|This is it, the final stop on my world adventure. A little over a month here and it will all be over. I flew out of Cairo early in the morning, heading for South Africa via a stop off in London. I had about a day and a half in London before my next flight. Having previously lived in the UK, most of the London sight seeing had been done and I decided to take it easy for the day. I managed to contact a couple of old high school friends, Jules and Nathan, and a university friend Jen, whom were now based in London and we all caught up for some booze and stodgy English food. It was great to catch up with some old friends and to be back in what was relatively my comfort zone for a day.
The next day I was off to South Africa for the final stop on this trip. Feeling the need to repent for the many culturally inappropriate, and occasionally humanly inappropriate, things I have done over the last eleven months, I signed up for a volunteer program working with HIV and AIDS related projects for a month. My placement was based just outside of Cape Town and I was put up for the month with a family in Strandfontein on Mitchell's Plain, which is the township area outside Cape Town. The family I was staying with, the Besthas, were lovely. John and Ruth treated me like their own son for the month I was with them. They had two grown up children Andre and LeAndre who both took me out on the town, and kept me out of trouble. The people from the Besthas' local church called Christ the King, particularly Maria and her husband, also helped me out heaps. They even managed to drag me along to the Sunday service a couple of times. The first time I have been to church in a long time. Those godly folk sure are friendly though.
John and Ruth's son Andre is in the Navy, working as a sailing instructor for new inductees, and he took me down to the nearest naval base. I got to have a go sailing around Simon's Town bay in one of the navy's training sailboats and did my very best not to capsize the thing as the waters around Cape Town are famous for their great white sharks (the only great white sharks in the world known to launch themselves out of the water - up to six feet - when hunting). I make it a rule to stay away from any sea creature that can jump higher than me. After a couple of close calls, we safely got the boat back to shore, and Andre took me on a tour of a couple of slightly bigger boats: A couple of Navy battleships (or frigates or something, whatever they were they were big). This was an amazing opportunity and I was awestruck by the technology and complexity of these things. I even got to go up to the brig and sit in the captain's chair. Despite my pleading however, they did not let me fire a missile.
Andre also took me out for my first night on the town in South Africa. We went to a bar in Mitchell's plain and I was the only white guy in the place. It was nice to stand out in a nightclub for something other than my bad dancing for a change, and everyone seemed happy to have the white boy around. It was great fun, the South Africans sure know how to dance and Andre and his friends were lots of fun. Andre helped me out a lot, especially in my first week in South Africa, which could have felt very isolating. The people I was staying with, and the people I was working with, didn't seem too keen on me moving around by my self, there is a fairly justified fear of crime in some parts of South Africa. Social problems, such as massive unemployment and the AIDS epidemic, are rife as the country deals with the legacy of several generations of oppression. The cities and towns of South Africa look like the developed world and have some amazing architecture, but the country is battling many third world social problems. I was amazed by the challenges facing this country, but the worrying thing is, despite these challenges, it seems half of the rest of Southern and Central Africa have come to, or are trying to get into, South Africa. This gave me some idea of the problems that must be facing other parts of this continent.
I eventually got used to my neighborhood and started to meet some of the neighbours, and the people I was staying with seem to become more comfortable with me heading out on my own. I started to catch the bus into Cape Town semi-regularly, often to the amusement of my fellow passengers, who were not used to having a white guy on the bus. I can remember on one trip a middle aged guy hopped on the bus, looked at me, did a double take and then shouted out to all the passengers, 'hey everybody look, there's a whitey on the bus' and then burst out laughing. It's good to make people laugh.
Many people in South Africa seem to be afraid of areas that they do not know or where they are not known. I was talking to a guy in Cape Town, who was working as a security guard at a youth hostel, about where I was living. He had come to South Africa from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo where he had been a soldier. When I told him I was living in Mitchell's plain (a mostly coloured area) and working occasionally in Khayelitsha (a black area), his jaw dropped to the ground in disbelief. He told me that even he is too scared to go there (but believe me, it is not that bad). I will use the terms black, white and coloured in this entry to identify the various groups around which the racist apartheid laws were built and around which many social boundaries still exist. These are not the terms I would use, but they are the terms South African's use so I will also.
Anyway, I'll move on to the story of my volunteer work, or lack of it. South Africa seems to work at a slower pace than Australia. The people who were organising my volunteer placement were lovely people, friendly and helpful. However the things they organised kept falling through. Most days the work that was lined up for me fell through when the person who was meant to pick me up did not arrive, or the person I was meant to be working with was not at work. I only ended up working about half the days I had planned, and definitely did not make much of a difference to the people of South Africa (not that you can do much in a month anyway). At least I couldn't really make things any worse. Most days I had to work things out for myself, hence I got good at catching the bus. There were two others doing the same volunteer program at the same time, Nayla from London and Danielle for the US. They were both lovely and helped me cope with some of the challenges with the program (mostly by us all going out drinking when things didn't work out).
Although a lot of things fell though, I did have some amazing experiences. I spent a couple of days working in a residential home for orphans and other young Cape Townians who could not live at home. This was a lot like the residential care work I had done for Melbourne City Mission in Australia for several years so I found it quite a comfortable environment to hang out in. I spent a day in a nursing home, playing word association games and telling tales about Australia to the older folk. It was interesting to hear their stories about South Africa in their youth, although the home was for Alzheimer's suffers and so the stories tended to be a bit fragmented. It was clear however that despite the fall of apartheid, they were very concerned for the future that faces the young people of South Africa. Worry for the next generation is probably a commonality across the older generations of all the world's peoples. However it was particularly strong here.
I also spent several days helping out in a hospice for people with AIDS in Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha is one of the poorest areas in South Africa and much of the housing is shacks. I was also told by some of the people I was working with that it has the highest murder rate in all of South Africa, which would make the murder rate very, very high. Suffice to say I hung around the Hospice and did not go wandering around the streets. The residents at the hospice were lovely, and many were happy to share their stories with me. The stories were interesting, but almost without exception they were overwhelming sad. The picture that emerged was of communities that still lack even basic knowledge about HIV and AIDS, communities in which most people who have become infected are very wary of telling anybody but those closest to them that they are infected. Even telling close family members can be risky. The stories of disclosing their HIV status ranged from being ostracized and not supported, at the better end of the range, to a barrage of physical abuse. It is still tough to disclose your HIV status in South Africa (as I am sure it is in Australia, but here the risks are of a complete different category). The physical ravages of AIDS are confronting, the people I worked with looked really sick, and there is nothing I could do apart from hang out with them, and try to get them motivated enough to do something. I don't know how the regular staff members and volunteers do it. I imagine that in time, particular when the suffering is all around, you have to become desensitized to it.
I was also given the opportunity to work for a few days with a group called the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). This is a group formed by, and mostly made up of, people living with HIV. TAC run workshops for people diagnosed with HIV, covering topics like on how to maintain their health, and they also run workshops for people working in the health and community sector. However their primary aim is to campaign for greater access to HIV treatment medication for all infected South Africans. They advocate for improved access to treatment by lobbying government, running public awareness raising campaigns through the media, and generally just making a lot of noise. I helped out at a couple of workshops run by TAC. These were unlike any workshops I've ever previously attended. The facilitators and participants broke up the usual talk fest with singing and dancing, and a lot of it. Every couple of minutes or so someone would jump up and start singing, and everyone else would join in, everyone but me that is. I was by far the worst singer in the room, and luckily the singing never seemed to be in English (possibly, after they'd heard my singing voice, this was to stop me joining in). I worked with a guy named Roderick, who was a member of the same church as my South African family. He is in the final stages of his own battle with AIDS and his efforts and energy are all the more amazing because of this. I don't think that I was helping Roderick's health much myself. After the workshops, Rodrick, another volunteer named Nayla, and I ended up in town at the pub drinking into the evening. While I am sure this was bad for Rodrick's physical health, I would like to think that drinking with me was good for his mental health.
Anyway, as I only spent about half of my month of volunteering actually working, I had time for other things, such as hobnobbing with some of South Africa's power elite. I got to meet several high level bureaucrats in the Western Cape provincial government's community development and youth sectors though a guy in the local church where I was based, who was a big-wig in the local branch of the ANC. Through these new connections, I got to check out some of the government projects that were being run around Cape Town. Chatting with the bureaucrats and youth workers gave me an insight into some of the amazing challenges they face. For example, in the Western Cape unemployment is running at around forty five percent, and hence any government infrastructure building program is basically done as inefficiently as possible just to give people the chance to have some work. People are only allowed to work on a project for 2 weeks at a time and then the job must be given to someone else. While this helps spread the work around, it means that there is no continuity for the individuals who work on the project or for the project itself. All projects are also made as work intensive as possible. In other words, where something could be done in an hour using a machine, it is done by hand over 5 hours so that people can have a little work. I am not sure how sustainable this approach will be.
I even got to meet some people even higher up the political ladder. Though my contact in the local ANC, I ended up having lunch with a couple of members of the National Parliament of South Africa and the speaker of the Western Cape Assembly. I tried to think what I would say and what questions I would ask if I had the opportunity to have lunch with Federal Members of the Australian Parliament, and resolved not to say any of those things (It is not my place to use that kind of language here in South Africa, I would have been deported). I did however ask about some of the challenges facing the ANC, as there had been several reports in the newspapers recently about high level corruption, and what they thought would happen politically in South Africa when Nelson Mandela is no longer around. Suffice to say, like all good politicians the world over, when they answered I had no idea what they were talking about. They all however seemed to be genuine people who were more than aware of the huge challenges and complexities that their country was facing.
When I wasn't working or hobnobbing with the political classes, I spent a little time checking out the big tourist spots and a lot of time checking out local drinking establishments. It is important to keep a balance in life, especially considering I will be back in Australia and back to work in no time and hence my opportunities to get drunk during the day will be much more limited. (I know what my foreign friends are saying, don't Aussies spend most days intoxicated; that my friends, is a stereotype that is only mostly based on reality). Anyway, I regularly hit the town, especially as I became more confident at getting my way around Cape Town. Most of my drinking was done with Danielle from the US and Nayla, who seems to have lived in most parts of the world at some point, two other volunteers doing the same program as me. They were good fun. I also spent one evening hanging out with the younger sister of Kristin, my friend from Ecuador. Kristin's younger sister, Meagan, was on a year long university exchange in Cape Town and we headed out with Danielle from my volunteer program, and a bunch of other American exchange students, to the Cape Town wine festival. I enjoy hanging out with American students, I can pretend I am in some Hollywood teen flick like American Pie and make inappropriate jokes about band camp. I am sure this gets old very quickly. Anyway, the wine festival was one of those flat entry fee and then all you can drink type of affairs. Needless to say, as these types of events encourage binge drinking and hence I am completely blameless, I ended up overly intoxicated and may have attempted to make a few arrangements to import certain varieties of South African wine into Australia en bulk and through dubiously legal channels. Anyway, the wine festival was lots of fun, and I did finally make it home some time the following morning.
In between the drinking, I did get to the big tourist spots. I took the cable car up Table Mountain to check out the amazing views out over Cape Town and across Table Bay. I took the ferry to Robin Island, the prison island that was Nelson Mandela's residence for much of his 27-year imprisonment. It was also the involuntary home of many other notable political prisoners from the struggle against apartheid. These spots were both amazing, but enough has been written about these spots in numerous guidebooks so I won't go on. Check out some of my pictures above if you have the time.
Eventually I had to bid Cape Town goodbye. It was hard to say goodbye to the people I'd met. I've decided you can feel part of a place in a month if people go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I am especially grateful to the family I stayed with, the Besthas, they became my Cape Town family. I'm also grateful to everyone else who helped with my volunteer program and showed me around town, and the people at Christ the King, the Besthas' local church. If you guys ever read this entry, you all made me feel at home and kept me, mostly, out of trouble. Thank you for everything.
I flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg. I had a day and a half in Jo'burg before my flight back to Australia and the end of my adventure. I organised through my hostel to take a tour to Soweto for a day. This is the major township on the outskirts of Jo'burg and is home to over a million black South Africans. It was similar to the areas in which I had lived and worked while in Cape Town so in some ways the tour was a bit of a waste. However, it was interesting to get some of the history, to visit the sites of some of the key uprisings against apartheid, and to see the childhood homes of Nelson Mandala and Desmond Tutu amongst others. I also got to try some nasty fermented traditional 'beer' that tasted more like fermented goats yogurt. It was very cheap though, which is a much more important quality in beer than something insignificant like taste. It would go well with another South African delicacy, which I must admit I have eaten numerous times, called a Gatsby. A Gatsby is basically a fish and chip sandwich but on a grand scale. Think a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with a whole battered fish, copious chips and sauce or gravy. Due to the Gatsby, the braai (the South African barbeque) and Ruth's great home cooking in Strandfontein, I am leaving South Africa a few kilograms heavier than I arrived. I think I have almost caught up from my massive weight loss in India and Bangladesh. Soon I will not be catching up anymore and I will just be getting fat.
On my way back from Soweto we checked out the centre of Johannesburg and white people were conspicuous by their absence. The 'whites' have basically deserted the centre of Johannesburg, and tend to live in the outer suburbs in gated communities. The place definitely had an air of violence about it and, if I am honest, if I was a local I wouldn't spend much time hanging out in the city centre for fun. It was hard to tell how dangerous Jo'burg really is. I was only there for a short moment and I basically felt the place was scary because I had been told so many horror stories before I arrived. I even felt scared walking in the middle of the day a kilometre down the road to the local mall from my hostel, which was in a very good neighbourhood. It was worth the walk though, I found where all the white people where hiding. All the white people I hadn't seem in the city where happily living their lives in the self enclosed world of Johannesburg's shopping malls.
My brief stay in Johannesburg came to an end and I got on the plane taking me back to Australia. South Africa is a place that despite it all is still full of hope. The sense of possibility brought by the fall of apartheid and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the ANC still pervade the fabric of South Africa. But the hope seems to be fading a little; there are pervasive social problems, some of which - such as violent crime and the fear of crime - are on a scale that I have not come across anywhere else in my travels. I've met black people who say that it was better under apartheid (only a few), white people who just want to get the hell out of the country, and coloured people who feel stuck in the middle and often forgotten much as they felt under apartheid. However most people still see that many things have gotten better and hope still remains. For their sake, and for the sake of the rest of us, I hope South Africa can meet the challenges. It's time for me to go home.