Our time in JoBurg, South Africa Feb. 2016


Level 2 Member
Our final days in South Africa
[Started on Feb. 29, finished March 2, 2016]

We are on our way home. The pilot just announced that the flight that was supposed to be 16 hours and 10 minutes will only be 15 hours and 22 minutes. So I have plenty of time to write

Once again I appear to have a row to myself, but I think a guy has his eye on the other aisle seat. I hope to be able to lie down and sleep, as I did on the way over, when I had all four seats to myself. For the moment, I have successfully staked out three. If I have to give up the fourth, so be it. Bob is in the row behind me, and his row of four has two empty seats. So we are quite comfortable, even if it is coach.

We spent the last three and a half days in Johannesburg, once again at the Radisson Blu Gautrain in Sandton. You may remember that we stayed there for the first few days as well, and our experience could not have been better. Like last time, we were upgraded to a business room and it was very comfortable. The business rooms come with complimentary breakfast. Usually we put little value on hotel breakfasts, preferring to explore the neighborhood and find a place where locals eat, but Sandton is a different story and we were grateful for the very ample buffet and delicious omelettes cooked to order each morning. The lattes were not quite up to Starbucks but the croissants were better than those I remember enjoying on trips to France. Being able to take the Gautrain from the airport to within a few meters of the hotel's entrance was terrific. And the Internet was very fast and never failed us, no matter where in the hotel we were, and even in the hours after we had officially checked out.

Lots of people who come to SA deliberately avoid JoBurg. They worry that it is unsafe, and they are drawn to the safaris of Sabi Sands or Kruger Park; the sites, beaches and restaurants of Cape Town; the delights of the wine country; or the vistas of the Garden Route. Bob had reasons to be in JoBurg - he met with a number of academics there - but even beyond that, we found our time in JoBurg and the people we spoke to there to be really valuable.

On one day, Bob had a meeting in the morning with a professor from the University of Wittswaterrand, which is usually referred to simply as Witts. In the afternoon was a meeting with a researcher who is affiliated with the U of Johannesburg. I tagged along. The morning meeting was in a coffee shop in a section of JoBurg called Melville, which is a mixed neighborhood where both blacks and whites live. In addition to sharing our impressions of SA and hearing about her decision to return to SA after many years away, she recounted what happened at Witts during the weeks of the "Fees Must Fall" protests. Like many of the social movements Bob studies, there were competing agendas and many moving pieces in what was ultimately a very successful effort.

We were surprised at how heavy a teaching load she has, even as a department chair. She described the students she teaches, as well as her classes, including her efforts to include African authors on the syllabi for her Media Studies courses, where there are very few such authors. A top tier school that was once predominately if not all white, the students tend to be more privileged than those at the newer colleges that have always been predominantly black. One class had 17 students: 13 blacks, 3 whites and 1 Indian, and all of the students' families had some kind of domestic help at home. In an economy where domestic help is a very low wage job and unemployment in the townships can be as high as 40%, she told us that even some of the people who work as domestics have their own domestic help.

In the afternoon, we met with someone who has done research on how the country's history, specifically the history of apartheid, is taught in the schools. She has also examined how this history is presented in the Apartheid Museum. She spoke of what seems to be an informal consensus among those who teach the history in schools; create museums; and even recount family stories to their grandchildren - that telling the extremely oppressive and bloody story of 20th century South Africa could cause animosity in the present, endangering SA's deliberate process of reconciliation and determined efforts to move forward. This sentiment was echoed by others, both black and white, who we encountered.

To put it mildly, this causes some, shall we say, peculiarities. In the classrooms she studied, students were taught that not every black was a victim and not every white was a perpetrator, and the curriculum in no way addressed the issues of who benefited. I am by no means an expert, but it stretches credulity to think that not all blacks were victims, and surely all whites benefited on some level or another, even if they were not the ones passing oppressive laws, jailing pass violators, and expecting their domestic workers to work long hours for a pittance. Indeed, some white South Africans chose to emigrate, because they could not abide the policies, they refused to serve in the army or they would not live in a country that was so oppressive and unjust. But now, teaching what happened seems to have becomea victim too.

Much as kids in US schools research their family tree and interview an elderly relative, one assignment required the students to interview someone they knew who experienced apartheid. If they could not find someone (!!!) they could instead invent a conversation that might have taken place between Stephen Biko and his captors. She found little difference between how the few black and more numerous white teachers approached the curriculum, and she reminded us that most teachers want to keep anger, dissent, and emotional outbursts to the minimum in their classrooms, another explanation for the, um, can I say whitewash?

The result is a rather incomplete history lesson. Since the mid 90s, the national strategy has been to move on; to follow Mandela's lead to reconciliation; to create a colorblind, rainbow nation. Maybe for now the history needs to be handled this way; maybe it is for the ultimate good of the country; maybe, like Moses in the desert with the generation of Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt, the protagonists of the apartheid era need to pass on. I don't know, but it sure left us hoping they can find a better way to teach history as they move beyond the first 20 years of South African democracy.

We went to the Apartheid Museum to see for ourselves - both the details of what happened and just how it was presented. A typical visit is 90 minutes to 2 hours but we tend to read everything so we spent about 5 hours. Initially I thought that my familiarity with the material tempered my reaction. But our researcher friend quoted a child's reaction to the museum that is telling: "They said we were going to cry but it was not that bad." Adult visitors, perhaps uplifted by the final displays of South Africans voting in the first democratic election, may even be up for a visit to the adjacent gambling casino or amusement part that shares the property. (Long story - to get the permits to allow a casino, the developer had to promise to build something that would increase tourism. The initial concept of a Freedom Village metamorphosed into the Apartheid Museum after the developer happened to visit the Holocaust Museum in DC. He quickly brought in some museum specialists and the museum took shape, under the watchful eye of the ANC old guard.)

I would certainly recommend that you go to see it, especially if you know little about SA during the 20th century, but I also hope that as SA matures, its scholars and leaders will be able to tell the tragic story in ways that are more true to what actually happened. I am reminded of the relatively new exhibit we saw on a plantation near New Orleans that tells the history of the Old South through the eyes of the slaves who actually lived and worked on that plantation. It was worlds apart from a plantation we visited in South Carolina about 30 years ago, where guides dressed as if they were about to go to a Gone With The Wind ball showed off the lovely furnishings of the main house, It took more than 100 years for an alternate plantation narrative to emerge in the states. The complex history of race in SA may have to wait a good number of years for its true re-telling too.

We also spent a few hours at the Origins Centre, after we decided that getting to the Cradle of Humankind was just too complicated. I almost majored in Anthro and so loved the early man exhibits, as well as those on the San people, who were the original inhabitants of Southern Africa. Their cave paintings, which predate those found in Europe, were fascinating, as were their dance and trance rituals. We watched a movie that showed the shaman elders performing these rituals, and then a video of the very same elders commenting on their experience. To hear them taking about their understanding of God was truly something I will never forget. I watched the video many times, and even took some pictures in hopes of capturing some of it, which I will share when we are home.

We were glad to have gone, but, like most of the other museums we saw in SA, we thought that the displays were not as user friendly as they could have been. Why? Captions were too too small; more often than not, videos playing in adjoining areas drowned out the videos we were trying to watch; displays were often too high up on the walls to read properly; rooms were dark; no maps were offered to guide your journey through; things we'd expected from checking the museums' websites were not as we found them; and so on.

Although I started this on the flight from JNB to JFK on Mon. Feb. 29, I am finishing it on Wed. Mar. 2, as we fly across the country to PDX. The stop in NYC was great. Not only did it break up the trip a bit, and give us the chance to handle some business we had to do in NY, but we got to spend a few hours with Michael, who we had not seen since Xmas. Despite a number of false fire alarms in the middle of the night (!!) that woke us up three times in 5 hours, we really liked the new IHG Hotel Indigo Lower East Side. We were clearly sleep deprived but we still had fun exploring the neighborhood, which is nothing like the LES I remember visiting as a kid, let alone what our great grandparents experienced there.

We would love to make a return trip to the neighborhood, and we will. They clearly had no idea who they were dealing with when I asked about compensation for all the bells in the night, offering a paltry 2000 points and a refund of the $25 early check in fee. "Surely you are kidding. An award night at this hotel runs about 50K," I told the first person I spoke to. "No, not that much," she said, "you may want to speak with the manager." Indeed I might. A quick check online indicated I was right, and when it became clear that the manager wasn't going to give me that many points, I negotiated a complimentary night in an upgraded room with no expiration date. Hopefully when we do come back, they will have worked out the kinks in the alarm system.

I have one more journal entry to write, to share a few more general impressions as well as some verbal vignettes describing people and things that didn't seem to fit in the narratives I have done so far. For now, thanks for reading. It's good to be home.