Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Conundrums (or is it conundra?)

I am writing this piece as I sit on the stoep (patio) of my house in the lovely village of Knysna on the Garden Route of South Africa.  As you can see from the pictures, the view is stunning.  In the background are the lovely Outeniqua Mountains that stretch under various names for 500 kilometres (300 miles) west to Cape Town and 200 kilometres east to near Port Elizabeth.  In the foreground is the Knysna lagoon – a tidal lake that stretches 10 kilometres inland.  The third photo is of The Heads – the narrow portal that allows the Indian Ocean to feed the lagoon. 

Knysna is one of the gems of South Africa – a small town (about 75,000) people – in gorgeous surroundings with a leisurely way of life, except for the silly season, which is now upon us.  Silly season is that part of the summer vacation when we are invaded by Capetownians and Joburgers (holiday makers from Johannesburg).  Silly season means we have to shop before 9 am, which is when the tourists eventually awaken.  If you wait longer, traffic is insufferable, and there are lines at the checkout counters in the shops.  Yuck!
From my privileged position on one of the hills that overlook Knysna, I also see what most visitors do not.  I see what South Africans call “the townships”.  These are the areas where the Blacks live.  Historically they are the legacy of apartheid – far enough from town not be a nuisance, but close enough to supply the cheap labour that the Whites benefitted from.  Ironically, the Knysna townships are on some of the best real estate in town – on the hills overlooking the lagoon with views of the beautiful Heads.  Of course, most Whites, South African or not, have never visited a township.  I’m not sure whether it is from an inbred fear or a denial that people could live in such poverty.  Although the current government has overseen the building of several million homes to replace the shanties that existed before, there are still millions of homes of corrugated iron, cardboard, and appropriated windows and doors.  They are the favellas of South Africa.

As I write, I am sipping one of the many South African wines that are both delicious and inexpensive.  This one is unusual – produced at a little winery called Herold in the mountains not far from Knysna.  It is called Skaam Skaap – Embarrassed Sheep in Afrikaans (one of the 11 official languages of South Africa).  (I will write sometime soon on some of the remarkable decisions that were taken to prevent a post-apartheid South Africa from falling apart.)  The label is cute with several sheep depicted, including one with a red face.  The wine is unusual in that it is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, which gives it a slightly off-white colour.  Delicious!  And only $7.  For a bottle, not a glass! 
Anyway, I digress.
South Africa, in its post-apartheid persona, fascinates me.  Largely because of the conundrums (conundra?) it poses.  The apartheid government left the country with over 40% unemployment, an educational policy that denied Blacks access to any education other than for basic manual skills, a housing crisis, and a health-care system that was both one of the best in the world and yet inaccessible to most South Africans.  Today the unemployment is probably about 25% - a great improvement, helped a great deal by enormous infrastructure spending in advance of the World Cup Football (soccer).  But the reality is that 25% unemployment is probably 5 million people out of work – with little or no social-security support. 
Healthcare is generally in shambles, partly due to the high HIV rate and the unbelievable attitudes of President Mbeki and his Minister of Health, who variously denied that there was a link between HIV ands AIDS and who advocated a variety of startling approaches to solving the problem (but not including the use of anti-retrovirals).  Even the current president, Jacob Zuma, has created doubt – in his trial for raping a woman acquaintance (probably a set up by political opponents), Zuma said he was not worried by having unprotected sex because he showered afterwards.  To be fair, Zuma, just the other day, put forward by far the most aggressive attack on the HIV/AIDS problem that the country has seen.
So while so many people in South Africa are living below the poverty line, those in power are helping themselves to the best that money can buy.  Every day, news reports tell of elected officials who are buying cars costing over $150,000 or more.  President Zuma was reported this week to be building a new residence at Nkandla that will cost tax payers about $9 million  – not just for himself, but also for his multiple wives.  Yes, polygamy is allowed in South Africa under traditional law.  “How can you be setting a good example to youth, Mr. President, when you have multiple wives?”
Many of my White South African acquaintances are appalled by what they perceive us unbridled corruption and graft.  They are probably correct that many politicians are helping themselves.  However, they do forget that under the apartheid government reporting of corruption was illegal.  I remind these folk that the bright side is that they know about what is going on – the press is now free. 
When I talk to these same people, I am always surprised that I never meet anyone who supported the apartheid government.  “I was always against it.” they say.  Extrapolating from my experience, no one supported the apartheid government.  I wonder where they got their votes.  These are the same people whose criticisms of Blacks are always prefaced with the noun “they”.  I hear “Did you hear what they are doing?” or “They are more stupid than the Zimbabweans.” or “They will destroy the country.”  All this said while enjoying an unparalleled quality of life in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.
So many conundra!  Apartheid left millions of South Africans without an education.  Today, because South Africa is the economic powerhouse of Africa and because Zimbabwe is on our borders, South Africa has millions of illegal immigrants – many of whom are better educated than the locals.  Because of this, illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from South Africans.  May this be one of the causes of the periodic clashes between locals and foreigners?  You betcha (note the influence of my time in Minnesota).

From left field (another term from my time in the United States) comes another unrelated conundrum.  There are too many elephants!  South Africa’s great Kruger National Park probably has several thousand elephants too many.  Botswana may have many tens of thousand elephants too many.  They need to be culled if other animals are to survive.  Botswana’s 150,000 elephants can leave large areas of the country looking like a World War I battle ground – twisted, dead trees everywhere.  Nothing for any other animals to eat.  It’s the other animals which will die.

But the tree-huggers have been able to exert an enormous amount of pressure – so much so that culling has become a swear word.  But without culling, elephants and countless thousand of other animals will perish from starvation.
South Africa, the rainbow nation, is a fascinating place – full of contradictions and conundra, abounding in twists and turns, in good and bad.  But what an exciting place – a country with a future that will be crafted in the next decade or two.  For better or for worse.  A country of opportunity, of fear, and of hope.
Stanley - Tuesday


  1. Hi Stan,
    I loved this post! When we started this blog, I never imagined I'd have so much fun reading it.
    The part about corruption inspired me to do a similar piece on corruption in Brazil, but I'll leave that for January, so as not to start a thread here.
    The part about the people who never voted for the apartheid government also struck a chord. When I lived in Germany, back in the sixties, it was hard to find anyone who'd ever admit to having voted for the Nazis.
    I concur about the wines. Yum!
    And I have fond memories of the beauty.
    Great photos - and eyes are still blurred from the drawing of that elephant.

  2. Stan - Thank you for this post. The American news media does not do a good job providing information on issues that are vitally important in parts of the world that are not directly affecting American interests.

    So much of what you wrote is an echo of some of the worst parts of the American psyche. A comment by a professor when I was in college made a deep impression. In talking about race in the United States, he said in the south whites don't care how close they are to blacks as long as the blacks don't get high. In the north they don't care how high the blacks get as long as they don't get close. At the time, Massachusetts had a black senator in Congress but the people of Boston destroyed the public school system because of the forced busing of children from white neighborhoods to black and vice versa. Those who could afford it put their children in private schools. White flight destroyed neighborhoods all over the city. Nearly 40 years later, Boston is still suffering the fall out.

    Neighborhoods are still not integrated. Boston is a city of clearly distinguished neighborhoods. Roxbury is black. West Roxbury, which is a good distance from Roxbury, is lace curtain Irish. A home owner in West Roxbury would infuriate the neighbors if he sold the house to a black family but West Roxbury and the rest of the city voted overwhelmingly for Obama. White Boston defends their desire to keep the races separate by prefacing their comments with "some of my best friends are black but...."

    Illegal immigration has bankrupted the state of California. For the first time since it entered the union, California's white population is declining. It is one of the hardest hit areas of the United States in terms of home foreclosures and it is real estate taxes that pay for schools, police, fire, and emergency services.

    As to the elephants, I think I would fall in with those who don't want the animals culled. I saw a documentary at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. It was about elephants in Africa and the scene that had everyone crying was one in which a group of elephants surrounded another, rubbing their trunks along her body. The narrator explained that this elephant's baby had died and the other mothers were comforting her.


  3. Hi Beth:
    Without culling you will be watching thousands of elephants die of starvation on National Geographic - not to mention all the other animals that don't gather the same sympathy as the ellies. Ellies are my favourite animals, but there are just too many now. Over 150,000 in Botswana alone. Stan

  4. Fascinating post! A friend of mine lived in South Africa for many years, and a co-worker of my husband's was transferred there for a short time. From seeing their pictures and hearing their stories, I've formed a totally different picture of South Africa than I had before. It's stunningly beautiful -- more than I imagined. Thanks for a great post!

  5. Stan - Ah, you expect me to be rational.

    Those of us raised in cities can't begin to understand the problems faced by people who have to face hard decisions about doing what is best for people and the environments a world away.

    Beyond the zoo, my contact with wild life is confined to skunks and the occasional fox who visit the neighborhood. Reality bites when we are forced to stop thinking of wild animals as if they are the creation of the Disney Studios. You say elephant; I think Dumbo and his mother.

    We need to be educated by articles like this.

  6. An eye-opening post, Stan. The issues around race have become so convoluted that it's almost impossible to see a path through. As far as the USA is concerned, I had a bolt of hope when Obama was elected, but the euphoria evaporated in the face of real problems, like a wave building force and then hitting a rock and spattering off in all directions.

    The "white flight" issue is typically thorny, especially where schools are concerned. There is absolutely zero data to support the contention that more integration in schools results in higher average levels of scholastic achievement. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. One of the problems here is the ancient one of reconciling blunt data, based on big samples, with the opportunities afforded to individual students. Every kid deserves the best education he or she can be given, but how do you accomplish that? And whom do you blame when the dream doesn't work? Lots of the whites who fled those neighborhood were the middle-class parents of kids who would be the first in their families to go to college, and putting those kids there was a main focus of the parents' working and personal lives. If they perceived a possible falling off in the quality of education, I can't blame them for moving.

    And yet, prejudice clearly plays a role in white flight. I like to think I would have stayed, if I'd had kids in those school systems, but I don't actually know. And as much sympathy as I have for the Latinos who flee poverty in their own countries, there's absolutely no doubt that they've overtaxed almost every public sector of life in California, from health care to education. So there you are again -- blunt data versus individual human beings.

    Really gives me a headache.

  7. Wonderful post, Stan. Lucky YOU to have such a view. Agree with you about the culling, though I'm with Beth about it being so heartbreaking. Their social bonds make me terribly fond of ellies; they are my favorite animal, too, as you know. We miss you here in Minnesota, ya you betcha.