Saturday, September 29, 2012

Learning to Live with Joburg

The best thing about group travel, as I learned this summer, is that it lets you get out of a "slump" much faster.  When you arrive in a new city that doesn't exactly throw out the welcome mat for you, or that annoys you in countless small ways, it helps a lot to have friends to help you shake it off and move past it.  (Perhaps I would have had a whole different experience in Verona, Italy if I'd had a group with me?  I'll never know...or want to know. I loved that solo trip.)  A new day dawned in "Joburg," I dined on a ridiculously large plate of fresh guava with my breakast companion Laura, and left the hotel with a renewed determination to give this city a chance.
The first Favorite Thing I found (besides that plate of guava!) was this advertising/news contraption that is placed along the middle of the main roads in Johannesburg. 
It was hard to tell if the news was current because the headlines were all for insiders and didn't feature world events. This one from The Star read "Hawks' Polela in Papgeld Pickle." It wasn't until I got home that I learned it was, indeed, very current: McIntosh Polela is a spokesperson for the Hawks, a special unit of the South African Police, whose "pickle" was craeted when the mother of two of his six children recently publicized his failure to pay child support (called "papgeld" in South Africa). He complained about the public inspection of his private life in an interview recently, saying it is "an orgy of voyeurism." Not even Hollywood celebrities get that creative in their complaints!  Now I really wish I had jotted down that headline about the minister's toilet!  (On second thought, that one probably wasn't as entertaining as Polela's papgeld - the toilet thing is serious.)
Does someone place various newspapers in the middle of the street every day? Every week?  I have no idea but it's a fascinating concept.  Perhaps the Arizona Republic should print headlines like this that make people want to know the news instead of charging to read their articles online? Just a (bitter) thought.
When I saw the schedule for our time in South Africa, I was most excited about this: a tour and meetings at the Gauteng Provincial Legislature.  There are nine provinces in South Africa, and they're similar to our state governments; Johannesburg is the largest city within the Guateng Province, and the region is an economic powerhouse of the country.  (The term "economic capital" is often used...perhaps because Joburg is bitter it didn't achieve political capital status?  There are actually three governmental capital cities in Cape Town: Cape Town is the legislative capital, Bloemfontein is the judicial capital, and Pretoria is the executive capital.  Our tour guide in Parliament quickly mentioned a study the government had done to determine whether the legislative capital should be closer to the other two but that the results hadn't been published yet.  No one, he assured us, has ever considered moving the other capitals closer to Cape Town.  I'd judge, but Arizona deliberately moved its capital from the close-to-perfect Prescott to the hot-and-hectic Phoenix so clearly we're not the leaders in logic on that point.)
The legislature was not outstandingly grand, though it certainly looks it in this photo.  It's in the middle of an urban city, where buildings are close together and many have beautiful European architecture like this one - both a tribute to and reminder of the colonization that wreaked havoc on this continent for so many years. 

A state legislature and a columned building? Just another happy day at work for this girl.
The time we spent at this legislature far exceeded even my high expectations, and overall was one of the most fun meetings we had on our whole trip.  A deputy speaker determined to insult and offend everyone in the room even while smiling, a brilliant team of staff who nervously watched every time the deputy speaker attempted to insult and offend, two lovely representatives of the opposition parties who laughed off any insults, and an official photographer so determined to capture professional portrayals of our meeting that I began to feel like the paparazzi had arrived.  We learned a lot (but not enough - I have more research to do!) about the role of provincial legislatures and local governments, and got to see both the strong friendship and pent-up venom that exist between members of opposing political parties here. 
In the middle is the Deputy Speaker, Uhuro Moiloa
One of my favorite people in all of South Africa: Glenda Steyn, the Whip for the Democratic Alliance in this legislature.  She's Scottish and proved to be feisty, very smart and dangerously funny.

Lydia Meshoe is a preacher, and I could tell after exactly 30 seconds of talking to her - this woman is entertaining.  She didn't talk much but when she did she never stopped smiling.  Google her and you'll find videos of her preaching - now THAT I wish I could have seen in person!  Lydia and her husband founded the African Christian Democratic Party, and he serves as an ACDP Member in Parliament.  Lydia singlehandly represents the party in the Gauteng Legislature but there are other members of the ACDP elected across South Africa.

All three of these elected officials - and some of their staff - accompanied us on our tour of the Legislature, much to our delight and the chagrin of the tour guide who repeatedly lost control of the group as we wandered behind the officials rather than the guide.
The floor of the legislature clearly demonstrates both the history of the region and the enormous number of elected officials in this governmental body.
If we didn't have the Consulate staff there to keep us on schedule I'm pretty sure we would have stayed here all day - we left amidst good-natured accusations from the opposition party members that Mr. Moiloa had deliberately toured only the ANC offices and not their own.  I was sad to leave, especially when I discovered that we were there on "information day," when groups set up in the lobby to provide information about the legislature and important issues.
I would have been eager to get on the bus, however, if I'd known what the rest of the day would bring our way - this was the day that helped me understand our presence really could make a difference, and that brought friendships I hope to continue despite the ocean that keeps us apart.
We started at the University of Johannesburg.  I've reached the age where I feel old on college campuses, and being there in a suit didn't help matters at all.  I loved being at the University, though, which has approximately 50,000 students (divided between several campuses) and a lot of enthusiasm.  We filed into a conference room filled with the kind of awkward silence that exists at the beginning of a meeting...but the silence didn't last long.

I loved these students.  Many were elected to the Student Representative Council, others were active in a political party - all of them were engaged and well-informed.  The room quickly filled and it wasn't until after the meeting I learned that some waited in the hallway for over an hour to meet us because the room got too crowded.  "Humbling" doesn't even begin to describe it.
The students' questions covered many topics and varying levels of understanding of and resentment toward American elections and foreign policy (I'll cover the questions we received in another post).  It's hard to summarize a great discussion, but I'll give it a try: we all learned more about each others' views and convictions in a very short amount of time.  Then, as new friends, we ate finger foods and continued our debates until the Consulate staff had to drag us out again to keep us on schedule.
One of my absolute favorite moments of the trip...and if you look carefully, in the background you can see Michael convincing a student that Republicans aren't evil.
We left a friendly, crowded room to meet with quiet, not-yet-friendly glances from members of the African National Congress' Youth League at the library in the Consulate. 

These men were activists who dedicated their lives not only to politics but - in a way I don't think most Americans can totally understand - to one political party. To be a leader in the ANC you publicly prescribe to all of the party's positions on issues - no picking and choosing like we opinionated Americans.  "You cease to be an individual," summarized one. These men serve as local elected officials in various areas around Johannesburg for the ANC and are heavily involved in the ambitious ranks of national party leadership.
The ideological walls that divided us at the beginning of the meeting dissolved a little throughout our discussions. They learned that not all Republicans carry machine guns into foreign countries and that we don't actually have dollar signs in our eyeballs; we learned that under their tough façade they are fiercely loyal men who work for what they believe is best for those around them.  (For the record, though, I'm still not satisfied with transparency standards for ANC finances.)
The amazing woman on the right joined us late in the meeting and I wish I could have visited with her for a week - she was just as devoted to the ANC as her male counterparts but had a friendly, caring vibe that mixed with her amazing intellect.
This was the one time I did not mind when the Consulate staff had to end a meeting to move to the next, because all our new friends came with us.  We continued our conversations while we walked to a nearby rooftop restaurant that overlooked one of the most amazing sunset views I've ever seen.  (Lesson learned: I like Joburg only from a Spiderman-style viewpoint!)

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