Sunday, October 24, 2004

Sunny South Africa – 15 years down the line…

June 2003
My family and I left South Africa on Aliyah at the end of 1987. I have not been back since…until this month, when a last-minute family simcha (it’s a long story) brought Marlyn and me back to SA for a short, hectic, wonderful visit, some 15 years after we left.

It was with mild trepidation that I embarked on the El Al flight for Johannesburg. What would I find on the other end? How would I feel about visiting my old stamping grounds, seeing old friends and family, left so long ago…and how would I feel about the “new” South Africa with all its promise and problems.

In a sense this trip was about closing circles. In Durban, visiting my parents graves in the Redhill Cemetery… walking across the trimmed lawns to pay homage to friends who had passed away long before their time…visiting my niece’s tombstone at Stellawood (she was just under a year old when she died of typhoid in 1986).
It was also about renewing acquaintances with old friends, finding that despite the intervening 15 years nothing had really changed between us and meeting new family members…children born after we left; new wives and husbands brought into the family by younger cousins, and the crowning event of our Durban leg – visiting our former maid, now totally blind, at the Natal Blind Society where she earns her living making cane chairs.
We started our 13-day whirlwind trip in Johannesburg – almost unrecognizable since I lived and worked there 30 years ago! The international airport is magnificent; the customs and passport officials, all black, are friendly, courteous, helpful…

The place is buzzing. There are thousands of international visitors – business people and tourists — arriving every day. Flights from all over the world pull up to the terminal every hour…foreign languages abound, foreign currency flows: but the Rand is still languishing around the R8.00 to the dollar mark, close to R13.00 to the Pound – what a win for anybody traveling with these currencies! For although prices in South African terms are high, when local prices are converted to dollars, you can hardly believe your luck – a succulent steak for R75.00 (read around $9.00!); a luxurious villa with all the trimmings, garden, swimming pool, electrified fence etc. for only R1 million or so (about $120 000 – that sort of money might buy you a two-roomed apartment in Holon).

But when you’re earning in Rands everyday things are pricey; I was told that until recently a reasonably “good” salary on which a family could afford some of the good things in life — including live-in servants — netted out at about R14 000 a month. Today, a family needs two salaries to live at the same standard. But — and this is a HUGE “but” for former South Africans in Israel — you can buy a house (even if it is in the million Rand bracket) with just 10 percent deposit…and everybody drives leased cars – Mercs. BMWs, a wide range of SUVs…and there are generally two vehicles in the driveway (providing they haven’t been stolen in the past 24 hours). If you’re in that bracket life is fine. However, in the new South Africa, while there is still a reasonably affluent middle-class white population, and a rapidly rising black middle-class, the majority of the country’s citizens are very far from this standard of living. More about that later.

Johannesburg is still the big, raucous, brash fast-moving city it always was. Except that now that city stretches from Vereeniging in the south with Mid-Rand joining Johannesburg with Pretoria in the north. The east and west Rand are contiguous to Johannesburg and there is hardly any space between any of these areas whatsoever. It is a gigantic megalopolis. The highways are plentiful, broad and fast moving — except in rush hour when they grind to a halt as in any major world city.

I used to live in Sandton in my bachelor days. Back then, it was sleepy dormitory town, untarred roads were used more by horses than cars (it was also known as the Mink and Manure belt); there were few streetlights and my trendy bachelor pad faced onto Bob Grayston’s stables. The only reminder of those stables is that dear old Bob’s name has been perpetuated in a pub in the Holiday Inn which now stands on the stable acreage.

Sandton City is literally that – a huge shopping city, with the relatively new Sandton Mall designed as a market square in an old European city – surrounded by restaurants, coffee shops and galleries. And so it was with the rest of Johannesburg. I knew we were in Oxford Road, but only because somebody told me. Jan Smuts Avenue was vaguely familiar because we passed Zoo Lake and Barry Herzog Avenue was somewhat the same because it started near Wits University. But that was about it. The entire environment around these main arteries has changed. Not so much in the housing, but in the shopping malls, business parks, apartment blocks...and in the teams of beggars, hawkers and other unfortunates who crowd around your car – windows up, doors locked, air conditioning on – at every stop.

We didn’t go into the center of Johannesburg. We had been warned enough times about that, but we did manage to get a glimpse of the CBD from the M1 highway which skirts the eastern side of the city. It looked pretty much the same, except for a huge building or two and the new Nelson Mandela Bridge which replaced the old Queen Elizabeth Bridge linking the city to Braamfontein.

In fact, this seemed to be our recurring impression of the new South Africa. Everywhere we went —and I think in Durban most of all — seemed so familiar...and yet so strange. It was the nearest thing I have ever come to being in a sort of time warp. As if I went to sleep one night and like Ryp van Winkel, give or take a few years, woke up 15 years later. Everything was the same – yet NOTHING was the same.

On the social level, the new South Africa is fantastic. The interaction between black and white, amongst the people of the rainbow nation, is quite remarkable. From what we could see in the malls, the restaurants, coffee shops, department stores (Woolworths still rules!), people are relaxed, totally at ease with one another. Shop assistants, black and white, are courteous, helpful, smiling, and all apparently without any rancor, bitterness or grudges about South Africa’s inglorious political past.

But this is at a superficial level; seeing it as a foreigner, albeit one who lived there in the dark days of apartheid.
The country still has a long way to go. There are enormous challenges and issues to face. There is unemployment — mainly among whites, who face the competition of “affirmative action” in the workplace. As one young cousin, a highly qualified stockbroker who had worked on the JSE for seven years and now cannot find a position in his profession, quipped: “If you’re white, male and qualified...forget it; there are no jobs available.” He and his young wife are seriously considering leaving the country for England.

There is still black poverty — a lot of it. We saw shantytowns on the outskirts of Johannesburg and Cape Town every bit as run down as they were in the “old days”. But Alexandra and Soweto have running water and are electrified — and that’s why, in the cynically tongue-in-cheek words of a white South African, “...we have to keep buying new TV sets...”

Corruption is said to be rife and AIDS is decimating the black population. One of the major problems is that of AIDS orphans...left to their own devices, without a roof over their heads; with no money and no job prospects, roaming the streets of downtown Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, at the core of a huge social problem which the government is reacting to extremely slowly. A huge government-sponsored AIDS awareness advertising campaign has been slammed by local critics as being aimed at completely the wrong target, with completely the wrong message.

My brother-in-law, a director of an light industrial company, related that at every Christmas party, the staff stand for a silent minute remembering those colleagues who had died during the year, mainly of AIDS and related illness – fully 10 percent of his black workforce...every year!

Crime is widespread: there is hardly a single person that we know who hasn’t been a victim. My sister in Johannesburg had her car stolen, was mugged and lost all her jewelry and had her house broken into (despite an arsenal of burglar alarms and a huge German Shepherd) all within about 3 months.

Every single house, gorgeous and luxurious as it may be, is surrounded by a massive wall, topped by electronic trip wires, alarms. Security company shields adorn every gate. When entering a driveway, you stop and check to see if anybody is approaching from any distance before opening the gate. A good friend of ours in Durban had a gun thrust into his neck as he was getting out of his car in his garage. Now he has full length mirrors on the garage wall...and doesn’t leave his car until the garage door is closed.

Durban is still Durban: nothing much has changed and yet, as I said, everything has changed. We didn’t go to the city (warned off on that one again...), we didn’t go to the beachfront (another warning); we drove down Old Fort Road past the old Indian Market (“don’t get out here....”) and yet we strolled around the Musgrave Center and Gateway shopping malls without a care in the world. No armed guards at the body searches, no searching bags and jackets. The only place where we did undergo any sort of search on entering a building was at Johannesburg’s lavish Monte Casino shopping and casino complex. Yes, there are casinos everywhere. Durban has one right next to Natal Command, the local SA Defense Force headquarters on the beachfront.

But Durban was more about catching up with old friends, closing circles and remembering passed family and friends. We stopped in front of our old house in Carrington Heights and saw how the new owners had converted it into two separate units...we took pictures to show the kids where they grew up. Visiting our dear Thelma Njoli – our maid for 10 years who literally brought up those kids – and we told her what fine job she had done. She was visually challenged even then, and today is totally blind.

Our friends are just as we remember them...slightly grayer, balder, a little more paunchy here and there...their kids are all grown up, independent and gorgeous. Some are married, many are living abroad; some (like ours) are still living at home.

But perhaps the most bizarre aspect for us to come to terms with was just how far we seem to have come in the past 15 years...and how for those we left behind, nothing seemed to have changed. At dinner one night in Durban, there was some polite small talk about Israel and “the situation...” and then back to everyday South African affairs — the men still talked business, the women still talked family and servants and shopping....and it was as if I had left the room in the middle of a conversation 15 years ago, and just re-entered it...deja vu all over again. The topics were the same; the complaints were the same; the issues were the same...the setting was the same. This is not a value judgment, only an observation – an observation made that much more brittle by our personal and collective experiences in Israel since 1987.

As an Israeli, there is a darker side to South Africa, which is more than is downright frightening. It manifested itself in the World Anti-Racism Conferences last year and it manifests itself in the outright anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes of a large proportion of the population. It is fanned by incitement of the Mullahs and leaders of the huge Muslim communities, especially in the Cape. It is abetted by the fawning self-hatred of thankfully a small number of the South African Jewish community themselves – Minister Ronnie Kasreels for instance, and a certain Johannesburg Rabbi who refused to say a prayer for the Israeli victims of terrorist attacks because it wasn’t “even-handed” to single out Jews and not say a prayer for Palestinian victims of “Israel’s aggression”.

There were questions about the wall being built between Israel and the Palestinian areas...”...why? it’s not fair, what do we hope to achieve?...the poor Palestinians...” and this from people who live in designer prisons...behind high walls, with electronic anti-intrusion devices, even barbed-wire, vicious guard dogs and rapid response systems, all aimed at keeping out those who only want to share their wealth. The irony was lost on them.
And then there were other attitudes...more militant and more right wing than any West Bank settler: “I don’t understand your prime minister – why doesn’t he just go in and finish the job....”

Any attempts at explaining the complexities of our situation; how Israel tries its utmost to avoid harming innocent civilians at enormous cost to its own soldiers; how Israel has tried to avoid indiscriminate attacks, how we have maintained the most painful restraint in the face of wholesale murder and provocation...was lost on them too.

The final leg of our rush through SA was Cape Town...and we had forgotten just what a gorgeous city it is. We were told that the BBC had named it one of the five world cities you have to see before you die, and we fully support that viewpoint (agreeing with the BBC for a change...?!). We thought Sydney was beautiful, and it is, but Cape Town is as beautiful in a very unique way.

However, it wasn’t the drive down to Cape Point, or out to the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, or even the magnificent Waterfront shopping and entertainment complex that topped our Cape Town trip. It was that short voyage across 11 kilometers of Table Bay to Robben Island that will be a lasting memory.

We had a choice (we were only in Cape Town for two and a half days...) up Table Mountain or out to Robben Island. As a returning South African, for whom Robben Island was the most sinister symbol of apartheid South Africa, there was no choice. I had to close this final gap.

Arriving at Robben Island dockside, one is greeted with huge enlarged photographs of early prisoners arriving on the same dockside. And then you walk towards the prison enclosure itself. The gateway, bearing its decade’s old engraved message: “Welcome to Robben Island – Welkom in Robbeneiland” and the boastful prison service motto: “We serve with Pride – Ons Dien met Trots...” is alarmingly resonant to any Jew.

And although there can be no physical comparison between Robben Island and the atrocities of Eastern Europe, in one respect they are the same. People were incarcerated here because they dared to think be be racially different from the rulers who believed they were the pinnacle of humankind.
The tour guides on Robben Island are former black prisoners and former white guards. And this, more than anything, highlights just how far the new South Africa has come from its dismal past. They live and work side by side now. Neither one being better or worse than the other...neither one controlling or being submissive to the other.

It was strange to hear the tour guide telling a group made up largely of foreigners, the stories of the prisoners on Robben Island; Mandela, Sobukwe; Sisulu...names which I, as a young journalist on a Johannesburg Sunday newspaper those long years ago, knew so well. And it was surreal to hear the tour guide talking about those Whites who fought the good fight for justice in the old South Africa...Helen Suzman. Benjamin Pogrund...people I had met, interviewed, written about and frankly hero-worshipped in my days in the newsroom, covering social and political events. And frankly, I felt a swelling of pride that I had been involved – albeit in the minutest of ways, albeit vicariously as any journalist must be – in the struggle which has brought about the brave new South Africa.
Our trip to the Cape ended all too quickly. It was back to Johannesburg for one night...out to the airport early on Monday morning, aboard the El Al 767...and within 9 hours back to our own brave new world beyond the gates of Ben Gurion Airport.

We had been away exactly 13 days, met up with 86 family members and friends... spent two days viewing game in the Pilansberg, traveled literally around South Africa, hopping from Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town and back to Jo’burg; and now we were back in the sweltering mid-summer Tel Aviv heat. We had settled a lot of unfinished business...we had seen the new South Africa and we had loved every minute of it – but now, we were home.


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