South Africa

JanUARY 25 — FEBRUARY 15

After a layover in Cairo, we landed in Johannesburg. Utterly sleep deprived, and still dealing with jetlag from the trip to France from San Francisco. We were ready to join our Airbnb, but first things first: we needed to get our rental car. Anaïs, who risks getting sick in a car unless she steers, took it upon herself to drive. Mind you she had little experience driving stick, and we were driving on the left side of the road in a country where driving can be a little hectic. We eventually made it to our Airbnb, located in a rather posh and hip area of Johannesburg named Melville. Our hosts were very welcoming and eager to get to know us. One thing caught our attention instantly however: upon parking our car, we were handed a remote control to open the heavy metal gate of the property. It had six or eight buttons and one of them, a red button, was the panic button if ever we got into trouble. Feigning naivete, we asked why we might need that. We were told that the police had ‘other priorities’ than helping out white people and tourists. The comments would make a little more sense as we learned about the political climate in South Africa but at that moment, we found it baffling that things could be so dysfunctional that secluded, wealthy, white people would need to resort to private, armed security to get around town.

As we walked around the neighborhood, we noticed one feature shared by nearly every house: electric fences and barbed wire. The neighborhood seemed very quiet and safe. How could such protections be warranted? It made us wonder if people weren’t slightly paranoid about the actual risks they faced. We asked our first Airbnb hosts what it was all about. They mentioned a common fantasy, the ‘night of a thousand knives’, in which Black South Africans would storm the castle and oust the egregiously rich white folk from the country forever. They conceded this was total paranoia, but reminded us that the violence Johannesburg experienced in the nineties was still vivid for many and that a relapse of sorts was a latent fear.

Visiting Johannesburg’s Apartheid museum was an eye opener on South Africa’s rich history and political culture. I never knew there was a difference between segregation and apartheid. Segregation is the de facto separation of ethnic groups and apartheid is its institutionalization.

South Africa was originally colonized by the Portuguese. It was a strategic resupplying station on the way to India. The Dutch and the British exchanged control of The Cape a few times, but the Brits grabbed it more durably which forced the Dutch to expand further to the East and North. There were more Dutch in South Africa than there were Brits generally speaking, which is why so many of the names of cities are not English. In the early 20th century, South Africa declared independance not on request of the native South Africans, but on request of the Dutch who wanted out of the commonwealth. The language Afrikaans is a bifurcation of Dutch, very similar to modern Dutch, to my understanding. I can even understand some of it because of the German I studied in school. Afrikaans was the language of the ruling white class in South Africa. I find it ironic that they named their new language based on the continent that is home to people they subjugated. That’s as if French settlers in West Africa spoke a dialect of French and called it Africain. What a slap in the face!

In the 50s, the national party, lead by the white Dutch took over and institutionalized segregation. The situation worsened very quickly for Blacks until things came to a head, a revolt ensued and Mandela was elected President in ‘94. The rights of all minorities were restored in the eyes of the law but Blacks still have a long way to come in order to achieve the standard of living that whites do in South Africa. The economic transformation did not follow the political transformation. This is true despite the massive population imbalance of South Africa, with roughly 80% of the country being Black and 9% being white.

South Africa is unique in that it is, to my knowledge, the only former colony that has obtained independence yet where socio-economic status is still so starkly divided along racial lines. One would be tempted to describe whites in South Africa as a ruling class but there is a caveat: they do not have political power anymore. They rule in the sense that a majority of Blacks live in poverty while whites enjoy the standard of living comparable (often better!) than the whites of industrialized nations. Most white people in South Africa work well paying jobs and I have never seen a white person working as a maid, a gas station clerk, a waiter, etc.

According to a couple of friends we met in Durban through Hearthstone. The ANC, South Africa’s leading political party, has gone downhill since Mandela left power. This is also something I have heard from whites in multiple instances (our Airbnb host during our stay in Joburg and the b&b owner in Port Saint John’s) but the Indian couple we met in Durban also mentioned this. According to them, party elites and local government are corrupt and mismanage their resources. Allegedly, they remain in power by buying votes of rural uneducated citizens (by throwing parties, of all things).

This prompted me to ask about any opposition to the ANC. The Democratic Alliance is apparently a multi ethnic group (the ANC is nearly exclusively Black only from what I gathered) that now holds about a third of seats in parliament. They control regions like Cape Town which is apparently all too obvious when you compare The Cape to a city like Durban.

I must admit that I got a really strange vibe from Durban. The city felt unwelcoming, grim, rasp, chaotic, dirty and poor except for some small pockets of wealth. The Indian siblings we met on the beach promenade next to the sand sculptures outright said: you are wasting any time spent in Durban.

Every region of South Africa we have been to had a very distinct feel to it. KwaZulu-Natal of which Durban is the capital did seem like it was very marked by its Zulu heritage in terms of its ethnic makeup. Traveling through the Transkei had its own vibe, with its derelict steep roads and chaotic villages. Driving through those areas really made it feel like we were in the poverty stricken Africa TV images had sold us prior to arriving. Those areas were very remote and driving through those streets as a non-Black person was an intense experience. People would knock at our car windows and stare at us almost in disbelief: ‘what are you doing here?’ their stare seemed to ask. This experience culminated in the night we spent at Port Saint John’s. I booked the highest rated place on Booking.com which was conspicuously cheap. Despite the spectacular arrival through a small hamlet dubbed ‘the gate’ (a river flowing through two lush, towering cliffs), the rest was a little offsetting. Through the rain, we followed a battered road that lead us deep along the Indian coast. The battered road transformed into a muddy path that our anemic Hyundai struggled to follow. The sign to our hotel pointed towards a slippery, rocky grade covered in jungle flora. The reception had no counter, a scruffy-looking middle aged woman greeted me with her young son screeching in the background. She escorted us towards the house. It was a cold, musty, space that looked like it had been decorated as part of an arts and crafts class. We slept in the mezzanine with our laundry soap bar out to negate the smell. The bathroom had no soap, the bathtub had no shower head. The wifi provided by satellite was weaker than our 3G at most times and even got interrupted as it ran out of data (but late enough for Anais to download an episode of the X-Files!).

We darted out of there in the morning, but not before I could ask the hostess some questions about this intriguing area. I learned that her employees were paid 80 South African Rand (ZAR), roughly $5 per day, and that minimum wage in the countryside was 1800 ZAR a month which is just north of $100. My mind reeled: how can you live on that much money? As I was pondered this fact, the owner (white but obviously poor herself, although not as poor as her staff, to be sure) blurted out excuses explaining how little people need in order to get by in the countryside. I wondered out loud if the nation could sustain itself if the minimum wage were raised. She ventured that the jobless rate would go up even more (~25% currently) and that many businesses would shut down. She also blamed corrupt local government.

As we made our way towards our next destination, East London, the weather cleared up, the roads smoothened. We tried to stop at our Airbnb reservation but couldn’t check in yet, so we went to a restaurant called Sanook. Their ostrich burger was excellent and would put many SF joints to shame. Sitting down in this restaurant, I noticed how much richer people looked. Many Black people were in the restaurant as customers and appeared to be wealthy. Some tables had both Blacks and whites sitting together. Maybe I was in the right part of town, but it looked like the city was substantially wealthier than most of what we had seen in South Africa thus far.

We eventually made it to our Airbnb. There, we met a force of nature that goes by the name of Adri. No sooner had I said hello that she grabbed me in her arms (she is way taller than me) for a hug and asked me all about our trip. Later, she went out to get us sushi, offered us wine and we had a 4 hour-long conversation about life. Her enthusiasm and interest are so genuine they are contagious. She told us all kinds of stories about her grandmother and her mother who grew up in Kruger Park at the beginning of the 20th century. Her grandfather was a big game hunter that lead 6-week long expeditions in the bush. Those stories involved a lion-eating Masai tracker getting eaten by a lion, and her mother bonking a lioness on the head with a pan to shoo her away from camp. We spoke of many other things but for once, we didn't talk politics. Maybe because of her obviously Afrikaans heritage or because the conversation just took us elsewhere naturally.

We continued our journey South past Port Elizabeth onto the Garden Route until we reached Knysna where we decided to stay 3 nights. Knysna is one of the more populated areas along the Garden Route, located on a gorgeous bay. It’s also home to a broad set of animal sanctuaries, including a bird and a monkey/ape sanctuary which we both visited. In such sanctuaries, the animals are in an enclosure, but we’re talking about enclosures measuring hundreds of acres. I wasn’t expecting to be as impressed by the apes as I was. The gibbons gracefully gliding across the canopy is a sight I won’t soon forget.

Early during our stay in Knysna, Anaïs got a killer migraine, the type that leaves an aura. This time however the aura wouldn’t leave. Having experienced a sudden death from brain cancer in her family (by someone in their early 20s at that!), Anaïs is naturally worried that something similar might be happening to her when her field of vision is affected by a rather large aura. She had run into similar issues before in San Francisco, and no doctor seemed to take her seriously. Migraines seemed to be a fringe issue that no one understood or took seriously. After her aura persisted for over a day, she insisted to see someone in Knysna. We had decided to travel without health insurance (except in the US) so going to see a doctor was always something we decided to do as a last resort unless there was a clear emergency. The experience we had with South Africa’s health system was prodigious. We were able to see a doctor in a small office within minutes. Far from dismissing Anaïs’ concerns, as some have in the US or in France, this doctor gave me my first unambiguous explanation of how a migraine works, where the pain comes from and how auras occur. This alone shed some light on a mysterious process I personally had never quite grasped. He then recommended that we see a specialist who operates two practices in two different towns. He was not in our town that day, but the general practitioner managed to convince the specialist to come to Knysna before heading home. This retina specialist studied Anaïs’ eye and diagnosed the issue in mere minutes. In so doing, he achieved with a simple lense what neurologists and MRIs were unable to. He invited me to peer into Anaïs’ eye, revealing a small portion of Anaïs’ infarcted retina. There it was: the simple, observable explanation to a woe Anaïs dealt with for nearly two decades, and we found it at the meagre cost of $120 in a small village near the southernmost tip of Africa. Maybe this is just the lucky silver lining on an otherwise inauspicious migraine affliction, but it certainly calls into question the care we paid top dollar for in San Francisco.

Before we knew it, we were in Cape Town. The Cape was sold to us as South Africa’s crowning jewel, so our expectations were high. Arriving into Cape Town is a surreal experience. The city is so singularly located that it takes any visitor off guard. The city is scattered at the foot of two steep mountains, Table mountain and Lion’s head. Staring up at the cliffs left an indelible impression. We stayed at an Airbnb held by George, a rather eccentric gay man in his late 50s who was also hosting another guest by the name of Philip.

We walked twenty minutes to have dinner that night. We strolled through a park on a shortcut to The Cape’s lively city center. On our way back, we opted for the park once more. The sun had set long ago, the park was poorly lit and grew populated with homeless folk sleeping on benches and on the lawn. We stuck out like two sore thumbs and we were painfully aware of it. We were on edge and started to seriously second guess our decision. Halfway through the final stretch out of the park, we noticed two men walking silently behind us entering the same alleyway. We were walking at a brisk pace, and after an extra quarter of the way down the street, we heard a noise coming from behind us. We turned around and noticed the two men halfway down the street, gaining on us at an alarming rate. This was one of the rare moments on our trip where we felt threatened. In that moment, instinct took over and we bolted out of there. Luckily, a public square with some restaurants wasn’t too far away. A man sitting on a chair at the entrance of one of the establishments saw us on the tail end of our sprint and asked knowingly “Is everything ok?”. We told him we should be alright, and walked home with no further ado.

Nearby Cape Town lies an imposing range of mountains that feature several wineries. Many of them are also restaurants. The whole thing reminded me of Napa valley, which can be hit or miss in my experience but the views from up there are certainly worth it. Careful for baboons though. We picked up a hiker turned hitchhiker due to some very aggressive baboons blocking the path down the mountain.

One of the most memorable excursions in Cape Town was our hike up Lion’s head with our new found German roommate, Philip. It’s a relatively short trail that twirls up the spire and eventually turns into a climb. All said and done, you can be up there in an hour, but the heights can be intimidating, and the sun blistering. The view up there is breathtaking and yields stunning vistas of the city and the ocean. A must do while visiting The Cape! We made the mistake of going up there with no head protection and very little water. Once we made it back to the apartment, we realized we were suffering from heat exhaustion, and were shut down for the rest of the day.

The botanical gardens of The Cape are also worth the time. South African cities generally have worthwhile gardens, but the one in The Cape really took the cake. At the end of the day, however, even that paled in comparison with The Cape of Good Hope. Being at the end of that peninsula really felt like we’d reached the end of the world. I’ll let our pictures do the talking, as my words won’t do it justice.

Cape town was the last leg of our South African trip. We departed through Johannesburg, then Nairobi and finally Bangkok. South Africa is a bit of an outlier in our trip, being the only subequatorial destination, but the three weeks we spent there were unquestionably worth the detour. With all said and done, here are the few aspects that will stay with me the most and that we will remember as characteristically South African:

  • The self drive safari through Kruger Park was unforgettable. Being in our own metal cage, firmly within the animals’ kingdom and witnessing its majestic fauna just meters away was beyond words.

  • The way people reflexively return a broad smile on eye contact. I interpreted it as a way to break the awkwardness. I haven’t seen people do this anywhere else in the world but it’s surprisingly refreshing and welcoming.

  • Guest houses and restaurants filled with Black employees and nearly devoid of guests: these folks must work for peanuts because the food is inexpensive, and many of these joints weren’t exactly overflowing with customers.

  • Driving the Hyundai i10 through Swaziland. Swaziland is an alpine enclave surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique. In Swaziland, people don’t do tunnels, so we found ourselves struggling up steep hills, in second gear at 80 km/h, with what is essentially a moped motor inside a car’s body.

  • People on the sides of the road. Folks in South Africa walk insane distances. We would be driving for quite a while in between two cities and would see people walking on the side of the road, several hours on foot from the nearest village. This was strangely common. Another thing we’d witness every so often was small groups of people crossing sets of 4-lane highways on foot. Quite peculier! And last but not least, South Africa takes the toast for most cars stranded on the side of the road. This is what must fuel all the comments we read and heard, admonishing us never to stop to help people on the side of the road. Also on the list of advice: do not drive past dusk, and if you ever have to, never stop at red lights, but rather roll past the intersection at a moderate speed. People really made South Africa seem dangerous in this way, even if that’s not at all the overall vibe we got driving on South African roads.

  • Driving through South Africa was surprisingly tame. People have good driving etiquette, despite being cramped by rather small roads devoid of passing lanes. They are aware of their surroundings, move over to let you pass, turn their warnings lights on as a sign of thanks if you let them overtake safely and are overall relaxed drivers.