Think of South Africa and many images are conjured up – arid landscapes, wild animals, colourful garments, Nelson Mandela. Rain, I have to say, hadn’t featured in my imagination. Rain did, however, feature heavily in our reality. On our journey from Cape Town to KwaZulu-Natal, days sprinkled with the most glorious of sunshine were rudely interrupted by the odd full-day torrential downpour. Forget cats and dogs, on those days it rained rhinos.
South Africa has suffered badly over the last two years with the worst drought in over a century. The consequences have been dire with many big game animals dying – their carcases a reminder of how dependent precious life is upon water. So, this rain was a slight inconvenience to our holiday, but at least the big picture had a big dam full of water.
“Break it to me…what does it say?”
Weather reports are sometimes wrong, are they not? Nick and I had booked 5 days of camping in the Drakensburg, so named because of how the landscape looks like a multitude of dragons lying down for a siesta. Nick had dreamt of going since being a nipper, and with my love of Daenarys, ‘Mother of Dragons’ (Game of Thrones) I was firmly on the bandwagon.
“More rain…and thunderstorms.”
As we looked further into the week, the millimetres of rainfall due increased, and although I didn’t know exactly how much 8 millimetres of rainfall was, it surely wasn’t going to be too much fun in our wee 2-man tent. Having said that, with all our faff trying to work out a route that would coincide with this, that and the other, it was the only blasted thing we had actually managed to book! We would just have to go and hope for the best.
It was a beautiful day as we drove from Nick’s auntie’s in Grey Town to Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensburg. Superstitious though we aren’t, we do always proclaim to be ‘lucky’ with the weather. Aha! Maybe rain wasn’t really due. Maybe South Africa’s version of The Met Office had written the report.
As soon as we opened the car door, the hailstones started. Crap. Having checked in, we both sat in the car next to our camping spot, wondering when, or indeed if, there would be a break in the rain, and both looking decidedly sorry for ourselves. Sinking into the mud, we did what any sensible person would in this situation – we had a beer and decided to…
Screw the budget!
This was one of the things we most wanted to do in South Africa and we had driven about 5000 kilometres for the pleasure. Looking at Nick’s sad face as he realised we couldn’t see the mountains from the campsite, I did a Beyonce and offered to upgrade him, though I had to be clear – this would not involve ‘looking fly’. What it did involve was swapping the 3 nights camping we had booked in Mahai camp site for 2 nights in a chalet in Thendele resort, paying the difference and not worrying about it.
Oh c’mon now. We all know I never have no words…
Opening the front door we were like two kids at Christmas. Inside the bedroom-stroke-lounge was an enormous window. Outside the enormous window were some even more enormous mountains. Truely jaw-dropping. The velvety-green mountains sprawled out for miles – wide and expansive, they could have breathed life into a teapot.
The next day up we got up super early hoping to get a hike in before the inevitable afternoon downpour. I was on track to receive a scar from every country we had travelled in: in Nepal I fell down a hole, in Myanmar I fell off a bike, in Thailand I kicked some coral. I just needed one from South Africa. Well, the long grass soon sorted that out. With no long socks or boots, my ankles soon looked like that of a dyslexic self-harmer.
The Policeman’s Helmet
Rocks being personified took us back to a cave tour in Thailand where the guide pointed at abstract looking rocks and said things like, “elephant” or “man with a beard skateboarding on one leg”. The likenesses were a stretch of the imagination at best. Here, however, was a rock looking exactly like that which it was named after – a Policeman’s Helmet. This was our target for the day, rested on a medium high ridge. We were not disappointed! From this ridge we not only had a stunning view of the Amphitheatre, we also had a 360° view of the endless mountains.
We wanted to stay longer – up on this ridge was the perfect picnic spot, but knowing how quickly the weather can change in The Drakensberg and not wanting to push our luck, we headed back to enjoy our luxury digs. As it was, the weather was good all afternoon, too. We were still thankful for that first down pouring of rain, though – it gave us the perfect excuse to indulge ourselves for two nights. Drinking wine by the fire and looking out at the stretches of those slumbering dragons was absolute bliss!!
Be-Xhosa I’m happy, sing along if you feel like happiness is the truth…
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)
Heading down the highway, I slowed down trying to scan the faces of the people stood at the side of the road waving 10 rand (50p) notes in their hands, as if I would somehow be able to tell if someone was ill-intentioned or not. I wasn’t sure that a car-jacker would be so courteous as to make a really mean face, just to make you aware of his objective. Now, given the fact that we were in South Africa, I was aware that trying to pick up hitchhikers wasn’t the most sensible idea I had ever had, but each time I saw them (and there were many), I couldn’t help but feel awful. I had the privilege of a car, and yet, I couldn’t share that with those that couldn’t afford the same and simply needed a ride to travel, often immense distances. In a country with reports of violent car-jackings run-of-the-mill stuff, we were advised strongly against it.
Our loop of South Africa had taken us from the beautiful beach destination of Cape Town, along the garden route. We were now heading towards Pietermaritzberg, via somewhere called ‘Coffee Bay’ in The Transkei. I’m a tea drinker myself, but I decided I could take the hit; so many people had raved about this place. As we turned off the perfectly tarmaced N2 onto a dirt road riddled with potholes, it was clear we were about to discover another, more rural, side to this fascinating country.
Run, Forest, run!
The boy was giving Ussain Bolt a run for his money, something we were unfortunately unable to say about the internet in the country. Given his attire, I thought it was a fairly safe bet that he wasn’t a murderer. Finally I got to pick up a hitchhiker – an extremely polite boy named Thembani, who was late for school. Success! We had picked up a hitchhiker, no one got hurt, a boy got to class on time, and, selfishly, I could ease up on the guilt-trip I had been putting myself through. So when we saw two girls on the side of the same rural road that we had been driving on for the last hour, I was ready to go again. Local people were obviously very friendly.
“Ay waant eet”
The girls wanted to be dropped somewhere we didn’t know the name of, but since this never-ending road only went one way and was sans turn-offs, we figured we couldn’t go too far wrong. So, off we went.
Our attempts to converse in English weren’t going so well, and it soon became apparent that they only spoke the essentials, like, “My nayme ees…” and “Ay waant eet.” The “eet” related to some biscuits dumped on the back seat, and we were more than happy to oblige. But Nick wasn’t going to stop there. “Here, have some popcorn,” he threw in with a smile. By the time we got to the clinic, the back seat looked like a food fight had broken out and Nick’s cheshire grin had morphed into a slightly puzzled expression. They got out of the car and said, “Thank you,” but not before scanning for anything else they could grab, including my bottle of water. I guess all that salt was dehydrating.
As surreal as it was, it was interesting to be a bit more exposed to black South Africans. Until that point, we had only had passing exchanges – buying something in a shop, listening to a busker, watching a protest, booking into a dormitory, hiring a car. The one thing I was afraid of when coming here was that we wouldn’t be able to mix like we had done in Asian countries. Sure, there were township tours in Cape Town, but I didn’t want to pay lots of money to go and ogle at people who had nothing. There was something that didn’t sit right with me about that. I really wanted to interact, and on a simple level.
When we eventually arrived in Coffee Bay, on “The Wild Coast” there was beer, but no coffee. Now that’s what I call an upgrade. The whole area comprised of a very rough, but stunning, coastline, and when a European ship carrying coffee beans ran aground there, the bay in question became Coffee Bay.
We were in the heart of rural South Africa and home to the largest community of Xhosas in the country (Zulus are the largest African group here, followed closely by the Xhosas; together they make up approximately half the black population).
I was interested to find out that the backpacker’s place we were camping in only employed people from the local Xhosa community, and were obviously ploughing many efforts and funds from the guesthouse into improving quality of life and education for the locals. Advertised online they had a multitude of fun activities for young people: surf lessons, coastal hikes, picnics – but the one thing that we couldn’t leave without doing was a homestay with a local Xhosa family. I had no idea what to expect, but we hoped to at least get a better understanding of their life. Plus we got to stay in one of those ‘rondavals,’ a traditional round house made of mud and concrete. Awesome.
At 3pm African time (that’s 4pm to you and me), Elvin, the father of the family came to pick us up. A short 30 minutes walk (for us anyway – he was on crutches) and one crossing of a small river, we were on the top of a rolling green hill, air fresh as a daisy. This was their home. Nothing around for miles except peace and quiet and a few cows. And then, in the distance, screams of manic excitement pierced the silence. Suddenly we were ambushed by two young girls, energy like bottles of pop, ready to explode. They threw their arms around me and gave me one of those squeezes you give a long lost friend – one where you don’t want to let go. Taken aback momentarily, I steadied myself and took a deep breath. We were in the kids’ zone and I knew just what to do.
The next three hours were spent in utter chaos: songs were sung, dances were danced, pictures were taken (by the kids – we had no chance!) acrobatics were performed, and kids were swung around. We were with Elvin’s eldest daughter, Zama, 14; the two mini firecrackers, Mengalally and Sia; and a group of their friends. I had wrongly assumed that Mengalally and Sia were Elvin’s children; they were, in actual fact, his nieces. However, the Xhosas make no such distinctions, which I subsequently read in the autobiography of the most famous Xhosa, Nelson Mandela. Your cousin is your brother and your auntie is your mother. Sounds confusing, but the point is that family is family, and they all look after each other as such. While all this was going on, Zama was intermittently herding the cows, and the goats, and baking bread.
“Oh. If you had two, I would have asked you for one”
I was in my comfort zone and enjoying the simplicity of cross-cultural interaction with children when Zama asked me how many phones I had. “Oh. If you had two, I would have asked you for one.” I had to laugh at the boldness of the girl, but I felt for her. Pulled between a rural existance with no running water and no electricity, and the educated life her parents are willing her to attain, she is a girl that has been exposed to modern things, but is not in the position to have them. When pushed about why she wanted a phone, her answer was that she wanted to Whatsapp her friends in the evening. The small matter of charging the phone, internet connection and buying credit, just tiny hurdles in her teenage brain of infinite possibility.
Dinner was up, and we were slightly perplexed to find that, although Elvin’s wife had been slaving over the pots and pans, she wasn’t sitting down with us. In fact, she barely got an introduction. After the HUGE meal of miele (corn), spinach, potatoes and beans, all grown by the family, Elvin decided we might be hungry from the lack of carbs, so he proceeded to serve us up a big slab of bread. They say The Big Bang was the biggest explosion in history, but my belly was about to beat that.
Around the dinner table, and with the little ones now subdued from their full tummies, the conversation turned to practice of the Xhosa language. Their X’s C’s and Q’s are pronounced like different types of clicks, and me being me, I was having fun taking on the challenge. Zama was only too happy to drill me and even happier that I was so bad; my obvious inadequacy was rewarded with an exaggerated roll of her eyes and a smirk.
As it was now pitch black outside, and Zama had to be up early in the morning to start her hour and a half walk (!) to school, it was time to retire to our rondaval, but not before a quick trip to the outhouse toilet. With our head torches mounted, we stumbled and giggled like idiots as we crossed the uneven ground to reach it. The family have no such problems; even with no light they can navigate their way, knowing every inch of the land as a blind person would.
We awoke to the smell of farm yards. It wasn’t the cow outside our window, but the floor. I had forgotten that another material they use in the rondavals is dung. This makes the floor nice and glossy, and apparently the smell does disappear after a while. Ours was obviously a shiny new one. It was still early, but already Zama was up and dressed, had collected us water from a nearby village tap, and was heading off to school. After a quick wash in a bucket, and a goodbye to the kids, we sat down with Elvin to eat bread and drink coffee and find out more about life as a Xhosa.
We learnt about many Xhosa traditions, such as, if a man and woman get married, the groom’s parents must give a few cows to the bride’s parents, which is a bit like the dowry tradition in India but the other way round. To stop arguments between couples, they also added in a rule that if a man fights with his wife, she will go and stay with her parents. He must then pay them a cow to get his wife back! Cows are valuable and there are evidently a lot of them going back and forth here.
We also were privileged enough to hear all about Elvin’s experience of apartheid. How he mined platinum for the rich Afrikaners (white, Dutch origin), and about how, as a black man, if you dared to try and speak to a white man in those days, you would be beaten. Far from being bitter, Elvin actually welcomes white tourists into Coffee Bay, acknowledging that without tourism, there is little way to make any money there. In fact, this area is apparently the poorest area in South Africa. The majority of people lead a sustenance existance, growing corn in the summer and vegetables in the winter. What little money they can make, from selling jewellery, working in guesthouses or shops, they spend on milk and flour to make their daily bread. It’s a simple life, and one they work hard to maintain, but they hope for more opportunities for their kids. With their hard work ethic, I hope the same for them, too.
Here’s a video that Zama took of her cousins and their friends singing and dancing. Amazing energy!!
It don’t shouldn’t matter if you’re black or white…
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)
Going to South Africa, I was unsure exactly what to expect, and even now, ask me to sum it up for you and I’d struggle. In fact, pre and post writing this particular blog, I debated whether I really should. In the search to understand a bit more, I read many articles debating the current state of South Africa and how it relates to the past, which both helped and confused the matter! Some of you reading may know a lot more about this topic than I do, or have even lived it. So who am I to throw in my tuppence worth? Well, I decided that there are probably others that, like me before this trip, know very little beyond the ol’ Mandela story. I hope this goes some way towards painting a broader picture. I couldn’t shake the feeling that a country this fascinating – politically, historically and geographically – needs to be talked about.
Diversity and division
Black South Africans here make up 79% of the population; there are Zulus, Xhosas, Tswanas, Vendas and 10s of other groups of which I still don’t know the names! Of the white population, who are a minority in numbers, roughly equal amounts are made up of Afrikaners (Dutch origin) and those of English origin. The other minority are classified as “coloured.” This term refers to anyone Indian, Malaysian or “mixed” (aren’t we all?) race and is not considered derogatory. It’s easy to see why this is still a country of diversity and division.
The obligatory historical bit
The Dutch arrived in Cape Town in 1652, South Africa being a tactical stop off on trade routes. With their superior weaponry, they slowly took more and more land and resources, including livestock, from the black groups – Zulus, Xhosas etc..These people had come from other parts of Africa thousands of years before. That’s not to say that the people already living here were doing so peacefully – apparently there was a fair amount of discord between the groups. The Dutch used this to their own advantage and began what was to turn into centuries of black oppression.
Those of the Dutch arriving without land or wealth slowly moved to other parts of South Africa, and lost touch with the colonialism of their rich counterparts in Cape Town and Europe. They were called “trekkers”. Eking out a subsistence existance for themselves, they stole farm land and killed native adults, often keeping the children as slaves.
The English took control in 1795 and in the 1820s, a substantial amount of English people were moved here as part of a plan to relieve poverty at home. Apparently we were just as brutal to native South Africans, but humanitarian pressure led to legislation that called for the release of slaves in The Cape Colony by 1838. The Dutch speaking colonists weren’t happy about this and resentment grew towards the English. This led to the Dutch forging a new distinct national and cultural identity and a new language (Afrikaans). They set out to recreate the subordination of nonwhites as labourers for whites that had previously existed in The Cape. This was already well established by the time diamonds and gold were discovered in the country. The systematic oppression of the nonwhites continued, as they slaved away for peanuts to make the Afrikaners rich.
Meanwhile, the English, far from having the nonwhites’ best interests at heart, consolidated their power over most of the colonies of South Africa after the Anglo-Zulu war. Although they succeeded in the end, it’s worth watching the 1964 film, “Zulu” to see how the English, with their superior weaponry, got annihilated in one battle with the Zulus!
The conflicts between the English and the Afrikaners continued, and after many revolts, culminated in the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Brits took back all the power at this point, but Afrikaner national identity was strengthened further. The National Party, who were Afrikaner and right-wing, came into power in 1948. Building on the foundations of white superiority and black oppression that had already been established, they introduced the apartheid (literally meaning “division” in Afrikaans) system, whereby blacks and whites were completely separate.
What did this mean in practice? It meant that there were different shops for blacks and whites; different buses; black children were schooled in how to be servants or work the fields, while white children had academic schooling; black people could get beaten for talking to white people were they not invited to do so. It also facilitated the abuse, torture and rape of some blacks by some whites.
So, what of “The Rainbow Nation” first coined by Desmond Tutu and referred to by Mandela? You might be excused for thinking that since the end of apartheid in 1991, everyone is living in equality and harmony, but with such a rich and complex history, the status-quo is ever in a state of flux. Nick and I had the privilege of travelling through the country in a short space of time, observing a wealth of different situations, talking to whites, blacks, coloured, all levels of wealth and background.
Is it coz I is black?
Racial tension is bound to exist between groups that are culturally distinct. Even the English and the Afrikaners are meant not to like each other, though the Afrikaners we met were all super friendly to us. Generally I found out-and-out racism (by that I mean hatred for another based solely on skin colour) to be scarce. However, what we definitively felt was the level of fear and distrust between cultures. Racial stereotypes of black people as thieving, violent and/or lazy prevail, harming the black people that are none of those things. Unfortunately, “This is Africa,” as people kept telling us. Almost all the white people we knew had been robbed or been victims of violence, serving to compound, rather than subvert, stereotyping. Also at the table are the voices of those blacks that dislike whites because of the colour of their skin and what they think that represents. “You white people are all the same.”: a comment made to Nick’s uncle when he asked the neighbours to turn their music down. History cannot be erased, and though Mandela would have had people forgive, resentment dies hard.
“It’s for putting a fire out.”
The ANC (Mandela’s party) are now in power. They are a black party, but unfortunately they have forgotten who they are fighting for and are more interested in lining their own pockets with government funds. The president, Zuma, is detested by everyone we spoke to, and all the stories in every paper are about how corrupt he us. The most recent story detailed how he spent the equivalent of 11.3 million pounds of public money on upgrades to his house in the name of national security. Because everyone knows that the best way to protect yourself from a fire is by having a swimming pool installed. Duh. Oh, and did I mention that he publicly announced he minimised his risk of contracting H.I.V. by showering after sex? In a country with the largest prevalence of the virus IN THE WORLD. Yes, the mind does boggle.
“South Africa is a Cappuccino”
The white population are, on the whole, substantially richer. I don’t blame those whites born into a system that favoured them – the mistakes of our ancestors are not ours to seek penance for, they are something we must learn from. David Cameron’s father avoiding tax caused uproar in the U.K. recently, and while I don’t think he should be held accountable for his father’s actions, to suggest that he didn’t benefit from them is preposterous. In a similar way, it is impossible not to acknowledge that white wealth in South Africa could not have become what it is without the apartheid regime. The blacks are the under classes, the whites are on top, and the few black people now in the middle classes are but a sprinkling of chocolate on top. This is the way I saw it described in a South African newspaper. This is the South African cappuccino.
The majority of the jobs issued by government now go to black people. This is important for readdressing the balance, but in a weird twist of fate, young white men are now severely disadvantaged because legislation doesn’t see them as an oppressed group. If you are a white woman, you might still be ok. We heard some debate about this, one argument being that a well-trained employee shouldn’t be replaced by someone that doesn’t know the job just because they fit a statistic,especiallyat atimewhen the country’s economy is in such a terrible state.
In present day South Africa, treatment of blacks may be good (it was were we were anyway) but that white families still have black maids, and in restaurants, the people serving are predominately black and the people dining are predominantly white, are of note. These are divisions based on class and education, but they are inextricably linked to colour. Picking up on this, I was told that black people are just happy to have more jobs available now. However, things still have a long way to go, and that will take time…and a president that isn’t a half-wit. The government has a duty to provide good levels of education for everyone so that equal opportunities in the workplace can really start to exist. Perhaps, just perhaps, we will then start to see a more united South Africa where it really don’t matter if you’re black or white.