As the plane dipped closer to the earth, I shoved my nose against the window pane like a puppy in the cab of a pickup. Flying over the southern portion of South Africa (SA), I expected signs of poverty and drought. Instead, swimming pools and golf courses dotted the landscape. I quizzed the fellow sitting beside me, a guy from Indiana who frequently flies to SA on business. He confirmed that there is little in the way of alternative energy in SA, despite the abysmal reliability of the existing energy grid.
“Of course, foreign corporations like mine rely upon private solar grids. You can’t do business with intermittent power.”
My stay in Johannesburg was brief and we never visited the downtown district. I was traveling with a group of birders. Our arrangements had been set up and vetted by the Intermountain Bird Observatory, an academic research and community outreach program of Boise State University. We lodged for the first three nights at the Outlook Lodge near the airport. My travel companions spent a morning at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden where they enjoyed their first view of the many endemic South African bird species that reside there.
Being the odd person out—the only non-birding traveler in a group of eight—provisions were made for me to visit the Apartheid Museum where I refreshed my memory of Walter Sisulu, the man—an anti-Apartheid activist who spent 25 years at Robben Island prison, along with Nelson Mandela and five other outspoken anti-apartheid activists. His entire adult life was dedicated to the liberation struggle.
The Apartheid Museum does an admirable job of consolidating the human history of the South African Region, from reproductions of early San (Bushmen) rock art that date back 26,000 years to current post-apartheid life. Every step of the way through the museum is designed to put visitors into the history of European colonization which subjugated the locals and installed racial segregation as the way of life. The stark ramp just outside the entrance is flanked by a wall of soccer-ball-sized rocks depicting the backbreaking labor in the mines that was forced upon the locals. The museum’s placement within a vast reconstructed veld, followed by miles of abandoned mine tailings, with the shimmering towers of the commercial city center rising in the distance, contextualizes the diverging paths of destruction and riches of a nation.
I spent three hours at the museum, but could easily have filled another hour. The most fascinating aspect of the museum for me was the section on Truth and Reconciliation, which was such a bold concept, a concept that has garnered mixed reviews, but one which I believe could have merit in many other devilish situations around the world.
I gained as much from the drive to and from the building as I did from the museum. My Xhosa driver was loquacious and opinionated. He has seventeen siblings and five mothers. He has one wife, two children and no desire for more of either. Although I doubt any of the Xhosa, Zulu, or Bantu people I encountered on this trip make a lot of money, most of them are educated. Guest services and maintenance workers represent a the SA middle class. These are the people who can afford a home, even if it is little more than a tin shack. There are plenty more who call the gutter home.
The unemployment rate in Johannesburg is 70%. In the entire Gauteng Province (province of gold) unemployment is 29%. The major industry in SA is coal, which explains the paucity of green energy and the brown haze that blocks the sky. We drove past Soweto and we drove past miles and miles of worse slums consisting of tightly packed tin squares with no plumbing. Oddly enough many of these slums did have some form of electricity and my driver told me that the slums are where the majority of solar energy is located. Nearly every corrugated tin shack sports a satellite dish. Gotta have soccer, ya know!
The most astonishing vision of Johannesburg was the sight of skinny, poorly clothed, often barefoot men and women pulling and/or pushing huge, wheeled carts of refuse over endless side streets and highways. I was too dumbfounded by this sight to take a photo. Imagine a wheeled cart at Home Depot large enough to transport a stack of sheetrock. Now imagine that cart with crude wire or mesh walls, stuffed ten feet high with found objects, and then covered with a tarp to keep it all together. Imagine hauling this load up and down hills for miles in search of what? More stuff to add or a buyer for the treasures therein? They were all on the move, hither and thither, looking tired, hungry, and old. It was heartbreaking.