Category Archives: South Africa

effin’ fifa: a rant.

The World Cup shenanigans will conclude this weekend.

Most thought I was delirious for booking a flight home only a week into the World Cup. In hindsight, I would have loved to stay longer; watching World Cup matches from home, so far removed from the delightful drone of vuvuzelas (other than my own), has been the source of substantial doses of nostalgia. I watch games in Nelspruit, Rustenburg, Polokwane, Pretoria, Cape Town and Jozi and I think, I was there. Damnit, why am I not there?

But really, I’m even more curious as to what it will be like come Monday (or soon thereafter), when the World Cup frenzy—virtually inescapable in the months leading up to the event—dissipates. In preceding months, Zakumi’s image blared from billboards along highways across the country. Countdowns on front page banners of newspapers served as daily reminders: The World Cup was 60 days away; and then it was 16 days away. And before we knew it, it was upon us. Flags of participating nations hung in front of B&Bs. Restaurants and bars redecorated, professing their loyalty to all 32 competing countries at once.

So when the flags disappear, then what?

The not-so-optimistic answer: Shit’s gonna hit the fan. This I heard from co-workers, university students, fellow patrons. Some disagreed, but the majority consented: The World Cup brought with it a euphoria that wouldn’t last, they said. South Africa’s problems hadn’t disappeared. Spin doctors successfully constructed a facade of a new and improved South Africa, but it was just that. A facade. Sure, the airports were prettier. The new Gautrain efficiently shuttled visitors from OR Tambo International Airport to the wealthier, stereotypically suburban suburbs and then onto Pretoria. Cities sported new, freshly paved roads. But there is another South Africa that many visitors never saw, and officials made sure of it. Pathways to and from the stadiums are tunnels of illusion, depicting one South Africa. Visit parts of Soweto, Alexandra, Khayelitsha and Masiphumelele, and you’ll witness another.

Many of the challenges that plagued the pre-World Cup South Africa will continue post-World Cup: a socioeconomically divided population; a crumbling education system; an unemployment rate that’s up to three times that of the U.S.

And if I just sound like I have a chip on my shoulder, John Pilger’s tirade and this CNN article provide a comparatively well-substantiated argument. He cites many of the accounts I heard myself while in South Africa. Like the story of 20,000 Joe Slovo settlement residents who were threatened with eviction because they live near the main motorway between Cape Town and the city’s airport.

For five-and-a-half years, Hellen sold pap, meat and vegetables to passersby. On average, she earned R100 a day, which she collected in old Peter Stuyvesant cigarette containers. Her food stand was located across the street from Soccer City. I interviewed her and several others, who hoped that the World Cup would translate to added revenue, more R10 notes to fill those cigarette containers. No such luck. FIFA rules commanded that she, along with thousands of street vendors throughout South Africa, must pack up and move out. They missed out on the World Cup boom because a line of shops erected using dingy green tarp and scavenged street signs would sully the view of the stadium, taint the illusion.

I hope that the World Cup brings great things for South Africa, that the promise of foreign investment materializes, that Mzansi finds itself on the global radar. I hope this optimism isn’t naïve. I hope that shit doesn’t hit the fan.

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for the memories.

At the risk of sounding maudlin, I’ll admit that this experience has satisfied every cliché anybody’s ever used to describe their life-changing experiences abroad.

In Maputo, we were held hostage at a shebeen. Earlier, a local had enthusiastically pulled a plastic lawn chair up to our table, assuming a position as part of our entourage. But barred by our inability to speak Portuguese and failing in our attempts to communicate in debauched Spanish, we remained largely oblivious of our fellow audience member’s continued presence behind us. Nathan had moved his chair to within two feet of the TV screen, anxious to catch every second of the action as our boys, Bafana Bafana, played Mexico in the opening match of the World Cup. Meanwhile, Bettina and I interrogated our new Cambodian-French-Canadian footie fanatic friend.

But while our eyes remained glued to the soccer players dancing across the screen like mosquitoes abuzz, our clever friend ordered beer after beer, under the false conjecture that it was our treat. When the time came to pay our tab, we obviously refused to pay for our drunken accomplice. So naturally, the employees locked us within the premises, guarding the door like bouncers. A confusing chaos ensued, fueled by communication barriers. The waitress furiously punched keys on her calculator, showing us the tab our friend had racked up. We futilely argued with her until we realized that the amount in contestation was a few measly bucks. We paid up, largely because the urgency of the hunger pangs raging in our stomachs (and the amazing seafood that beckoned) weighed heavier than the matter of principle.

Hours later, our drunken friend reappeared, having recovered from his babalas. Racked with guilt for making us pay for his beer while he basked in drunken stupor—and realizing that he may not have left the most desirable impression on his foreign friends—he offered us a token of reconciliation. “A coke?” he questioned earnestly. We kindly refused but to no avail, and he returned minutes later with two cans. He insisted that we accept his gesture: “Keep it. For the memories.”

In all honestly, I’m not quite sure what fate that Coke confronted, whether it was left atop a deserted table or salvaged by another indulging spectator. But this somewhat bizarre encounter, at the time no more than a pain in the ass, I will now undoubtedly reflect upon fondly.

***

Midway through my time in South Africa, I experienced what I’ve since jokingly dubbed my “quarter-life crisis.” It forced me to revisit and challenge my perceptions about, vaguely speaking, life. My college-bound self thought she had all the answers—or at least 89 percent of them. I thought I’d figured things out, that I knew exactly where that road I’d begun treading would lead.

Now, I know that I’m not even close. I let go of my prematurely conceived notions about who I am and what I want, and it was the best thing I could have done. As Woodstock-esque as it sounds, I danced to the beats of Bob Marley, trails of cigarette smoke encircling me, the inescapable scent working its way into the fibers of my clothing. Kwaito music blared from speakers in Tembisa, as I fumbled to follow synchronized steps in the midst of a cluster of dancers (a young man eventually began whispering the upcoming steps in my ear, saving me from further embarrassment). I walked up and down Seventh Avenue hundreds of times, where I exchanged greetings with so many familiar faces—the patron at the IT café with the blonde hip-length dreadlocks; the street vendor who offered to make me a beaded masterpiece countless times; Sebastian, the waiter with one heck of an afro, at SIX.

I know that I’ll likely continue to surprise myself, as I re-evaluate what I think I know. I know that that’s OK. I know that—barring any further near-death experiences (this is another story that, unfortunately, I don’t think any blog post could do justice)—I’ll have years to figure it out.

And I’ve come back with an paradoxical sense of both clarity and confusion. There is no definitive moment when all these revelations exposed themselves to me, as it often occurs so effusively in the final pages of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Instead, these revelations came gradually. Many times, I’ve surprised even myself, only confirming that one should never say never.

I hoped South Africa would stand to validate what, for the past ten years, I’ve thought I wanted to be. In the end, it did and it didn’t. Now, I relish the fact that there isn’t just one path. I’ve come back inspired by the stories of others’ travels. And if I can muster the guts to do it, why not follow in Nathan’s footsteps, delivering pizzas, saving up for months for the journey of a lifetime, initially landing in Joburg and booking only that first night at a B&B, then backpacking through southern Africa?

I learned to live in the moment, to let go of my inhibitions.  It’s been a whirlwind. And I will treasure it, keep it. For the memories.

traffic jamz.

I’m now the proud owner of an illegitimate Bafana Bafana jersey, purchased out of a trash bag in the backroom of an inconspicuous store somewhere in the CBD. I bought it for only R100, thanks to my South African (and more importantly, Zulu-speaking) photographer friend who accompanied me; mlungus obviously don’t fare too well on their own when it comes to getting a noteworthy deal.

Without the highlighter yellow jersey, I would have been horribly conspicuous at Thursday’s soccer game, where South Africa played Colombia at Soccer City stadium.

I’m not discounting the environment at the stadium, but the drive there was undoubtedly the best part. We joined a battalion of vehicles, all destined for Soccer City. A colony of ants, we approached the stadium from all directions. The resulting gridlock led anxious, excited and intoxicated revelers to move their celebration onto the streets. Fans rolled down their windows. With great gusto, they blew their vuvuzelas* and waved their South African flags. Restless passengers abandoned their vehicles and began running through the maze of cars, flags in tow. One driver decided that he couldn’t fight the urge and rushed for the nearest bush. And hooting musicians adopted a language of their own, creating a cacophony of song with their vuvuzelas.

Cars decided to disregard road signs, overtaking the lanes for oncoming traffic and making it virtually impossible for the stray car traveling in the opposite direction to get anywhere. Finally, we parked in a makeshift lot, manned by a self-appointed parking attendant who claimed a plot of land on the side of the road as his own. He charged each car R30 and must have made a decent amount of rand that night.

Soccer City stadium itself is gorgeous; its lit windows look like a constellation of stars against the night sky.  The environment at the stadium was also filled with great fanfare, as vuvuzelas blasted rhythmically and supporters chanted. As for the game, I was pretty clueless (Soccer 101, Faizan? k thanks). Bafana Bafana won, but I can’t tell you much more than this.

***

*The vuvuzela is a plastic trumpet, and some will also tell you it is South Africa’s not-so-secret weapon at the World Cup. Actually, blowing it correctly requires more skill and technique than one would think (oh, stop it, you dirty-minded masses). When successfully blown, it emits a loud disconcerting foghorn-type sound that—anywhere else—would make me want to rip my ears off. But at South African soccer games, it’s AWESOME. There’s also nonsensical talk of banning them at the World Cup based on claims that they can be distracting for players, coaches and referees. Supposedly, they can also damage hearing. Still, I say it’s worth the risk. So what if World Cup goers slam Fifa with lawsuits for damaging their hearing? (Yes, Fifa is legitimately concerned about this.)

At the 2009 Confederations Cup, Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso requested that Fifa ban the noisemakers:”Those trumpets? That noise, I don’t like. It is not distracting, but it is not nice to have a noise like that.”

My personal suggestion: Alonso, wear earplugs.

the bike hospital.

Today, I saw a bike hospital. An interesting concept, I thought. Sadly, it looked more like a bike mortuary than anything else, with a 10-foot mountain of bike parts—wheels, handlebars and pedals—piled in front.

Jozi is now home, in many ways. I’ve fallen into a comfortable routine, exploring the city and discovering my favorite spots, like SIX, the “addictive” restaurant-bar-lounge on Seventh Avenue, and Picobella, where all the waiters wear Italia football jerseys (although I have my doubts about whether any of them are actually supporters). But I’m becoming acutely aware of the fact that my time in Mzansi is nearing its end.

And, as always, I’ve already begun pondering what I’ll miss, the moments that I’ll carve out as the highlights of my time in South Africa. In fact, what I’ll miss most are not discrete moments. Instead, it’s the ease with which I’ve had conversations with complete strangers. I’ll miss the lack of inhibition among others, who freely ask questions and voice their own opinions without bothering to censor their statements.

While I am proud to call myself an American (and unfortunately the one verse I know of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” is now playing on repeat in my mind), there are certain aspects of America that I would readily trade in. And one of them is the way that, on a crowded downtown Chicago street, pedestrians are still often oblivious of those around them.

I remember walking the streets of Dar es Salaam, shoulder to shoulder on the crowded pavement.  My fellow travelers and I never acted like complete strangers. Instead, we traded smiles frequently, making eye contact with each other instead of staring off into an invisible abyss.  So naturally, when I returned to the US, I fruitlessly continued in my efforts to make friendly eye contact with passersby, a faint smile on my lips. But the eye contact was awkward and the smiles weren’t returned, as if the act required excruciating effort—like currency, not to be wasted. But here in Jozi, I find that smiles, thankfully, aren’t treated like they’re in short supply. And I’ll miss this, the way strangers often chant “hello”—and sometimes “sawubona.”

Yesterday, I ventured into Fordsburg, now one of my favorite areas in the city. It’s Joburg’s equivalent of Chicago’s Devon Avenue and Houston’s Hillcroft, but way better—partly due to the Bollywood music constantly blasting in the background. We began at a street market, where I found everything from the standard commodities, like pirated DVDs of Bollywood movies, to more illustrious finds, like fabulous behl puri for only R7 (the equivalent of one dollar).

I also searched for a beauty salon, as my eyebrows were in dire need of grooming. We found a few but after spotting only male beauticians at work, I assumed that these “beauty salons” were barbershops of sorts. So I kept walking. Three beauty salons later, I realized that the hair removal industry in Fordsburg must be dominated by men, as my quest to find a female beautician remained unsuccessful. I finally picked a male-dominated beauty salon and ventured inside. Here, I found the only female beautician I’d encounter in Fordsburg (After spotting my untamed eyebrows, she asked if it was my first time—ouch). Sisi, my roommate, hovered nearby, both confused and amazed by the concept that thread could extract hair. All in all, it was the highlight of the day.

We also stumbled into a prayer shop and an art gallery filled with amazing pieces of Arabic calligraphy. And although much of the artwork is currently unaffordable based on my nonexistent income, I vowed that someday I’d own something from Maroun’s. We ate dinner at Bismillah Restaurant, where I ordered a disappointing plate of butter chicken (the fact that it was listed under “English Dishes” should have tipped me off). I didn’t love it but I packed it to go anyway, and then I subsequently accidentally left it in what is now most likely a curry-scented taxi. Bummer.

Fordsburg, check.

darn you, Oprah.

So many of the South Africans I’ve spoken to have voiced some curiosity regarding the perception others have of South Africa. Now, I won’t pretend that I have the authority to speak on behalf of the rest of America, but I can speak from my own experience.

All too often, when I shared my imminent travel plans with others, the typical reaction was, “Oh, South Africa? Where in South Africa? Johannesburg?! Be careful, it’s dangerous.” This was accompanied by a grimace and furrowed eyebrows, a look that betrayed their concern for my future well-being. The warning was then followed by some suggestion about what I should do to ensure my safety during my daring visit. According to my skeptical listeners, I should carry mace, and maybe even a gun, one suggested (and unfortunately I’m not sure if he was joking). Ironically, my self-appointed advisers had never traveled to the country, and few had even ventured to Africa. What they knew about South Africa came from Oprah show episodes (focusing on the ills within South African society) and the occasional PBS special, which they only half-listened to while they multi-tasked.

I wrote off their concern as a bunch of hokum. And after having spent about a month in the country, here’s my great epiphany: South Africa really is not all that different (profound, no?). Yes, there’s poverty—stark poverty. Yes, this country has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, making it one of the most unequal societies in the world. And yes, this phenomenon, where wealth is directly juxtaposed with poverty, breeds crime and violence. I don’t mean to discount any of this. But if we took a closer look at our own society, in America, how difficult would it be to find people living in similar states of poverty, or pockets within cities where crime rates are equally high?

Many South Africans refute the perception of South Africa that’s portrayed around the world. Yes, there are differences between the U.S. and South Africa: Most South Africans proficiently speak an average of five different languages. Jazz and blues are to South Africa what pop music is to the U.S. And people, on the whole, are much better dancers. HIV/AIDS and race are real issues that continue to plague the country, but doesn’t the U.S. have its own set of issues to contend with (i.e. Sarah Palin) (kidding)?

The aforementioned race issue, stated simplistically, is complex.  There is a dichotomy in regards to race in the country, and it largely depends on where you are. In cosmopolitan Johannesburg, I’ve seen whites, blacks and coloureds intermingling at restaurants, in coffee shops—perhaps to a greater extent than I’ve seen in the U.S. (although this may be just because I’m more conscious of it).  However, on Day Two of my internship at City Press I accompanied fellow reporters to Ventersdorp, the scene of Eugene Terre’blanche’s death. The white supremacist was allegedly murdered by two of his black farm workers, and we joined the battalion of reporters who flocked to the scene of the crime in the days after his death.

In Ventersdorp, men loitered on street corners, with nowhere to go, no job to report to due to soaring unemployment rates. Cars slowly paced up and down sandy roads. I sat inside the local Wimpy, where blacks and whites sat at adjacent tables. But never once did I witness any interaction between them—in the restaurant, at the petrol station or on the streets. This was entirely contradictory to what I’d seen in Joburg, but some say this is characteristic of many small towns in South Africa. And as I reflect on the trip to Ventersdorp, I most readily recall the silence, the lack of the cacophonous sounds that bring a town to life. The racial tensions were palpable, in a way I’d never experienced before.

Still, there’s a side of South Africa that doesn’t make headlines. It hasn’t been exoticized or glamourized, essentially because there’s virtually nothing different about it. By no means do I intend to discount the importance of the issues that do make headlines: corruption within government, shady officials, the rates of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. But there’s the side of South Africa that doesn’t make headlines in the U.S., simply because there’s nothing utterly unfamiliar about it.

halaal easter eggs.

Riaad Moosa. I’m obsessed, admittedly because he’s funny, South African AND Muslim and well, I think that’s a rather rare combination. In the spirit of embracing embedded links, I’m including his here: www.riaadmoosa.co.za. Unfortunately, it doesn’t currently provide much information, as it’s undergoing “cosmetic surgery” (okay, not his best joke). YouTube him (I would if I could. Unfortunately, my efforts to limit my megabyte usage prevent me from Google-ing, YouTube-ing, Twitter-ing, Facebook-ing and er, stalking him myself). Moosa performed stand-up at City Press’ Official Launch Party two weeks ago. I would try to retell his jokes, but my memory is failing me. I do, however, recall laughing out loud several times, specifically after some crack about halaal Easter eggs (hence, the title of this post).

Speaking of City Press’ launch party, it was perhaps one of the swankiest events I’ve ever attended, although that doesn’t say much. First, it’s heartening to be at a newspaper that’s not at the cusp of bankruptcy, the fate so many U.S. newspapers have faced. The newspaper is in the midst of launching a re-design, with the first edition of the revamped newspaper to hit stands tomorrow, May 2! Our newsroom has even recently been renovated, equipped with brand-new LCD screens and striped orange chairs, which aren’t as horrendous-looking as they might sound. So while most U.S. newspapers are downsizing, it’s refreshing to be at a newspaper that’s seemingly far from it.

Secondly, I’ll officially declare my love for almost every single one of my co-workers. My favorite part of this experience so far has been having the opportunity to meet the people I’ve met and having the conversations that I’ve had—about everything from how the fall of communism is the “worst thing that could have happened for South Africa” (an argument I don’t necessarily support) to how Zulu men—traditional Zulu men, my co-worker clarified—dish out the best pick-up lines. Unfortunately, the melt-ability of their sweet-nothings are lost in translation: “You’re so beautiful you look like you bathe in milk” and “You’ve caught me somewhere between my heart and my stomach” probably wouldn’t sweep me off my feet when purred in English. Bummer.

***

The American accent is obviously a dead giveaway (99 percent of the time. One man had no clue that I wasn’t originally South African). So when strangers discover that I’m an American student interning in South Africa, the first question I usually get is none other than, “So, what do you think of South Africa?” or some variation of this question. It’s quickly becoming one of my least favorite queries, ranked just behind “What kind of music do you like?” I feel like my interviewer is looking for something really profound and philosophical, and I’m in no position to offer anything Hobbesian. So my plan is to memorize some rote answer. And I’m currently fielding suggestions.

papa-paparazzi.

Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League, is quite the character, to say the least. He’s the fodder of many front pages and almost everything out of his mouth ends up in the news—often for all the wrong reasons. In his most recent press conference today, he lambasted a BBC reporter, asking security to remove “that thingy” from the ANCYL’s media briefing. And Malema managed to squeeze in the insults “bastard” and “bloody agent” before the reporter packed up and left.

This isn’t the first time Malema’s free-wheeling, absurd antics have gotten him prime-time coverage.  He recently resurrected a protest song from the Apartheid era, entitled Ayesaba Amagwala, meaning “The Cowards are Scared.” It contains the lyrics aw dubul’ibhunu, meaning “shoot the boer;” the song (not surprisingly) has drawn criticism from many sides. A court accused Malema of inciting racial hatred and banned him from singing the song. Despite the court’s ruling, Malema doesn’t plan on stopping: “This is the court ruling of the white men in South Africa but we are not going to obey it,” he argued.

And if you need more proof of the ridiculousness of some of Malema’s statements, here’s an excerpt from his recent speech to a rally of 2000 Zanu-PF youth in Zimbabwe. Enjoy.

“We want the mines. They have been exploiting our minerals for a long time. Now it’s our turn to also enjoy from these minerals. They are so bright, they are colourful, we refer to them as white people, maybe their colour came as a result of exploiting our minerals and perhaps if some of us can get opportunities in these minerals we can develop some nice colour like them.”

An editor tells me, “People love talking about Malema.” And they do—heck, I’ve just rambled about him for a good four paragraphs. But is that reason enough to grant him a significant amount of real estate in local newspapers? Are we, as journalists, pandering to his whims by printing every foolhardy word out of his mouth? Are his statements really newsworthy? I argue that we’re adding fuel to the fire, granting Malema a sense of legitimacy that he does not deserve.

***

In Johannesburg, we toured Soweto, a large township just outside the city. It’s home to roughly two million people, according to a researcher at the local Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (As I’ve come to learn in South Africa, pinning down more precise numbers is virtually impossible). In Soweto, there’s a large Anglican Church, attended by upwards of one thousand parishioners.

Former President Bill Clinton attended the church when he toured South Africa during his presidency, soon after the Monica Lewinsky scandal had run its course. In an unfortunate coincidence, the priest had decided to prepare a sermon on the immorality of infidelity, with the disgraced president in attendance.