In Mandela's Land

A visitor to South Africa goes on safari, takes in the beauty of Cape Town and tours the prison that could not break Nelson Mandela's spirit

Cover Story

April 06, 2008|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to The Sun

It's been nearly two decades since Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. Four years after his 1990 release, he became the president of South Africa and led his country into desegregated democracy.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said, "There's no use to dwell in the past. Only remember it, so you can avoid these same mistakes. To build a new future, dwell in the present."

Taking Mandela's words to heart, his beloved country has moved forward. No one has forgotten apartheid, of course. The painful past is hidden in plain sight. I recently visited South Africa, stopping in Phinda, Johannesburg and nearby Soweto, and Cape Town.

Hairies, scaries

Like many tourists to South Africa, I began my visit on a game reserve.

Phinda is located in the country's eastern region, along the Indian Ocean, near the border of Mozambique. Opened 15 years ago, Phinda's exquisite lodges blend seamlessly into the distinct environments for which they're named: Vlei (an Afrikaans word meaning "wetland"), Rock, Mountain and Forest.

My guide on the reserve was an affable 29-year-old man named Mike Karantonis. He had a funny giggle and, when surprised or upset, would say, "Oh, my hat!"

He liked to talk about the "hairies and scaries," by which he meant rhinoceroses, lions, elephants, buffaloes and leopards - the so-called "Big Five." These are the greatest, wildest African animals, the ones that many guests hope to see and photograph.

For several days, when we weren't tracking these animals on foot, we drove around in open-air Jeeps. As long as I didn't leave the vehicle, or stand up so that I visually broke the Jeep's outline, Karantonis assured me that I was safe no matter how close the animals came.

At one point, an elephant came out of the bush and walked past the Jeep, tickling me with its bristling hair. I later asked, "That elephant could have pushed this Jeep over, right?"

"Oh, my hat!" Karantonis replied. "He could play soccer with it."

In an amazingly short amount of time, I no longer missed customary diversions - my cell phone, the Internet or movies-on-demand.

Instead, freed by the lack of technology, I was able to think about the most important thing in life: life itself.

"In South Africa, this is our culture, this is our heritage. How is it that people can effortlessly memorize dozens of telephone numbers, but can't identify three birds?" Karantonis asked me one day. "Don't try to tell me that eating pizza, drinking beer and watching sports on TV is culture. It's not."

All that glitters

After all the excitement caused by the 1849 gold rush in California, when a new gold vein was struck in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the 1880s, white prospectors poured in from all over the globe.

As a result, Johannesburg, or Jo-burg, as it's familiarly called, was never envisioned as a city. In fact, early prospectors hoped to abandon the spot just as soon as they'd dug out all the gold.

However, when geologists discovered this vein extended underground for 40 miles, making it bigger, wider and deeper than any previously found on Earth, mining moguls built permanent homes in a grand manner.

From my balcony at the Westcliff Hotel, I gazed over a posh suburb north of Jo-burg that was once the exclusive domain of those who made vast fortunes in gold and diamond mining - families such as the DeBeers and Oppenheimers.

Miles away, earth extracted from the mines was dumped in a way that formed enormous ridges. On the far side, miners lived in a settlement dating to 1904 that came to be called Soweto, an abbreviation for Southwestern Townships.

To this day, dust still blows off these hills and into busy, crowded thoroughfares. A bitter joke is that the streets of Soweto are paved with gold.

This poor collection of miners' shacks gradually became permanent, without any real infrastructure.

There was, for example, no electricity in Soweto for nearly 50 years. Blacks were only allowed into Johannesburg if they had a job and a passbook, which allowed them to move about.

They didn't have freedom of speech, freedom to live where they wanted or freedom to do work of their own choosing. If they pushed back against these rules, they were incarcerated.

Violence broke out in 1976, when students in Soweto schools protested the government's new mandate that all classes in public schools and universities were to be taught in Afrikaans, not English.

I learned much about this by visiting the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, named for a young schoolchild who was shot down in the street during the uprising by South Africa's National Guard.

Soweto is now seen as the "mother" of all struggles to end apartheid, and it is a pilgrimage site for visitors from around the world.

The area is oddly peaceful now, with thin trees planted along the roads in preparation for an influx of soccer fans in 2010, when the World Cup will be played in South Africa for the first time.

Seaside charm

Cape Town, my last stop in South Africa, is frequently compared to San Francisco.

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