My first night in South Africa, I didn’t sleep at all. Maybe it was jet-lag, maybe it was the humidity, but I watched every minute of the night pass by. Outside, there is a city sleeping to the tune of a cool ocean breeze and a chorus of dreams in a thousand different languages. I laid awake and listened until morning came.
The following day, we visited Robben Island, the South African version of Alcatrez, used for black political prisoners during the apartheid era uprisings. A native Indian-South African with a voice made for storytelling led us across the island, telling his own stories about being an activist in the anti-apartheid resistance of the past 40 years. I felt an odd sense of guilt as he explained the role of tourism in the new South Africa.
“For every 6 visitors to Robben island, 1 job is created for a South African”.
In a country fraught with 46% unemployment, this would appear to be a great service to the people, however, it does not occur without a dramatic irony. The fact is, most of the jobs created on Robben island often go to ex-prisoners of the island who remained without jobs since their release in 1991. It is a strange sort of injustice--those who experienced the brutality of a government that functioned to destroy their humanity, both in and out of prison, are driven by economic necessity to return to the very cells in which they suffered. This tragic dynamic, of course, is the result of to a lack of jobs and opportunities within the country that they fought to create. I felt somewhat irreverent, but I’m not sure there was anything, any gesture or statement that I could have made to remedy this Catch 22. So our tour guide, imprisoned for his retaliation after witnessing his pregnant girlfriend being shot dead by South African police, continued the tour with an unassuming sense of humor and a distant gaze. So it goes.
My second night in South Africa, I slept like a baby. The following day, we took a drive down to the Cape of Good Hope, not quite the southern most point in Africa, but the meeting place of the Atlantic and Indian ocean. Along a drive that entailed winding, narrow roads across cliffs that dropped hundreds, even thousands of meters into the ocean, we saw passing baboons, endemic African jackass penguins, wild ostrich, and elands (an antelope like creature). It was a taste of South Africa, its various endemic biomes and biodiversity and the wealthy end of its development. Tomorrow we are going to venture into the outlying townships surrounding the city, into more impoverished and, at times, shanty-town like developments. From there, we begin our trek across the country. I’m excited, but wary of my role as a wealthy American student in this complex and fascinating country.
From Africa, goodnight my friends,