Sunday, July 23, 2006

Snapshot in black and white

Manila Times column
June 25, 2006

Twelve days, I figured, would be enough to draw up a picture of South Africa, 12 years after the end of apartheid, four centuries after Europeans descended upon the southern tip of the continent and began the vicious, genocidal process of colonization. We spent a couple of days in Johannesberg, then flew south over brown and barren-seeming land to the city of George, and from there rented a car and spent a few days driving around the area of the Cape, culminating in four days in Cape Town for the international book fair.

It was a patchwork quilt of a trip. History was at the forefront of my agenda. By this I mean both natural history (the Big Five, and the numerous floral species indigenous to South Africa, including gladioli and freesias), and more recent narratives of conquest, admixing and resistance. Throughout I intended to keep a scholarly perspective. This was the first time in my life I had ever studied for an exam by going on vacation – for just 12 hours after our arrival in Denmark I was scheduled to take an oral exam at Roskilde University. Fortunately, it was for a paper in our Post-Apartheid literature class. Our teacher, Kirsten Holst Petersen, had primed us with four important novels and a compendium of articles describing the conditions under apartheid, the legislation upon which that unconscionable system had rested, and the attempts, after 1994, to right its wrongs.

So I had my eyes and ears tuned to any mention of the Griqua people, subject of my paper, but was also out hunting South African novellists. Thank goodness my friend Vagn knew a good many of them, and children’s book illustrators besides, and he was happy to introduce me around. Nevertheless, there were moments when I was happy to part company with my intellectual side, such as the morning, on a farm outside Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo, that I mounted the warm ridged back of an ostrich and hung on shrieking as the bird made a wild dash around the corral. Despite the seriousness with which my friend and I were taking South Africa, we managed to do the usual stupid tourist things.

Is it a stupid tourist thing to keep track of the differences between black people and white? The ladies at the immigration counter at Johannesberg airport were black. Twelve years ago this would have been impossible. The polite men in shabby overcoats in the square before Joburg’s Africa Museum were black. In the span of ten minutes, two of them had greeted us nicely and explained that they were very hungry and would we care to help them out? ‘How do you find South Africa?’ the younger of them said. ‘Beautiful,’ I said, lapsing into the standard reply, the reply one gives to one’s charming host across a well-appointed dinner table.

What else could I say? I’m sure we both sensed the irony. Twelve years ago the beggars would have been black, too, but perhaps the pass laws would have barred them from that particular section of Johannesburg. The Africa Museum had an exhibit on the townships – slums – where blacks were forced to live, an exhibit that moved me to tears. Under apartheid, had there been an Africa Museum, and if so, what would it have displayed?

Any stupid tourist, I figure, would have to note the economic differences between races that exist to this very day. Joburg resembles an American city in its vastness and degree of development (or at least the areas in Joburg that we happened to visit). Cape Town even more so. Throughout this right-hand drive, American/European-seeming, nicely paved and skyscrapered system, black figures shuffle. On the shoulder of highways, thumb held out in the classic hitch-hiker pose, lounging on park benches, glimpsed through a doorway at a bed-and-breakfast. Perpetually in the margins.

But this is a negative image I am painting; moreover, it is only one facet of the picture: it is impossible to capture the country in a snapshot or 600 words.

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