OK, my last blog, Iran: Give Peace a Chance had an inaccuracy – I said it would be my last blog for the year. But with the passing of Nelson Mandela, I realized I had a story I wanted to tell, reflecting on my experiences in South Africa under Apartheid, in 1984-85. In a past blog, My Journey from Atheist to A Better Story, Part 2, I wrote a bit about my 2 year journey around the world. In 1983 I went through my second divorce, and then my partners and I sold our bar and restaurant. Suddenly free from any obligations and with comfortable finances I thought about what I really wanted to do next. I decided I wanted to see the world, and take one year to travel around the world, traveling with a backpack and staying in hostels. I was in my young 30s, and thought it would be best to make such a journey while I was still young enough to enjoy it, and endure it. That was a wise decision – that journey was the most memorable journey in my life. That one year journey turned into well over two years; and a large reason is that I took a break in the middle to live and work in Apartheid South Africa for 8 months. That 8 months is also some of my more vivid memories.
My journey began in the fall of 1983 with a flight from JFK to London. During the fall I made my way down through western Europe to Greece and then Israel. The New Year found me in Egypt, and then I followed the Nile until it couldn’t be followed anymore – the source of the (White) Nile in Rwanda. Then through the Great Rift valley, via steamer ship down Lake Tanganyika to Zambia, and then to Zimbabwe by way of Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe was frankly depressing. By this time I’d seen plenty of dirt poor Africa, but the people still had laughter, and smiles. In Zimbabwe the dirt poor had no smiles, no laughter, no hope for a better future. Zimbabwe is a former white ruled African colonial state turned to majority rule that has been a failure by pretty much any measure. Zimbabwe has been ruled by Robert Mugabe since majority rule, and Mugabe has ruled as a dictator. And Mugabe never overcame his resentment of white repression. Instead of reaching out to his country’s white population, instead of reassuring them they had a safe and fair future in the new majority rule nation as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa, Mugabe seized their land and assets and kept the best for himself and gave the rest to his family and political friends. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has been the opposite of the spirit and great leader of his new nation that Nelson Mandela was.
After nearly six months of traveling through Africa and Zimbabwe, South Africa was a refreshing change. At first look, 1984 South Africa had a European feel to it – modern cities with skyscraper building, modern roads and freeways, supermarkets and stores where you could buy whatever you wanted. It’s when you took a closer look that you saw the gross inequality that was unsustainable. One thing that struck me as strange was that the sales tax was 16%, and it was applied to everything, including food. After a few questions I figured it out – other taxes – income, property, etc. were low. But with such a high sales tax while the African majority made meager earnings, as they spent it on the basic necessities of food and shelter they paid the majority of taxes. They just had no voice in how those taxes were applied and spent. The owner of a hostel I stayed at in Johannesburg was one of the most vile men I ever met. Why he was usually not unpleasant with his (all white) guests, he constantly screamed and yelled at his African staff, berating them for not working fast or hard enough, or not doing something well enough for his satisfaction. His usual curse was “stupid, lazy bloody kaffir!” The word ‘kaffir’ comes from the Arabic ‘kafir’, which means ‘infidel’. In apartheid South Africa it was a derogatory racial term, the equivalent of using the ‘n-word’ in America. But when called a ‘kaffir’ in apartheid South Africa, the target’s only recourse was to try to not anything to encourage further abuse.
In 1983 I was a non-political moderate independent. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, I had never had much direct interaction with people of color, and honestly didn’t have much of opinion on race relations. I graduated high school in the ‘summer of love’, 1969, and the first few years after high school I was too busy making love and being in altered states. Then as I had success in business, I focused on making money. In other words, in my early adult years I was focused on myself, mostly unconcerned about others. I’d heard of Nelson Mandela and his imprisonment and, again, didn’t have much of an opinion on that. It was during my travels and my time in South Africa that I began to form my opinion on life, on politics, and on equality. I’ve always like to think it changed for the better. The one thing that struck me was how friendly, courteous and respectful that black South Africans were to me, a Caucasian of Irish and English descent. I can honestly say I never met a single African through my travels in Africa, and South Africa in particular that didn’t greet me with friendship and treat me as a welcome guest. From ‘Jo’burg’, as the locals called Johannesburg, I traveled south to Durban, hitchhiking. Durban reminded me somewhat of Florida – located on the Indian Ocean cost it is semi tropical, with great beaches, lots of palm trees, and colorful bougainvillea everywhere. From Durban I set out hitchhiking for Cape Town. The second day of travel found me pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was late afternoon, and as the few passing cars sped past without slowing down I grew concerned and considered my options. I had a sleeping bag in my pack and the weather was decent with no chance of rain. I considered going off in the brush and camp there for the night, I just wasn’t sure what kind of wild animals might be around. After awhile a small pickup went past, the bed was loaded down with Africans. It slowed to a stop, and then a face and an arm emerged from the passenger window, beckoning me to come to them. I have to admit I was apprehensive, but I walked up to them. The young African lady in the passenger side looked me over. “Why are you here?” she asked in a disapproving voice. I explained that I was visiting from America. She looked at me skeptically. “You are from America and you cannot afford a car, or to even pay for a bus ticket?” I explained that I preferred to hitchhike, as I got to meet the local people. She looked me over again, and turned to the man driving, and they spoke back and forth, and then she turned back to me. “It will soon be night, and this place is not safe.” She nodded to the hills in the distance. “There are lions and hyenas in those hills. Come with us, we will take you to a place where you will be safe for the night.” I thought it over for a few seconds, and decided to trust them. I climbed into the pickup bed and found a place to sit. My companions looked at me curiously as the pickup started down the road.After a few miles they pulled into small rural store with a single gas pump, and a few surrounding small buildings. The lady went inside, and I could hear bits of an occasional loud discussion. After a few minutes she emerged with a middle aged African man. “For 7 Rand this man will feed you dinner and breakfast tomorrow. You can sleep in the cabin over there” she said, nodding to one of the small out buildings. That was less then $5, and I quickly agreed. I thanked the young lady profusely, and she smiled and nodded as they drove back the way they came. The man took me over to the cabin. It was very spartan, with a dirt floor, single cot, and no indoor plumbing. The man explained the outhouse was out back, I could wash up in the store, and dinner would be served in one hour. I spread my sleeping bag out on the cot, and placed my flashlight on the floor next to the bed, in case I needed to use that outhouse during the night. When I walked into the store to join them for dinner, the man showed me to their living quarters in the back. A wooden table was set with bowls, with a large pot in the center. Several children were seated on the benches on the sides, ranging from a few years old to 12 or 13. The man motioned for me to take a seat at the end of a bench next to him, and his wife dished up a stew of meat, potatoes, and some other vegetables. It was very good. We ate in silence, and it was clear to me that they were all uncomfortable with a white man under their roof. I decided to try to break the ice with the young children, and made some silly faces that got them to laugh. Soon we were all laughing, and all was good. The next morning we had a breakfast of mealie, which I pretended to enjoy, and then I thanked the man sincerely, and told him it had been an honor to had been to be their guest. He smiled and nodded, and I walked down the road in search of a good spot to wait for a ride. I’ll take a moment to explain about ‘mealie’ – it’s a food stable throughout southern Africa. It’s most often served as breakfast, but for the very poor it can be their primary source of nutrition. Mealie is coarsely ground corn meal, cooked until it has the consistency of a porridge, or like cooked oatmeal. I didn’t care for it as I don’t care for food with a mushy consistency, and it’s very bland. But, it is filling.
I made it to Cape Town, two days later. One of my rides really stood out. The driver was an Afrikaner. The whites in South Africa mostly fall into two groups – Afrikaner, descendants of conservative Dutch settlers and French Hugoenots refugees, who fled Catholic persecution in France. They make up around 60% of the white population, the rest are mainly descendants of British settlers. The conversation with my young Afrikaner driver started pleasantly enough. He was pleased that I was visiting from America, and hoped I would stay, and invite my friends and family to join me – South Africa needed more white people, he explained. He spoke bitterly about Nelson Mandela, calling him a ‘terrorist’ and ‘communist’, and explained that those around the world who were calling for him to be released from prison were ‘misinformed’, or communists. Then he hit me with something I have never forgotten. He said the Afrikaners had made a ‘huge mistake’, that they should have done what we did in America, and what the Brits did in Australia. When I looked at him thoroughly confused he explained: “You and the Aussies killed off most of your natives. You killed off most of the Indians and Aborigines, so that they’re only a small minority and can’t cause you any problems. Our big mistake was letting too many of the bloody kaffirs live. If we had killed off most of them like you and the Aussies did, we wouldn’t be having all these problems.” He ended the conversation by telling me he was going up to South-West Africa to join in the fighting. South-West Africa is what the now independent Republic of Namibia was known as when it was a province of South Africa, and in the 1980s there was an ongoing armed struggle for independence. When I asked him why he wanted to go there he shrugged and said he wanted to “go hunting for kaffirs”. It was one of the most chilling conversations I’ve ever had. I do not suggest this guy’s views are representative of Afrikaners, it was just his views, and he happened to be Afrikaner. (You can tell by the accent – South Africans of British descent speak English with an accent somewhere between a British and Australian accent, Afrikaners speak English with the accent of a German speaker.)
Cape Town is one of the most pleasant cities I have visited. The city and area have a San Francisco / Northern California feel to it, just not nearly so hectic or crowded. It is similar to northern California in climate and geography, and has large wine country that has produced world class wine, particularly reds – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage and Shiraz – since almost two hundred years before the California Gold Rush. I spent several weeks enjoying and exploring the area, and then headed back to Jo’burg. My plan was to buy a plane ticket to Bombay India (now known as Mumbai) and continue my journey. But I happened to notice a large ad in an English language newspaper promoting the opening of a new hotel in Sun City, the Cascades Hotel. And the ad mentioned they were accepting applications for ‘European’ management positions. At that time Sun City was promoted as the ‘Las Vegas of southern Africa’, about 100 miles northwest of Jo’burg. Gambling was illegal in South Africa, but Sun City was a resort in the ‘Republic’ of Bophuthatswana. In an attempt to buttress it’s policy of apartheid, the South African government established an number of tribal “homelands”, which it claimed were independent countries. Bophuthatswana was the homeland for the Tswana tribal Africans. The idea was loosely based on the original American policy of Native American reservations – push natives onto a separate homelands, and claim they are not citizens of the European dominated nation. No other Western government recognized these African homelands as separate countries, but within South Africa they were. They made their own laws, and among them several followed the Native American concept of allowing gambling, to generate income for the benefit of their people. Sun City followed the Vegas concept exactly – gambling was the main attraction, but also develop entertainment venues to bring folks in, in hopes that while they’re there they drop plenty of money on the slots and tables. Freddie Mercury and his rock group Queen were giving a concert in a few weeks (and I got to see them!). I thought it sounded interesting, and the ad noted that accommodation and meals were provided, and it would give me a chance to restock the bank account for the remainder of my travels. And I already had several years of experience in bar and restaurant management. I went up for an interview, and they called me the next day to offer me the job of manager of a restaurant, the Fig Tree Cafe, which I accepted. It was very interesting. I shared an on premise 3 bedroom apartment with a German chef and Austrian Maitre D’. The management was almost entirely international – in the ‘high end’ restaurants the wait staff was mostly Italian. German speakers ruled the kitchens, Germans, Swiss and Austrians. The British dominated management. I was the only American that I met working in Sun City. Sun International, owner of the resort hired Europeans for new hotels, in the belief we would treat the Tswana African staff with respect, and they emphasized in our orientation that a large part of our job was to train the Tswana staff, to prepare them for eventually assuming our positions. I interviewed and hired my Tswana staff. As my cafe was considered ‘casual dining’, my wait staff would be Tswana. I hired those who were proficient in English, the only language spoken while on the job in Sun City, and those who seemed to be professional, and who took care in personal appearance. It ended up being almost entirely women who were hired as wait staff, and mostly men for the busser staff. On my first day of orientation training for my staff I introduced myself, and told them I was from America, and that I was very happy and honored to be a guest in their country. They seemed to appreciate that. As I thought about what to say next, I decided to tell them what was now firmly and deeply within my heart:
“And I want you to know that I believe this means absolutely nothing” I told them, as I raised my arm and pulled at my skin. “And this means nothing” I said, as I tugged at my hair. I put my hand over my heart, and patted it. “The only thing that matters is what in here. And what is in here.” I tapped my forehead.
I never had a more devoted, motivated staff. As I re-read and edited this the thought came to me that this part might come off as ‘schmaltzy’ or worse, self-serving. But it is the honest truth, as are all the personal encounters I have told here. Because while I was thinking of what to say to my staff, I thought of that hostel owner in Johannesburg. His African staff knew exactly what he really thought of them, and I wanted my Tswana African staff to know exactly what I really thought of them.
My experience in South Africa under apartheid in 1984 was a real eye opener for me, and taught me things I have never forgotten. Thank you, Mr. Mandela, for what you did for your country, and your people. After brutal repression and 27 years of cruel imprisonment, you soared so high above it all, forgiving, and leading your new country skillfully and so successfully through the difficult transition to democratic participation of all its people. You are truly an inspiration for the ages. And your inspirational leadership couldn’t have happened to a more wonderful country and deserving people. All of them. Hopefully Mr. Mandela managed to teach even that guy who gave me a ride on the way to Cape Town a thing or two.
Once again, Happy Holidays
Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards All