor education and lack of skills, proximity of the township to the city-center, lack of business opportunities within the township, etc.

We were also invited inside one of the houses and, for me, this is when things got a little awkward. Our guide led us into a one-room shack where three young men were sitting and said “Okay, you can ask them questions and take photos now.” First of all, we weren’t about to start snapping photos of these people’s home like zoo patrons photographing the monkeys. Second, we didn’t exactly have a list of questions prepared since we were put on the spot so, after an awkward silence, we started asking whatever questions came to mind. The approximately three hundred square foot house was home to eight young men. A couch, love seat and television occupied one side while the other side held a large freezer and shelves stacked with miscellaneous household items. The freezer was non-operational but the bottom was lined with a layer of beer bottles covered with a broken ice block. The guide explained that the young men tried to make a living by selling beer. They had to buy a new block of ice every day in order to keep their product cold. The entire township is without electricity; most people use car batteries to power their small electronics such as televisions and radios. The house that we were in had a small generator which sat in the middle of the floor. When asked where they sleep, the young men replied that they have bedding that they take out at night. After about ten minutes of uncomfortable interrogation, our guide led us outside the house and back to our van but not before hitting us up for a sizable “donation” for which he suggested the amount. Normally, I am immune to this sort of request for a handout but my emotions were disturbed by my immediate surroundings and, without hesitating, I handed over the amount requested. He said that the donations are used to benefit the community but I suspect that he just pocketed it. The whole exchange seemed underhanded and I felt as if the chastity belt on my pocket had been violated. I have definitely suffered buyer’s remorse in my life but this was the first time for donor’s remorse. With a sour taste in my mouth, I hopped back into the van and we continued on with the next segment of our tour at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which commemorates Soweto children who lost their lives in protest against Apartheid. Apartheid, by the way, is an Afrikaans (language of the original Dutch settlers in South Africa) word meaning “segregation solely based upon race”.

We then took a brief tour of the house that Nelson Mandela lived in for almost thirty years with two of his three wives (not simultaneously). The modest house was quaint and cozy with many family photos, articles of Mandela’s clothing and shoes, rooms full of honorary degrees from esteemed universities, newspaper and magazine clippings documenting his political actions, gifts from celebrities and international leaders and letters of support and praise, including an interesting letter from the State of Michigan, apologizing on behalf of the United States for the CIA’s role in Mandela’s eventual capture and imploring then-President George Bush to issue an official apology which, of course, was never done.

The final stop on the day’s itinerary was the Apartheid Museum. We parted ways with our guide and spent the remainder of the afternoon inside the museum. With its extensive collection of photographs, video footage, interviews, and Apartheid-era memorabilia, the museum meticulously documents the history of Apartheid, lifestyles of native Africans in contrast to other immigrant groups under Apartheid, the propaganda used to market the idea of Apartheid to the European settlers, and the valiant, bloody fight to bring the long-time racial oppression to an end. We noted many interesting parallels between the persuasive tactics used to perpetuate Apartheid and those used to rally support of the Nazi regime. We were especially moved by a temporary exhibit on the life of Bantu Stephen Biko, a brilliant anti-Apartheid activist who was eventually arrested and allegedly died of head injuries sustained in captivity, though no one was ever charged with his murder. He spoke intelligently and passionately about the black people’s need to empower themselves by changing their self-image from the negative associations prescribed by their oppressors to proud and positive associations with their black heritage. He was only 30 years old when he died alone in a jail cell. We stayed at the museum until it closed and then called for a ride back to the hostel. It had been an intense day revolving around extreme poverty, oppression, martyrdom, child martyrdom and unjust imprisonment. We were emotionally drained.

In drastic contrast to our day of depressing tourist activities, we spent the next day inside a two-story haven of commercialism and muted Christmas cheer: the mall. As we walked leisurely through the bright and colorful stores full of pretty things, handsome things, baubles and gadgets – the very same things that once seemed important enough to spend entire weekends collecting – our senses were overloaded. The whole scene was surreal. I suddenly felt a belated jolt of liberation at having purged our ubiquitous stuff, sold the house that we worked constantly to fill with stuff, thereby alleviating any temptation to purchase durable goods aside of our daily necessities. I didn’t feel the weight of my possessions until it was lifted. I felt a subconscious rearrangement of priorities in my life. I would never go so far as to say that I don’t value material possessions. That would be absurd. Material comforts are…well…comfortable. These days, rather than drooling over a new purse or piece of jewelry at Nordstrom, my hopes are focused on health and happiness, family, friendships, love and triumphing over the bathroom challenges on this crazy adventure. I wonder, though, if I will fall back into that old familiar obsession with stuff when I am thrown back into the bottomless pit of suburban commercialism. Que sera sera, as the saying goes. For now, I’m not worried about the future. I’m just enjoying the simplicity of carrying my worldly possessions on my back for a while.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Jo’Burg”

  1. Little Bear Mom on 04 Jan 2008 at 8:24 am #

    I see now why you did not post this until after your Christmas in Iowa.

    You would have had to listen to all the family concerns for your safety.

    We love you and admire your courage. Be safe and happy. Hugs Mom