Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cloudless Skies and A Trip Across South Africa

September 11 began with a beautiful dawn and not a single cloud in the sky.  We'd been unable to do tourist things like Table Mountain and Robben Island because of stormy of course the day we had no time for such things, perfect weather gleamed at us from every turn.  Travel days like this are like fate's stand-up comedy we just settled in to enjoy seeing the top of the mountain as we drove to our first meeting.

Our meetings were more impressive than a view from the mountain would have been, anyway.  The Parliament we visited today was completely different from the quiet, aloof building we're toured yesterday - today, people rushed from one room to the next with papers in hand, and journalists awkwardly pulled cameras through security screening machines (there was a big hearing on fracking in South Africa in a committee that morning).  TV screens above the elevators broadcast scheduled committee meetings and locations, and voices and laughter echoed through all the hallways.

I'd looked forward to our meeting with Lindiwe Mazibuko since the first moment I read about her - this woman is impressive.  She's my age (or younger, depending on whether you trust Wikipedia or other sources) and is already a dynamic force in South Africa's opposition party despite the fact that she did not start her youth with a political focus.  Her college studies started with music and through a fateful combination of boredom, travel and academic research, she ended up the Democratic Alliance's Parliamentary Leader.
I'll never forgive myself for blinking in this photo!

We were also honored to have our meeting crashed by Wilmot James, a long-time member of the DA and the national chairman of the party.  He casually mentioned that he got his post-doc from Yale (doesn't everyone?) and then sat in on our meeting.  He was humble and funny and lovely.
Our meeting wrapped up too soon because we had to head to the ANC's floor of offices to meet with the beautiful Joyce Moloi-Moropa, a high-ranking leader in the ANC though she is a member of the South Africa Communist Party.  (Multi-party systems never cease to provide confusion and addition to really good clues about a coalition's goals.)  This meeting, especially in comparison to the meeting with Lindiwe, helped me better understand the ANC-DA dynamic in this country.  Joyce is older than Lindiwe and is from Soweto, an area with a long history of poverty and racial oppression.  Unlike Lindiwe, most of Joyce's life was directly impacted by apartheid and it shows in her conversation.  Joyce focused on talk of the past, and the ANC's role in liberating South Africans from a horrific race-based societal structure; Lindiwe spoke of the future, and the need to consider whether the government can provide everything it promised to South Africans during the transition out of apartheid.  These conversations would be played out repeatedly during our time in Johannesburg.

We didn't get to see any soccer or rugby games while we were in South Africa, but I did manage to catch this shot of the edge of one of the stadiums build for the 2010 World Cup.  That's it in the distance, behind the guarded hotel wall. 

Hours of suitcase-laden travel and transitions, hurrying only to wait in another line until we arrived in Johannesburg just in time to experience that international phenomena that brings us all together under shared trials: rush hour traffic.
I'm glad we arrived when we did, though, because it was very interesting to see this moment in the life of Johannesburg: crowded streets, people walking to and from work and getting on and off buses.  It was hectic and urban and somehow, just a little oppressive in its impersonal vibe.

My relationship with Johannesburg did not improve throughout the evening, though I was grateful for my travel pals who created a lovely evening despite incompetent and rude hotel staff, grouchy taxi drivers and a consistent sense that people will go out of their way to be mean in this big city.
I'm grateful that we did not have the chance to verify the reports that we'd heard about Johannesburg being unsafe at night, though it meant we spent the evening at the much-overtouristed Nelson Mandela Square.

The people were unfriendly, but I did bond with the stuffed animals at The Butcher Shop.

And, after all, the minor irritations of travel in an unfriendly city were dwarfed by the reminder that this was September 11.  The movie with Nicholas Cage played on TV that night and our group shared somber memories of where we were when we learned that our country had changed forever.  I eavesdropped on the conversations of people walking on the street below my hotel window and wondered what the next day would bring as I enoyed the peaceful look a city has at night.


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