Charms and challenges of “rainbow nation” – II

But my excitement at reaching “God’s Window” after a long drive followed by a steep climb quickly turned into disappointment.  For some reason – and I hope it had nothing to do with me – God had pulled the curtains.

 (Daily Times, 29 May 2013)

Leaving South Africa’s Kruger National Park, I drove through the Blyde River Canyon. It was a magnificent drive, if a little risky. With sheer drops on one side and rocky outcroppings from hillsides on the other, reckless driving very much the norm for mini-bus drivers, my FM radio constantly reporting deaths from road accidents and the spectacular scenery very distracting, I had reason to be a bit anxious. 

The canyon is situated on the Drakensberg escarpment.  Along the way, there is “Bourke’s Luck Potholes”, a series of pothole-shaped formations formed by erosion.   Next on the road, and high on my list, was “God’s window”.  The name conjured something mystical or mysterious.

The view from God’s Window is described thus: “Here, sheer cliffs plunge over 700 metres to the lowveld (flat grassland). From this escarpment—a mostly unbroken rampart of cliffs—opens a vista into the lowveld expanse and escarpment forests, the Eden-like aesthetic appearance of which prompted the name. On a clear day it is possible to see over the Kruger National Park towards the Lebombo Mountains on the border with Mozambique.”

But my excitement at reaching “God’s Window” after a long drive followed by a steep climb quickly turned into disappointment.  For some reason – and I hope it had nothing to do with me – God had pulled the curtains.  Before me was a wall of fog, which had reduced visibility to virtually zero.

Detouring through Swaziland (which I have described previously), I arrived in South Africa’s largest city.  When one hears the name Johannesburg, called Joburg by the locals, two things come to mind, crime and Soweto.

On the way to Soweto with a local guide, more for safety than convenience, we stopped at Gandhi square, where his statue occupies a central place.  Under the statue, this quote from the great man: “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.  It is the supreme law. By it alone can mankind be saved.”  True or not, it certainly is food for thought.

Soweto is the black township made famous by the uprising of June 16, 1976.  On that day, hundreds of school children were killed by police firing while protesting the compulsory introduction of Afrikaans language in schools.  The first to die was 13-year old Hector Pieterson.  A museum named after him, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, commemorates the Soweto Uprising. Ironically, “black” though he was, Hector Pieterson was not black either by name or look. 

For a “black” person, Pieterson was rather light-skinned. Taking advantage of this, his parents had changed his last name from Pitso to Pieterson, so he could pass as a “colored” person, who were marginally better treated than blacks under South Africa’s racist apartheid system.  One of the most iconic images of the Soweto Uprising, which shook apartheid to its core, is a photo of a limp Pieterson being carried by a slightly older fellow-student, with Pieterson’s sister running beside her dying brother.

Soweto is home to about a million or more people, nearly all black. While most inhabitants live in slum-like dilapidated one-room shacks, some homes are pretty decent, a testament to the improvement in living standards for the “black” majority of this country.  Soweto is the soul of “black” South Africa.  Nelson Mandela has a home here, as does Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Under apartheid, the nearly 80 per cent black population was disenfranchised and forced to live as second, or more correctly, third class citizens in their own country. The marginally better, second-class status was granted to the people of mixed race, the so-called “coloreds”, who constituted about 10 per cent.  Ruling over them all with an iron fist were the “whites”, ten per cent of the population, who enjoyed first class citizenship status as their birth right!

Through a vast collection of photos, personal artefacts, notices and reports (both published and unpublished), the heart-rending story and infamy of apartheid is told in a fine, new museum in Cape Town, called the Apartheid Museum. The very graphic and visual presentation starts even before one enters the museum.  Every entry ticket is marked “white” or “non-white” at the back and the entrance is divided into two lanes, designated “whites only” or “non-whites only”.

That was apartheid.  By law it required entrances, parks, schools, restaurants, beaches, bus stops, every public place, to be designated and segregated as “whites only” and “non-whites only”, while effectively classifying all citizens as first, second or third class by the colour of their skin.

Well, why only South Africa?  December 1, 1955, is a landmark day in the American civil rights struggle.  On that day, in Montgomery, Alabama, a black American woman, Rosa Parks, went to jail for refusing to obey the bus driver’s order that she give up her seat to a white passenger. 

In British India and colonial China, signs on some facilities barred entry to “Indians/Chinese and dogs”.  In Australia, until 1967, aboriginals were not granted citizenship on the land where they had lived for 60,000 years.

When South Africa became a “normal” state under Nelson Mandela in 1994, he chose neither to shame nor punish the “whites” but gave all South Africans equal status in a very liberal and inclusive constitution.  South Africa, he said, was a rainbow nation, with its different colours giving it richness and beauty.  

My next destination was Cape Town, South Africa’s most beautiful city and one of the most charming in the world, which is also the point of departure for that infamous landmark in South African history, Robben Island.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 27 years, for 18 of which he was forced to perform hard labour, breaking rocks in the lime quarry.

But before flying to Cape Town, a day trip to the capital city was in order. Pretoria is only about an hour’s drive away from Joburg on an excellent highway.  It looks very “European”, in architecture and historical preservation, full of parks, museums and monuments.

To be concluded

By Razi Azmi

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