Friday, August 19, 2011

Johannesburg Reborn

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." ---Nelson Mandela

It felt good to be back in South Africa. We flew from Victoria Falls into Johannesburg mid-day Thursday, and spent the afternoon catching up on emails in the hotel lobby. Dinner was at the hotel restaurant, an Irish Pub with outdoor seating, on a nice summer evening. We had Bass ale and more spicy curry stews--a clash of cultures that worked in this local cuisine.

The clash of culture works on a broader scale too, though South Africans of all stripes seem to have trouble believing it. They point out their differences, which are really great strengths. There's a colorful, powerful energy in this new country--its people just need to believe it.

Much of the country's success certainly comes from its tremendous early leadership. South Africa was lucky to have both Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk at the helm when apartheid crumbled--here were two men from opposing sides, working together for common purpose. They led the country peacefully through the rocky transition from apartheid to full democracy for all of South Africa's citizens. And they certainly earned their joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

"There can thus be no real peace without constant effort, planning and hard work. Peace, therefore, is not an absence of conflict or a condition of stagnation. Peace is a frame of mind."---F.W. de Klerk, from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. (Read the entire speech here--it's beautiful).

Their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a revolutionary method of conflict resolution, went a long way toward defusing the pent-up anger and resentment from 80 years of apartheid. If Mugabe was an example of extreme tyranny in Zimbabwe, De Klerk and Mandela were the radical opposite. Twenty years later, there is tremendous hope and progress in South Africa, while over the border Zimbabwe is sliding into anarchy. There could not be a greater disparity between two otherwise similar countries.

Our last days in South Africa were lessons in conflict and what can happen when justice is finally served, so that the people can move forward together. Know the past, be clear about what happened, but then leave it behind--this seems to be the theme of the new South Africa.

Friday we hopped in a tour van and made our way around Jo-burg, as the locals affectionately call their city. The tour had an apartheid theme, and we learned a lot. We started in Soweto. What a fascinating place! This is where the anti-apartheid movement was born--where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived, and where many prominent black politicians still keep a home.

Soweto isn't all slums. Many little homes were lovingly maintained, and construction for newly minted black professionals looked just like American housing tracts. Our tour guide, Sizwe, grew up and still lives in Soweto. He joked about the streets of mini-mansions, affectionately called 'Beverly Hills' by township residents.

Soweto today boasts good public services. Nearby is the largest public hospital in the world. The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is a good quality teaching hospital. And affordable too.

Nearby, the University of Johannesburg's Soweto campus provides excellent teaching in modern classrooms:

Our next stop was the Hector Pieterson Museum, a permanent exhibit on Soweto's student uprisings.

In June 1976, schoolchildren marched to protest newly minted education laws. The kids had many grievances with the government at the time, including forced instruction in Afrikaans. Older children, preparing for college and previously taught wholly in English, were suddenly being tested in Afrikaans. Good students were 'flunking' their college entrance exams.

Even children could see how unfair that was--it was the final straw.

The kids marched, and the government freaked out--if they couldn't control the children here, how could they pretend to control the blacks and coloreds in the rest of the country? They went in with tanks, dogs and live bullets. 500 people died in protests that day--Hector Pieterson, a 12-year old boy, among them.

We visited Regina Mundi church, famous as a gathering place for anti-apartheid politicians, and for sheltering kids from gunfire during the student uprising. You could still see the bullet holes in the walls, from the military crackdown in 1976.

The church is a symbol to many in the world of non-violent resistance--Bill and Hillary Clinton visited several years ago to honor the place where the end of apartheid began.

Beautiful stained glass tells the story of the black struggle for freedom. It all started here, in Soweto:

Mark made a vendor lady outside the church very happy with his purchase:

Our last stop that day was the Apartheid Museum. Here we got a thorough history lesson--compelling, and condemning. In the end, it was obvious to the rest of the world that South Africa had gone down the wrong path. The country was ostracized by the modern world with boycotts and international protests. To their credit, the South Africa's leaders made a conscious choice to change.

In 1886 gold was discovered on a farm here, and a gold rush was on. The mines were what brought the population to the region in the beginning--they're the reason for Jo-burg's very existence. And they still mine gold within the city limits:

We learned that, though so much has improved in South Africa in the past twenty years, some problems clearly remain--AIDS and crime are stil major issues here. But there's a surprisingly positive feel to the place.

People smile, they mix and mingle, they treat each other outwardly with a respect that's surprising. The country hosted a wildly successful World Cup tournament in 2010, with few speed bumps. It's clearly ready for the big-time.

Many people asked whether I felt safe while I was in Johannesburg. The city definitely had its problems in the '90s, as poor people flooded to the city center from the townships, and refugees from other war-torn African countries came for work.

But things seemed quite settled during our visit. I read later that the economy grew nicely through the 2000's. We saw the big commercial centers, with big banking and many mining companies headquartered here. It's also the largest 'dry' port in the world--I learned that half the country's imports arrive in Jo-burg for processing, after they leave its big seaports. There's a strong retail sector here (we visited one of the huge upscale malls that dot the suburbs when we saw 'The King's Speech' before our evening flight home). And the roads are well-lit and nicely paved.

Jo-burg is definitely grittier than Cape Town. It reminds me of New Jersey--bustling, traffic, people rushing off to work, colorful faces, power lines, highways, skyscrapers. In a word, robust.

The cooling towers of Soweto's own electric power plant:

To me, much of the beauty of Jo-burg lies in its strong economy, which creates a healthy standard of living for all. There's a sense that there's enough for everyone. The city isn't scary, it's exciting. There's so much change, and hope here--I expect to come back in twenty years and be startled all over again by the changes that I see.

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