August 17, 2006
Back from South Africa
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

I have just returned from a trip to South Africa and it was incredible. It took almost 20 hours to travel from the DC area to Johannesburg, but it was well worth it. The country is a breathtaking mix of old and new. In Cape Town we visited a mall that could have been in any American city, complete with many of your traditional stores and fast food restaurants. Corporate America definitely has a firm position in South Africa.

The landscape was amazing, from beautiful mountains to fantastic sunsets and beaches (many of which American companies use to film movies because it is cheaper—in fact we saw a movie being filmed as we passed a beach in Cape Town). We also got a glimpse of the gold and diamond minds for which South Africa is famous. We visited Cape Point, the southern tip of Africa where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. We also got a chance to go on safari. I saw the full range of African animals including elephants, giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, and lions. Our ranger told us that if a lion approaches you out in the open, you should stand your ground, because all of the lion’s food runs away from it—thus by running you indicate that you are his food. I am happy I did not have to test that notion.

And of course the country is rich in political history. We visited Robben Island—the political prison where Nelson Mandela and others were kept. The government imposed a system of apartheid even in the prison, such as giving prisoners different quantities of food based on their race. In Soweto we visited the house Mandela lived before and immediately after prison—he apparently had to move because he got daily visitors to his house beginning very early in the morning. We also visited the Hector Pieterson museum—dedicated to commemorate the student protest in Soweto (which resulted in over 500 children being killed) and named after one of the first children killed during the student march. Our guide showed us the Regina Mundi church, where students used to meet and that still had bullet holes in the ceilings and windows because police used to storm their meetings. Finally, we visited the Apartheid museum—which chronicles the history of apartheid and the struggle, both domestically and internationally, to overcome it. When you finish touring the museum, you feel a sense of awe as well as the power of the human spirit.

We had several guides and we asked them what they saw as the difference between their lives during apartheid and now. They all responded the same way—today they have the freedom to go wherever they want. During apartheid, black South Africans had to carry passes that restricted their movement, and a person could be immediately imprisoned if he failed to carry the pass. Our guide in Cape Town told us that although he grew up in Cape Town, there were parts of the city he had never seen, and thus he was almost learning it for the first time with us. Truly amazing. And now I have to try to shake off my jet lag!

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