Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 23 - Goodbye Cape Town

Yesterday was our final day in Cape Town. As we flew back to Johannesburg, I reflected on the sites, tours, and people we encountered which have expanded my understanding of the cultural, historical and political dynamics of this beautiful port city. It's been a whirlwind. Over the last three days I've feasted on some of the best Indian and African food ever (District 6 Guest House, our home for the last 3 days, and Marcos African Restaurant respectively); we visited the bleak terrain of Robben Island, the prison home to Nelson Mandela and other luminaries from the 1960s anti-apartheid leadership; toured The District 6 Museum, which chronicles the apartheid government's forcible removal of some 70,000 people from a thriving multi-cultural community in the 1970s; had a sumptuous lunch at the lovely home of Archbishop and Mrs. Desmond Tutu; engaged in a powerful conversation with 7 young Black women entrepreneurs struggling to elbow their way into Cape Town's white and male dominated business community; visited Table Mountain, the incredible mountain range towering above Cape Town (we didn't go to the top because of dense cloud cover); and finally, just before heading to Cape Town International airport, we met with the director of Nonceba Family Center, a rape crisis and women's shelter in Khayelitsha, the largest Black township outside of Cape Town.

This beautiful, state of the art facility was opened in 2008 (although they have been providing services since 1998) with support generated after the tragic death of a 19-year-old budding filmmaker, Ashley Kaimowitz, who had been introduced to Nonceba while making a film about child rape in Khayelitsha in 2002. (She was killed by a drunk driver in 2005). While the stories of rape, incest and abuse were sickening, many of them sounded hauntingly familiar to the horrors that happen to young children, teenage girls and vulnerable women in the States. But what is disturbingly different: Nonceba is the ONLY such center in all of Khayelitsha, a township of almost a million people. 

My take away message was that there is incredible power in one person's stand against injustice. In the mid-90s, the director of Nonceba Family Center, Nocawe Mokayi, was so horrified when a six year old was raped, she was moved to action. Over a decade later, she has created a safe haven for vulnerable, abused children while leading an education revolution to empower young girls and women to heal their wounds.

It is this determination, strength and power that has been demonstrated by women of all walks of life again and again on this trip. Here's to the power of one.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tuesday, March 22

It's Tuesday morning in Cape Town. Every day is filled to capacity with meetings, tours and eating (and lots of it). Since most of our meetings happen in people's homes, food is always involved. I'm going to need to join Bill's weight loss challenge for sure when I get back.

Today we're going to Robben Island, the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years. It's a 3 hour tour including the boat ride that leaves from Cape Town's harbour. Later we'll be heading to the township of Khayelitsha where we'll be visiting a rape crisis and women's shelter. I'm still trying to get my head around the township concept. I don't know if this is accurate, but what I've come up with is that they are like suburban ghettos -- they are high concentrations of desperately poor people living on the outskirts of the major cities. There are Black townships and Coloured -- but no white ones, of course.

Yesterday was a national holiday -- Human Rights Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre. On March 21, 1960, 69 people were killed and 150 injured during a peaceful protest against the apartheid government. Black men, women and children were the victims. After that, the government outlawed any type of demonstration by the people. This inspired the next wave of the anti-apartheid movement, one that moved towards armed resistance. This is when the military wing of the ANC, Spear of the Nation, was created.

All of this history is captured in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg which we visited on Saturday. It's a powerful exploration of the diabolical nature of racism. Here's one quote displayed at the museum that sums up the absolute insanity: "The white man is the master in South Africa, and the white man, from the very nature of his origins, from the very nature of his birth, and from the very nature of his guardianship, will remain master in South Africa to the end." House Assembly, 1950

The end came in 1994, however, like in America, institutional racism persists in this country. This was a major topic in our conversation yesterday with 7 local women entrepreneurs who are striving to break into Cape Town's very segregated business world. There has been no healing process for Blacks, said Weziwe Xameni, who works with community based organizations. The Truth and Reconciliation process didn't go far enough. People, Black people in particular, still suffer from the years of degradation and mental and emotional abuse at the hands of the white minority. But these local business women have a desire for personal and professional freedom. They are determined to make a new path for themselves and families. Their businesses range from construction to public relations. Right now for most of them, success is still a question, but they are committed to finding the answers and the opportunities regardless of the hurdles.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Friday, March 18 - "Breaking New Ground"

I rose to our host Rose’s breakfast of omelet, baked beans, fish sticks, yogurt and banana. It seems like South African food (like its people) is an interesting melange of British, Dutch and African cuisine -- not to mention the Indian, Malay and other influences. After savoring our meal, we boarded the mini-van tour bus embarking on the one hour ride to Pretoria, the seat of South Africa’s government. The theme for the day was “Breaking New Ground - What does it take and what are the challenges?” 

For me, the conversation begins with our fearless leader, Nontombi Naomi Tutu. She has marshaled her energy, enthusiasm and considerable connections, to bring our small group of African American women into the inner lives of the South African experience. She has committed herself to giving us a deep immersion into the history, culture and politics of this incredible nation.  It is, in essence, one big 10-day teachable moment.

Our packed lineup for today included a 10 am meeting with two women working for the Department of Water Affairs: Simphiwe Damane-Moksana, a legal advisor for the department, and Nonzame Sodladla,  an administrator in the same department. At 1 pm we had lunch hosted on the campus of University of Pretoria with Dr. Cheryl de la Rey, the Rector of University of Pretoria (Rector is the same as a president in the states). As such she is the first South African woman of color to be  president of a historically white university. At 3 we had a wonderful lecture on the history of South Africa with Dr. Mbulelo Mzamane, an advisor to South Africa’s president, professor and writer of many books. Currently he is working on an Encyclopedia of South African Arts and Culture. And to cap off the day, we were hosted for dinner by St. Monica’s Parrish in Midrand, which is located between Pretoria and Johannesburg. This beautiful Anglican church rolled out the red carpet for us, inviting members of the congregation to meet and dine with us as their special guests.

At the end of the day, I came away with a deeper understanding of South Africa's painful and complicated history -- and the incredible resiliency of its people. 

Simphiwe Damane-Moksana, the legal advisor for the Water Department, shared that she garnered a lot of her early governmental experience working in the Bantustans (or Homelands) which were set up as independent "nations" during the apartheid regime. Although the apartheid government ultimately controlled these Homelands, they were quasi-independently run by Black South Africans. Divided into nations according to language -- Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, etc. -- they were designed to push the different ethnic groups into their own small areas, while reserving the biggest and best parts of the country for the whites. While corruption was rampant in the Homelands, according to Damane-Moksana, Blacks had an opportunity to learn governmental skills that would later prepare them to take on positions in the new free South Africa. Today women are well-represented in South Africa's government, however, both of the women we met with stated there's still work to be done to foster greater support between women who have "broken new ground" and those still scratching the surface.

Through these conversations, I see so many parallels between the African-American experience and the Black South African struggle. Years of utter and complete disenfranchisement, powerful resistance movements, ongoing struggles for full participation in all areas of society and a quest for freedom and equality. The biggest differences -- and these are major -- are: South Africa is a predominantly Black country and their apartheid system only ended about 17 years ago in 1994.
What is most striking to me though is the spirit of love, sincerity, and generosity shown to us during our travels. Our hosts have welcomed us into their homes, shared their time and information in long, unhurried meetings and they continue to greet our many many questions with candor, warmth and humor. They have, in fact, embraced us as a part of their extended family.

Finally...I'm Connected (Blog Written 3/17 but only able to post now)

Touch Down! After 2 full days of travel I have arrived safe, sound and a little woozy from the long 16 hour journey. The direct flight from Atlanta – 14.5 hours — was pretty brutal. The only saving grace — movies, and lots of them. In 14 hours, I caught up on all the hottest flicks I’d missed over the last 6 months — Black Swan, The Social Network, Animal Kingdom and I even dozed off to Joan Rivers’ raspy-voiced schtick from her autobiographical documentary (boy she’s got issues). At about 5:30 pm Johannesburg time, we arrive at OR Tambo Airport. Customs is a breeze. Baggage claim, no problem. As I roll my cart out to the waiting area, I start scanning the crowd for signs, unsure of my pick up plans. Almost immediately I hear my name being called. And there in a bright orange head wrap, I see my dear friend Nomvuyo and Naomi Tutu, waving me down. Yes...all anxiety dissipates.

After a quick attempt to get my iphone transferred over to a South African wireless carrier, we abandoned the mission in favor of a cheaper solution outside of the airport. In my groggy, post flight haze, I realize that while English is definitely being spoken, there’s a whole lot of language that is completely foreign to me floating around. As we left the store, I asked, “what language were you speaking?” They responded that they are both multilingual and most people in South Africa speak many different languages – Xhosa, Zulu, among others. Since both Nomvuyo and Naomi speak most of them, they simply respond to whatever is being spoken. We are definitely in a whole new land where language is punctuated by clicks, rolling "r"s and sucking teeth. This is full-mouth movement, not simply tongue and teeth. Later at dinner, my friend said that language is critical to culture -- especially in South Africa. That is why different racial and ethnic groups here speak different languages, which can say a lot about their politics and identity. For instance, most Black South Africans do not speak Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors. However, most Coloureds do speak it. More on that later... 

Off to Soweto where I am staying at the Rose Bed and Breakfast, a modest B and B in the heart of this historic Black community. The sun is setting so I get to see the silouhette and lights of Johannesburg as we race by. There are industrial buildings flanking the highway as we speed towards our destination. Soweto, which stands for Southwest Township, is  home to 4 million people (that’s the official count, it’s likely much more). It’s a 35 square mile area located outside of Johannesburg. This is the area where Black South Africans who worked in Johannesburg were forced to live in during apartheid. While Soweto is the largest, it is not unique. Every white city, had townships where the Black workers were confined to live. 

Until 1994 (that’s right only 17 years ago), all Blacks had to carry a passbook with them everywhere they went. It specified where you could go, when you could be there and who you were supposed to be working for. You could be stopped and questioned at any time and if there was anything out of order, you could be arrested. Our guide, Booysies Khanyile, just celebrated his 58th birthday yesterday. He didn’t burn his passbook when apartheid ended like so many others did in a symbol of liberation. Instead, he saved his as a visual reminder of his life before apartheid ended. He went out to the car and brought his in as a visual testament to the brutality and injustice that was a regular part of his first 41 years on this earth.

After years of systematic economic and political deprivation, today Soweto is a community striving to grow and build. While violence, poverty and substandard schools continue to plague this city (much like areas of Philly), there is a strong sense of community. Naomi even said she feels safer in Soweto than Johannesburg. Why? There are more people who have your back in Soweto, she says. Small businesses are popping up. Light industry is starting to take hold - car repair shops, furniture building, shopping malls and cinemas. And there's a budding tourism industry with a section of Soweto dedicated to Black-owned Bed and Breakfasts. 

And so this journey begins...Tomorrow we head to Pretoria, South Africa's capital. Stay tuned.