Thursday, March 23, 2006

South africa - One Week sojourn

Visit to any new country always evokes a curiosity. South Africa was also no exception. This was my first visit to any country in southern hemisphere where summer occurs from December to February and winter from June to August. For me, it was the end of the summar and beginning of winter. Second part of the curiosity was to hear stories about apartheid. A word, not english but come from Africaans meaning ‘separation’.

My visit was to cover cape town and johanneburg. The word ‘ cape of good hope’ brought memories of history school book british/portugese/spanish seafarer’s pictures (sea bandits under royal tutelage !!) on the edge of their wooden warships with single lens telescope in search of an Indian coast but would give up the chase assuming as a dead end of the earth. Other than apartheid, rugby, cricket, mahatma gandhi’s ashram in durban and in recent years mugging stories and cape wines; I had not much of inkling what to expect in this visit.

Arrival at J’burg( that’s what locals call) airport tarmac, cool air filled my lungs . It is so energetic to be in a climate that of 20-25degree. Transfer from international to domestic is much the same manner as of Delhi airport, wherein you walk with luggage trolley. But similarity ends there.Domestic airport is modern, spacious and convenient with parking building adjacent to the airport and wide conveyor belt escalators instead of cramped electric elevators and staircase escalators. It doesn’t take long to notice that 90% of the airborne passengers are whites while 90% airlines staff across the counters are black. Construction workers are all black.The economic gap was evident in stark contrast.

My Park Inn hotel in CapeTown was in down town – next to the green market open square. By morning, local africans would set up shops selling wooden african art and dismantle by the evening. Pebbled streets, rectangular criss cross of roads leading to the green turfed table mountain- this is very much an western eurpoean city. In the evening, walking past deserted streets with closed shops with an exception of multicuisine restaurants filled with foreigners, I felt I was in Germany or Austria. But fear of mugging was always at the back of my mind. Hotel room too resembled european touch, small room with space just to fit suitcase, dressing table, ward robe but with coiled heater along the large rectangular window panes gave me a feeling of being in Nice in France. Most of my two days went in attending conference at Hotel Cape and cocktail parties in the evening. I heard from everyone about waterfront, cable car ride to the table mountain, boat ride to the confluence of atlantic and indian ocean to see sharks, driving past vineyards along the Cape Region Wine route and the list went on. I was disappointed of not sightseeing any of these exotic places in Cape Town in this trip but with the emerging business prospects, it is just matter of time I make another trip to this wonderful place soon.

J’burg – is a huge city and remarkably different than most capital cities. Nowhere, I come across any capital city with huge expansive undulating mountainous landscape as this city. Roads are big, classy and houses are immaculate with courtyard in the front. City is green and grass is well mowed. This place is very American in every way. Seeing black population all around – one feels of being in Louisiana or any other lower American states. I was staying in Sandton- a place that has many restaurants, shopping boulevards and hotels. Visit to Nelson Mandela square was memorable. This square is like Brussels plazza or Pompidou Square in Paris with huge 6 meter Nelson Mandela statue sculpted in bronze. There is a public library on one side, chain of Italian, Thai, Mexican and specialty cuisine restaurants on two sides with adjacent modern mall. The ambience inside is like being in Japanese but devoid of any paintings or murals. A friend of mine mentioned “they would be pilfered the very next day”. Next to the square is tall hotel building “Michael Angelo” that can be noticed across far flung areas of J’burg.

An unexpected public holiday in the form of Human Rights Day gave me an opportunity to see the countryside of South Africa with an opportunity to mingle with South African Indians and observe their lifestyle. I visited the place ‘brits’ a place app. 90min drive from J’burg on way to Pretoria. Journey to ‘brits’ can never be tiring with green tops stretching to the horizon with winding roads along the hilly areas give panoramic view. Most of the tall trees appear along the mountain ridge thereby giving a clear and unrestricted view of the expansive landscape. The greenery is not as lush as in Scotland but its very soothing green with tinge of yellow. Most of the townships are row of houses huddle together with red tile roof.

As one approach ‘Brits’ one gets strong feeling of colonial presence. I was told that this place was a nerve center of white regime and center of apartheid. Mountains here appear to have been cut and sculpted in perfection. Crocodile reservoir with a monument similar to ‘arc de triumph’ along the bridge of sluice gate of dam is very picturesque. Indian ness among Indian origin descendents is preserved everywhere in the world but current south African Indian community who are past their fourth generation and with no link whatsoever with India have nurtured cultural and religious beliefs despite being adapted modern lifestyle. I was touched when a teenage boy carrying the key chain with an emblem of ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ and referring him as’ Gandhi Bapu’. The word ‘Gandhi Bapu’ somehow evoked more filial feeling than ‘Mahatma Gandhi’, an overused term by Indian corrupt politicians. A ride around Brits Township gave me a glimpse of lifestyle prevailing during apartheid regime. White, Black and Indian townships were clearly separated across railway lines. White on one side and others on the opposite. A school in Indian township resembled my very own school in bandra, with faded yellow plastered walls and wooden beams supported by red (now become crimson- black) colored tiles. White township has a layout with bigger shops, parking lots. Road along the railway line of the black community, had shops under one story row of cement blocks that sold anything from automobile parts to indian garments. It brought images of “cry the beloved country”. What I liked about the South African young generation – be it white or others is a mindset to address the issue of apartheid without an inhibition but with an objective insight. It’s a good sign to bury the past by getting out of one’s system of prejudices and hatred that was ingrained over the generations. I wish Indian’s do the same about ‘casteism’ that is deep rooted in our society.

I was relieved when I returned from brits before the sunset. As soon as I arrived in the room, I took away my wallet, mobile and watch. Just took little local currency and sped across the street to reach ‘select’ store of ‘shell ‘petrol pump to buy stuff for my next day breakfast. Hardly have I ever been so conscious of anyone around me waiting to get me mugged!!. This fear was nurtured by everyone in my one week stay in South Africa. It’s no news to get mugged at traffic signal by some lunatic holding a gun against your head only to attempt to rob a mobile phone or pull the trigger if he is unable to do so.

What a pity !! Such a beautiful country and people with democratic norms, yet one can’t venture out freely after dusk. In my weeklong stay in South Africa, two events occupied print space. First was accusation of rape by former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma on a woman – an HIV carrier and an unbelievable one day cricket victory. One that showed degenerative ugly face of south Africa and the other resurging, vivacious future of south Africa. I believe this country is torn between the two. I hope bridging the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is the answer to the economic prosperity of this wonderful country and people.


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