Tag Archives: South Africa

“What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South Africa?”

Our Uber was winding up and over the road that runs between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. In the back, I sat attempting to find a way to get the seat belt to not actually touch my stomach, distended with steak and wine and liqueur and prawns. My father had just asked him the question that had become almost ritual whenever we met a South African.

“Bigots”

I perked up, interested to hear this. The driver obviously lead a very comfortable life, judging from his car, and his talk about beer and beaches. And yet clearly he was aware that there is a problem, a bug in the system. That his comfort, like mine, comes at the expense of others’ suffering.

“If I gave a rand to everyone who asked me for a rand I’d be working for them.”

Oh.

Beggars. He said beggars. 

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“Do you find it difficult to work with your old jailers?”

We were standing on the historic pier at the Victoria and Albert waterfront, inside a preserved building that used to be where ferries to Robbin Island launched. Mom and Dad and I had just come back from a tour of the island, where, standing in the room that had served as a church for the block where Mandela spent so many years, our guide had told us that two nights earlier, at jazz fest, he had run into one of the men who tortured him when he was arrested in the 1980s. “They had used electric shocks, and beat me, and used my private parts as an ashtray,” he said, “but now he offered to buy me a drink.”

Back on land we met Vusi Mncongo, a man who had himself spent many years imprisoned on Robbin Island after he was arrested as part of a peaceful protest. Today he works in the museum, alongside men and women who served as his jailers.

“No,” Vusi said, “that is past. That is part of history. We have signed a new constitution now, and they can’t do that anymore.”

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“I am talking,” the professor said to our Anthropology class the day before we reached Cape Town, “about a country that until recently divided the races by law. Their schools, their housing, everything – divided. Now it’s not law, but one race still has all the money, the other none. One race still has all the education, the other very little. It is a country where more black men go to prison than college.

“I am talking, of course,” he said, “about the United States.”

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“There’s this thing with the word, “them,”” Mary Anne began.

We were sitting in the kitchen of a wealthy, energetic Italian woman, four glasses of wine in. Emma had been teaching us how to make pasta and crostini and carpaccio and panna cotta with espresso and grappa. Isobel, the daughter of a famed wine farmer, had been walking us through wine pairings (and sharing with me her fear of Vietnam, ‘I had never seen poverty before.’) The curated gardens of the house sheltered two rotweilers behind a high gate with barbed wire on the top. Beneath us the moon glinted off the ocean. It may be the most beautiful kitchen I have ever seen. I was a little tipsy.

We had just asked the room – expats and immigrants from Switzerland, Ireland, England, and Italy what they thought of South Africa, the country they had committed themselves too. All spoke glowingly of the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to overcome hardship. “I would never,” the Irish woman declared, “want to live anywhere else.”

As conversation rolled on, Mary Ann turned to speak to me, her voice covered by the cheerful clatter of several red-faced men and women exclaiming over the quality of salmon.

“South Africans I mean – white ones. Black people are always, ‘they.’ I have this bush in my yard that grows a berry I hate, but all the maids pick them and eat them on their way to work, and my South African friends always say, ‘oh, they love it.’”

She looked at her wine for a second and sighed. “I’ve asked my South African friends about it, and they say, ‘oh, but we love them!’” Mary Ann made a sour face, “we love them.”

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“What are you most interested in?” Ibrahim asked. We were speeding down the highway towards the airport – I had just landed in South Africa and was racing to make a flight to Kruger. Ibrahim had told me a little of his life story: he had grown up, at first, in a mixed neighborhood at the foot of table mountain. But when he was a little boy it was declared for whites only. His grandmother sold their house at a little under $200, and they moved to a new Coloured township. He remembers going back to sit on his old lawn, and weeping.

Ibrahim would be guiding my parents and me for a day of touring in a little under a week. There was a tour of the Cape all set, but he could switch it up, show us whatever we wanted to learn about: “history? nature? politics? What would you most like to see?”

“Penguins,” I told him, “I am very interested in penguins.”

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“What are the biggest challenges facing South Africa?”

We were in Ibrahim’s car, speeding back down the highway. We had just bought strong, fragrant coffee at a deli that was filled with wooden crates spilling over with fresh fruit and racks selling South African wines. Tiny flakes of buttery pastry were scattered over my jeans from the pain au chocolat I was finishing. 

“Education is the biggest one,” he said. The car turned and revealed a dazzling view of craggy cliffs over a glistening ocean, white villas clinging to the side of the rock, “and unemployment. And crime, but the crime is mostly because of unemployment, which is mostly because of the education.” Below us, white sand beaches were dotted with sunbathers and walkers – it was a perfect morning, breezy and warm. “And corruption, I suppose.” 

“Do you think South Africa can face those problems?”

“Don’t call them problems” Ibrahim said, smiling, “call them challenges.”

He swung the car off into a lot filled with cyclists looking out over the Pacific and parked.

“We ended apartheid without a war. Anything is possible.” 

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“I don’t like it,” Erich said, “when you look at my shoe that way.”

He looked at the lion. The lion looked at him.

“I really don’t like it at all big guy.”

The lion continued to look at Erich and then, casually, turned and sauntered away. 

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There are many game reserves in South Africa that stock their land with the appropriate beasts. They have the South African Big Five (lions, elephants, cape buffalo, rhinos and leopards – the five deadliest land mammals in the country), they have giraffes and hippos (the actually deadliest mammal) and kudus and impalas* and warthogs, most of them in their own enclosures where they are fed meat diets.

Ngara is not one of those reserves.

It is a private piece of land entirely within Kruger national park, and it does not have a single fence to keep anything in, or out. Whatever you find there, perched in a four by four with no sides or roof, is a wild beast.

Like, say, that lion. We met him on the first day in Kruger, and watched his pride as the sun set over them. They flopped side to side, yawning and grooming themselves, a clutch of overgrown house cats lounging in the dying sun of a dusty afternoon. Then they decided to pass over to another clearing, just the other side of our jeep. One by one four females and a male sauntered past our vehicle, slack skin thick with fur rolling over sharp shoulders as they swayed past.

Two thoughts about these lions:

1. Lions are bigger than I thought. I don’t know why I didn’t know how big a lion was. Maybe they’re far away in zoos. Maybe because I watched the Lion King a lot and they really play with proportion in that film. Hornbills are not nearly that big. The factual inaccuracies of Disney extend beyond the fact that warthogs don’t sing and I, for one, feel betrayed. Nothing prepared me for lions being so, well, so big.

2. They were a foot away from me. I could have reached out and touched them. In fact, the part of me that has to stand far back from high ledges and subway platform edges nearly did. I leaned away. I don’t know how a lion would take to being scratched behind the ears, but it would not, I don’t think, go well. (This was tested to an even more extreme limit two days later when we watched the lions return from the hunt and call their young – five cubs came spilling and sliding across the grass a yard in front of us. I am making nothing up.)

And another thing: When I saw these lions, slowly slinking past my knees, I’d been in South Africa for, I think, not quite 11 hours. And I’d already seen a giraffe bend down, nobly knee knocked backwards, for a drink, flicking his head to get the blood back down his long neck before he stood. And a mother leopard call to her daughter. And warthogs nibbling the grass three feet from where I had tea. And an elephant tearing a tree apart. And a dazzle of zebras grazing by the road. In fact, the lions were the last step in our accidentally succeeding in seeing all the big five within four hours of getting to Kruger.

SOUTH AFRICA! You guys. South Africa!

A LEOPARD CALLED HER DAUGHTER AND SHE CAME.

A GIRAFFE DRINKING.

SOUTH AFRICA!

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The lions trapped us for a little. We suddenly found ourselves between a pride of lions and their seven cubs, animatronic stuffed animals who could not have been real. The cubs and the second male had just arrived, and immediately collapsed to nap in awkward piles of limbs and fur. Another thing about lions you might not have known: they sleep a lot. In fact, so far as I can tell, there are only two major strategies for survival in the South African bush: eating constantly, or eating once and then napping for a week. I can really see the appeal of both.

Eventually, when it seemed like the cubs weren’t going to join the lionesses, and that everyone involved seemed totally uninterested in our actions, Erich started the engines. Three or four of the cubs looked up, a little startled, before deciding that we were no fun. The 4×4 creaked gently past them and onto the road. The sun set. Tom, the spotter, handed out beers. The unfamiliar stars of the Southern Sky came out and Erich explained how to see the Southern Cross and Leo. A warm breeze blew across the clearings as we rumbled back to the lodge, carrying the dry, hot smell of dust and burnt grass. The night was filled with calls I have never heard before.

Our first day in South Africa came to a close. 

*Whose name I could never quite remember – I could only think “it’s like an antelope but it’s not’ and then the word “cantaloupe” would pop up and I would get stuck there, staring at a herd of cantaloupe. IMG_3540

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