Johannesburg, Days 13-15: From Soweto to Rosebank

There are moments walking around the Rosebank neighborhood of Johannesburg when it’s easy to forget that you aren’t in the U.S. any more.

The streets are clean and well-maintained, the traffic no worse than any that you might find in most major U.S. cities. The buildings are modern, the streets bustling with sharply dressed men and women in suits and teens clad in ripped jeans and graphic tees. A walk into any Woolworth’s feels like stepping into Whole Foods. The local Pick and Pay feels like Target’s doppelganger.

A trip to the local Rosebank mall only deepens this overall sensation that I’m visiting some nearby city rather than walking on sidewalks halfway across the world. There’s an Aldo, an H&M, a Forever 21 counterpart called Forever New. It’s midday on a Tuesday but the mall is bustling with shoppers.

The shoppers are largely – a good 90%, at least – white.

The workers, as far as I can tell, are all black.

Our boutique hotel is all staffed by black South Africans. The patrons who dine in the high class restaurant attached to it are mostly white.

A conversation with a white South African yields such phrases as, “I like that the further away from apartheid we get, the less entitled these people are,” and “it’s hard to find people who are actually willing to work hard and be disciplined – that’s why I like to hire from outside South Africa.”

Now, I’m not completely without awareness. I realize that the states aren’t some sort of bastion of equality – that similar racial and income inequalities still exist back home.

Perhaps the reason that it’s so disconcerting to me in South Africa is the fact that it stands out in such stark relief.

Enter my visit to the Apartheid Museum.

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Apartheid is at least a cultural literacy point worldwide. But other than the basics of it – that it existed, primarily, and that the world boycotted South Africa because of it in the late 80’s/early 90’s – I know embarrassingly little about it. I honestly have to admit that most of what I learned stems from movies – a Steve Biko biographical film I watched in 10th grade World History, Invictus with Morgan Freeman – and a brief unit on it one of my history classes.

So I was glad to pay a visit to the museum, to perhaps help me understand the context of this beautiful yet disconcerting country.

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The entrance into the museum provides you with a ticket that labels you either as white or non-white. So, if you enter with a friend as I did, you’re immediately separated as you enter the museum.

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You walk down a corridor, with ID cards surrounding you on either side and signs proclaiming where whites and non-whites could stand suspended above you.

These are real life prints of ID cards that everyone had to carry, which designated you as “white” or “coloured” or “black.” They dictated where you lived, where you could go, what kinds of schools you went to.

I read the history of ‘classifying’ individuals living in South Africa when the law was passed in the last 1940’s. Just a bunch of your local, uneducated whites going around, trying to figure out who what.

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This is my last photo of the museum. No photos are allowed inside.

The history of apartheid is a disconcerting one. Not because it’s so recent, though it is, but because it seems so eerily familiar.

Not of our past, though that too, but of our current time.

The National Party was a pro-white party that came to power in 1948 with promises of a hard line policy that would benefit whites and disenfranchise non-whites. They won a surprising victory – surprising even to them – with only a minority of the overall vote, bolstered mostly by rural whites who were scared of the non-white population taking their jobs and precedence on the national stage. They very quickly enacted a whole bunch of very stringent executive decisions that eventually hardened into the system of apartheid we’re familiar with.

Gulp. 

Other than the closeness to our current events, the other thing I was struck by at the museum was just how recently apartheid ended. While there are photos of legal segregation in the American south and clips of the widespread protests that eventually brought an end to it, they’re all grainy, sometimes black and white things that are sometimes difficult to make out. In contract, there is some footage from the protests of apartheid that are painfully clear, the punches and hits from the police officers presented in such sharply rendered pictures that you flinch each time a blow lands.

By the end of the museum exhibition – a journey through the perilous, violent time post apartheid in which thousands more people died than in all the corresponding years, then the painful, heart wrenching testimonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – I found myself thinking about just how young of a country South Africa really is. It was only 26 years ago that apartheid was officially ended; only 23 years ago that they had their first true democratic election.

The American democratic experiment has been ongoing for two centuries, our own legalized segregation ended half a century ago, and still we have so much strife and inequality. Racial discrimination and unofficial segregation that still keeps a high standard of living and quality education out of the hands of blacks and other minorities.

And despite the scenes of racial and social inequality, it’s not all this surreal, funhouse mirror version of America. Walking through the apartheid museum, it was clear that the scenes that I had witnessed outside of it spoke to progress, despite how jarring and backwards it might’ve all been to me.

For instance, yes, all of our Uber drivers are black. But one of them – Tshebo – tells us of how much better his life is now that he drives for Uber. Uber is run a little differently in South Africa, it seems. Whereas in the states, you’re required to own a car, in South Africa it seems that those with some capital have a fleet of cars (mostly Toyota Corollas, if our many Uber trips are any indication) and they lease them out to Uber drivers. The owner of the cars takes a cut, the driver takes a cut, and Uber takes it cut. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but Tshebo tells us that since driving for Uber, he’s been able to put all three of his kids in a good school. He’s done enough business and saved up enough money to soon buy his own car. He has plans to save up enough to buy five cars and lease them out to others.

See, he moved from Rustenberg, a mining town, to Midrand, a town just outside of Johannesburg. Mining is a hard, dangerous job that he was glad to not have to spend the rest of his life doing.

He works hard for Uber and likes his job, takes pride in taking care of his car. He keeps it clean, services it more regularly than I’ve ever serviced a car I’ve owned, takes his family out on trips during the weekend.

He works hard as a driver, he tells us, so that his children will never have to. They won’t have to do what he does, he says. They love school. They’re all going to go to university and they’re start their own businesses and employ so many other people.

We visited Soweto, a township of Johannesburg which once housed Nelson Mandela. It was also the site of some of the most famous protests against apartheid, including the Soweto Uprising. What had once been a neighborhood filled with of cheap housing and scrapped together aluminum shacks, was now filled with middle class housing and popular, well-maintained restaurants. Because a population of individuals who had grown up there, who had left to pursue education and other avenues, who had the opportunity to do so, had also returned. These individuals came back and chose to build a home and a life in a place their parents and grandparents had been forced to relocate to after leaving their homes and lives behind.

The menu in our restaurant in Soweto had this to say:

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We visited a number of college campuses where black South African students were walking, attending in class in a place where just 50 years ago they wouldn’t have even been allowed to come on campus. We spoke with a start-up business in which the majority of the employees were black. The concierge at our hotel had his masters in accountancy, had traveled to over fifty countries, and mostly worked weekends at the hotel between his time in class.

Even that woman I spoke to earlier, the one who spoke about entitled individuals and apartheid, gave her sincerest sorry that our country had voted for Trump. What a vile man he was. She loved Obama, she said, and loved all that he had done for our country and all that he stood for.

She ended our time together speaking with such obvious love for Africa – not just South Africa – but the whole of the continent. How much she believed in it, how great she believed it was. I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of her. If this were a novel, I’d struggle to discern what lesson or point I was supposed to take with my interaction with her. Perhaps the closest thing is that people are complicated and context matters.

And of course, there are other questions to ask.

Is it enough progress? Has the country moved forward at a fast enough clip? At a good enough pace? What’s next?

I don’t know. And I have a feeling that the answer, if there’s one to be found, might be for people smarter than I, more thoughtful than I, with more understanding of history and context and political movements.

At the end of my time in South Africa, I’m left with this: it’s a beautiful country filled with beautiful people, a place with a violent history, a complicated present, and a future that the citizens are optimistic about.

And I hope that I have the opportunity to return some day, to visit Cape Town and to see what other progress gets made.

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Pilanesberg, Days 11 & 12: Adventures in the bush

Our first two days in South Africa could only be described as an adventure.

We arrived at the Johannesburg airport at around 4:30 pm on Saturday. After a relatively easy time doing the requisite errands (grabbing luggage, exchanging money, getting a new sim card, and renting a car), we were off to Pilanesberg National Park, which was about a two and a half hour drive from the airport according to google maps.

We decided to grab dinner on the way there and either were stuck in a weird time drain or, more likely, just didn’t realize how long dinner took because we didn’t really get on our way until closer to 8.

No problem, except that it was raining fairly hard, the signage to the park was confusing/sometimes non-existent and we were essentially driving out to the middle of nowhere. We got lost and drove out into total darkness about four different times. I wouldn’t exactly say that the journey was harrowing…but I might be tempted to if I were the type of person who was prone to hyperbole…

Which I am, so yes, the journey was harrowing.

It was pitch black, raining hard, and we had to drive on the opposite side of the road. Even though in my brain I knew that driving on the left side of the road was correct, about once every three minutes I really felt like we were about to run straight into oncoming traffic. There were also stretches of road where there was no one else around, seemingly for miles. At various parts in the journey, the thoughts that this was like the beginnings of a horror movie did indeed cross my mind. Especially when at one point we drove off the tarred road into a super dark, bumpy dirt road and the map had trouble locating us.

However, armed with google maps, a positive spirit and Lisa’s ten year old yet surprisingly good memory of the area, we finally drove into the park at about half past eleven – a full two hours later than we had initially told our accommodations

Also the park is rather large, and there are multiple places that you can stay. We had made reservations at the Tented Safari Camp, which we were both excited to stay in but were having trouble finding. After driving around what felt like the whole of Pilanesberg (it wasn’t, but after spending half the day in transit, it certainly felt that way) and probably waking up multiple people by shining our headlights at them, we finally happened upon our campsite.

…Only to find that the check-in tent was dark and empty. There was a brief moment of panic where I thought we might have to sleep in our car, which certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing ever but wasn’t ideal after a long day of travel. However, to our great luck, one of the other resident guests was still awake and helped us find our tent with minimal pain or embarrassment. (We did accidentally unzip a tent that already belonged to someone else, but it was only once and I don’t think we woke them up, THANK GOD, because that would’ve made for some really awkward late night/early morning conversation).

Now, I keep saying the word ‘tent.’ I’m sure you’re thinking, Lelanie, a tent, really? Which, 1, rude – I can totally camp. And 2 – this wasn’t really camping, it was definitely more like glamping.

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Behold, the inside of our safari tent

We settled in and I took a shower (I told you it was glamping). Despite the long day and the comfortable beds, I was so wired that I tossed and turned for quite some time. I finally fell asleep probably around 1.

And was awakened at 5am for our game drive! Now, I haven’t been getting great sleep overall – and I had only slept about two hours the night before – but I sprang up out of bed, ready for the day. And honestly, it’s really not so bad to get four hours of sleep when you’re greeted by this upon waking:

I mean, there are certainly worse ways to wake up, right?

So, we got up and had some tea and a biscuit, then loaded up into our truck to find some animals in the bush.

First off, even if we had literally seen no animals, the day still would’ve been completely worth it for the views of the scenery alone.

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Unfortunately, I’m not a talented enough photographer to really capture the insane beauty of the park, but the tranquility of driving through such awesome landscape could’ve been enough for me.

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But, I was fortunate enough that I was able to view such breathtaking beauty and see an abundance of wildlife.

First off – and I don’t have a picture because it turns out predators are really good at staying hidden – we saw two leopards. Our tour guide could hardly believe that it was my first game drive and I was able to see two leopards in the wild. She said that it was two years into being a game driver – meaning she looked for animals in the wild as a living – before she ever saw a leopard. Perhaps I’m not just an elephant whisperer, but a leopard whisperer as well.

Anyway, between the arranged game drive in the morning and our solo drive in our car, I saw a vast number of animals.

We had to break for a herd of wildabeest crossing the road:

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Traffic in Pilanesberg

Saw a pod of giraffes mixed in with some kudu and wildabeest:

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We came upon a large herd of zebra and watched as many of them paired off and nuzzled one another:

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We saw herds of impala everywhere:

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And my personal favorite – we watched a large bull elephant cross the road right in front of us:

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I am definitely an elephant whisperer

We ended our day with this elephant sighting, which I want to point out happened about five minutes from our exit gate. We could’ve gone back around the park and looked for a pride of lions, but seeing the elephant right there in front of us was such an exhilarating high that we figured we’d end the day on a high note.

All in all, despite the trouble of getting there, I really enjoyed my time in Pilanesberg and really liked the tented camp experience. My only complaint is that we were only able to stay one day and not two, but perhaps an experience for the next time I’m able to come to South Africa – whenever that might be.

Our time here in Johannesburg has mostly been taken up by meetings and eating the ridiculously delicious food at our hotel. The food is so good that I pull an angry face every time I bite into it. Angry at what, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps that this food exists and I’ve only just now eaten it and never will again? Who knows, my emotions are sometimes a mystery.

I have some thoughts about Johannesburg and South Africa as a whole ruminating around my brain, but I’m trying to sort them out a little bit more before committing them to written word. Tomorrow we have a work day and a meeting with an employer, but then we’ll head to the Apartheid Museum in Soweto. I think I’ll have a better handle on my thoughts and emotions after that, so I’ll just wait until tomorrow to get it all down.

For now, I’m going to take a benedryl and head to bed. We’ll see what day 14 of this trip brings!