Friday, October 02, 2009

Gandhi lived here

January 24th 2009- Johannesburg, also fondly known as Jo'burg is roughly located on the Northern central part of South Africa. A few hours away from Krugger National Park, Drankensberg mountains, and the country of Bostwana, its location is quite coveted. The biggest surprise as we land in Jo'berg is how progressive the city looks. The transportation system is in par with the US. We just rented a car from the airport and took off with a GPS. Though unlike America, we get a tiny car that rivals the Maruti in India. Hilly and almost picturesque, we see cute little subdivisions that dot the slopes. Just like Lagos, white people don't seem to be on the streets walking. Blacks are everywhere, walking with umbrellas, either going to school or cleaning the streets. As a brown person, I guess I could choose which camp to be in. Most black people were working menial jobs and most white people were shopping at the malls. Did I tell you things are very cheap in South Africa. Cheaper than the US and much cheaper than Nigeria. BTW, Nigerians are regarded as scum in every part of Africa other than some parts of Nigeria itself.

South African art is quite pleasing to the eye. But then there are somethings that the eye can't see. Deep down in every South African's psyche is the strange feeling of actually walking in an (apartheid) free country. I couldn't get my head around the fact that 4 million minority whites ruled 20 million blacks. To do this with such brutality and for so long right into the 90s….is something I can't even imagine. Can you imagine how it must have been for me to actually stand on the ground where so many people fought for their rights- to able to go to schools, to get health care, to be able to live in areas they wanted, to walk freely with their heads held high, to live in peace and above all to be treated as humans in their country, the country of their ancestors?

In our tour of Jo'burg, we passed through a highly affluent neighborhood called Houghton. During the Apartheid Government, this locale was primarily a 'white-area' and any blacks trespassing would be arrested without interrogation and put in prison for 6 years. Even now, as South Africa heals, we don't see many black people here other than staff. The houses here are grotesquely huge. Unfortunately we couldn't admire these homes due to high compound walls, with electric fencing as heightened security measures for a once paranoid white population. Some of these houses are now being converted to offices.

Hillcrest was another White-Area, but it was the only area that blacks were allowed to come to and the only place where they could meet the whites if they 'had' to. Present Jo'burg is seeing a lot of black people moving into this area and the whites slowly moving out. We do see signs on abandoned stores that show some evidence of the past. 'Non-Whites not allowed' or like the photo above.

Our next stop at Soweto (South Western Township) was quite an eye-opener. In the 1900s there was an outbreak of bulimic plague and many blacks started getting affected by it. Using this as an excuse, the British council moved ALL the blacks and Indians to Soweto to be used as 'evacuation camps'. Soweto is 10 miles away from the white city. With more gold being found in the area, more blacks came from every where to work in the mines. The Soweto slums increased in size to 1 million people. Many uprisings against whites took place here. Many freedom leaders grew up here as did much of the African consciousness. One most noteworthy person is Nelson Mandela. Winnie Mandela (Nelson Mandela's ex-wife still lives there in a division in Soweto called Beverly Hills-slightly nicer neighborhood, hardly the Beverly Hills of Southern California). Nelson Mandela's house in Soweto is on the same street as Desmond Tutu's. So Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to house two Nobel laureates.
Seeing the prison that housed both Mandela and Gandhi was quite a stirring moment. And there, said someone, is the Gandhi statue. Yes, I do see the signs saying Gandhi square, but that guy is not Gandhi. I was certain. Then it struck me, quite profoundly! Gandhi was not always old, slouching with a stick talking a long stride looking at heaps of salt in the horizon. He was also a young barrister smartly dressed with books tucked away in his hand, a stern face that would take no racial nonsense, not in India and definitely not here in South Africa where he was flung out of the first class compartment in the train for not being white. He stood up for the atrocities shown to his country men in South Africa before he left for India to lead the country to freedom. It is also said that he didn't really care much for the black people and considered them savages. Interestingly, our good old man is branded racist among the blacks of South Africa and they was some resentment for this statue to be unveiled in the first place. This could be attributed to awareness at that time and brainwashing of the Indians in South Africa against the Blacks (which I believe is still prevalent). Later in India, Gandhi stood up for the cause of untouchables and no 'rasict' would have done that. Anyway, I think Gandhi started the first passive resistant movement in South Africa and got the Black people motivated to begin their political movement.
So Yay to our Gandhi!

In the corner, there's a Zulu Muti store 'Museum of Man and Science', that sells every conceivable ingredient for the traditional African healers to perform their medicinal skills for any ailment ranging form common cold to hepatitis A. The store sells star fishes, snakes skins, lion teeth, bones of assorted animals (or maybe humans too..i didn't ask) and of course intestines neatly folded. There were drums and spiders. I bought souvenirs for all of you from here, but they ate each other up. Expecting to see a Zulu guy with face paintings and spear, I walk into the store to get a closer look. 'You don't look Zulu at all' I say to a few folks that look more Indian than I. They laugh and say they are from Madras, at least their great grandfather was. They were so excited that I spoke fluent Tamil (hah, at least I could trick them into believing that) and were very happy to have met fellow Tamilian. I think I had more similarities to that stuffed monkey in their store than them. Indians seem to have permeated all sectors in South Africa, even as freaky as above. Being third or forth generation Indians, they speak very little of their mother tongue, but are fluent in Afrikaans and other local languages. Just as I was leaving their store they wanted to know if Aishwarya Rai is Tamil. I say she is from Mangalore. It took me a while to assuage their sorrows.

Drakensberg (Mountain of the Dragons) in South Africa is the home to the Zulu warriors, who have for the most part abandoned their spears and taken up to farming. I was very disappointed to see Zulus in pants riding bicycles. What was not disappointing was the stunning scenic beauty of their home in the mountains, a backpacker's paradise. Beautiful and lush green mountains are found just a few hours south of Johannesburg. We hiked up to a few caves at Big Castle Mountain to see some bushman paintings. Nomadic bushmen used to roam around in these mountains only 500 years ago. They are said to have traveled all the way from West Africa in the BC to East Africa and finally to South Africa in the later stages. They are just 4 feet tall, nomadic hunter gatherers and talk in the famous 'click language'. See Gods Must Be Crazy movie. A few tribes still thrive in the Kalahari Desert though many of them are lost to colonization, civilization and the lure of better lives in the cities. One of the people we met was a bushman and when she spoke in that 'click' language, I was stunned to note the kind of sounds a human body could make. All day I tried to bring out that guttural click and in the end I managed to hear my bowels groan.

South Africa seems to have it all. Capetown was awesome in its own beachy way. The vibrant culture, the wonderfully friendly people, the wildlife, the natural beauty, the natural resources (gold and diamond mines), the art, the history…No wonder the British couldn't leave. I didn't want to either.


dilip said...

What a detailed writeup!
Makes me wanna visit..!

Zoheb said...

2nd comment!! Yay!!
Good to see Mahatma Gandhi's photo on your blog.

Ashish Chatterjee said...

Lovely write-up series alpha... your africa trip seems to be good for us through your blog. :)
Just a few more photos if you have them please.

Rash said...

Loved that bit about the Gandhi statue. The suit clad Gandhi statue would have hit me profoundly too.

Alpha said...

thanks guys, been super lazy to update them in a chronological manner. But I should. I will post some photos definitely.

wa said...

Alpha, am eagerly waiting for your post on London. Look I've even got the title ready, 'Gandhi studied here'. Now write

Alpha said...

how are you?..sure sure, I will. I still have most of nigeria, mali, rwanda, egypt, morocco, ghana still left.:))) london was great, but i ought to get to it..since i am doing everything in bursts anyway.