Snapshots of South Africa

How could I absorb a country in a week? Especially one as complex and contradictory as this?

I couldn't. Dashing frantically from sensation to exotic sensation, at the peak of endurance every 18-hour day, I experienced the trip as a blur.

Looking back, my view is one not of deep understanding, but of a series of images -- intense, vivid, not always entirely in focus.

Call this, then, Snapshots of South Africa.

My deepest impression is of this country's beauty. Much of it is lush and green, its soil that deep African red, its ubiquitous stubby cupcake mountains hazy purple -- always set off by a dark, blue sky and discrete dollops of ice-cream clouds.

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The other intense impression is of contrast -- of a country at once amazingly familiar and utterly alien. Eight thousand miles from Miami I could walk into a Woolworth's store, or a Hooters restaurant and wonder if I had really left home. A mile or two from that flower-scented suburb I could take a mini-van through a black squatter's camp, amid conditions that made me purely ashamed for being white.

One other impression: The South African people I met in my brief stay recognize profoundly both the beauty and squalor of their country; they are passionately intent on keeping the one and ending the other.

And even though my trip was maddeningly short, what a thrill it was! South Africa had fascinated me for 30 years, ever since I read Cry, The Beloved Country, the wrenching account of that country's history by one of its most famous authors, Alan Paton. That fascination increased 15 years ago, when I toured Kenya with two University of Miami geography professors. One of them, born in South Africa, kept telling me: "If you think this is beautiful, you should see South Africa."

But that's just what I couldn't do -- not while brutal apartheid continued. Even before the United States belatedly joined the worldwide boycott in 1985, I couldn't justify spending money with a government that denied decent job opportunities, adequate schooling, even the precious right to vote to 80 percent of its own people. That forced its blacks to live in squalid segregated settlements outside major cities to provide cheap labor for white residents. That created the arbitrary, demeaning, irrational category of "colored" for the children of blacks and whites who had married and forced them to live in segregated settlements, too.

So I only watched from afar and hoped for change.

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That time finally came in late 1993. President F.W. de Klerk had fixed a firm date -- April 26, 1994 -- for the country's first free, multiracial national election. Apartheid would officially end on that date.

Nelson Mandela spoke triumphantly before the United Nations that fall. "The time has come when the international community should lift all economic sanctions against South Africa." He urged people to come, to spend the money that would be needed by his country's new government.

South Africa has far to go; it attracts only 0.6 percent of the world's tourists, behind even Bulgaria. But the country's political change is starting to pay off.

Mandela's release from prison in 1990 prompted 24 airlines to establish or re-establish direct flights to South Africa. With new, long-range 747s, nonstop flights were inaugurated to and from the United States.

And just before Mandela's election in April, South African Airways added a second weekly nonstop flight to the Miami-Cape Town run it had established in 1992 after President Bush ended most sanctions against the country. SAA flights leave Miami at 6:05 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, with the cheapest fare $1,829 for a stay of 13 to 30 days and a 15-day advance purchase. Flights from New York's JFK Airport to Johannesburg depart at 6:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with the same fare and restrictions.

I visited three distinct locales in South Africa. These are the snapshot impressions I brought home.


'The most stately thing, the fairest Cape . . .'

Down at the end of Africa, 8,000 straight-shot miles from Miami over open Atlantic, lies the city described by explorer Francis Drake in 1580 as "the most stately thing, the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth."

It must have been equally awesome in 1652 when Jan Van Riebeeck arrived by sailing ship to become Cape Town's first commander on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, which founded the city as a re-victualing station for its ships sailing to the Far East for spices.

It is stunning still today. Starting at its deep, serene Atlantic harbor, the city stretches back only a couple of miles before the land juts straight up into a flat-topped, crescent- shaped promontory called Table Mountain. If it isn't too windy, a visitor can take a cable car up over the mountain's precipitous, vertical face to the top.

From there, visibility veers from infinity to zero in an instant, then back to infinity as South Africa's whipped-cream clouds scud past, catch briefly on the tall rocks and stream away.

"The cloth is on the table," Cape Towners like to say on days like this.

The view, when visible, is spectacular. To the north lie the city's orange-tiled roofs and marble-clad skyscrapers, appearing more Mediterranean, really, than African. To the west is open Atlantic. To the south, 25 miles down a rough, mountainous peninsula stands the dramatic, rocky Cape of Good Hope and, beyond it, the tumultuous waters where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.

There's no better way to experience this beauty than to rent one of the ubiquitous local minivans -- called cambis -- and take a driving tour of the city and its surroundings.

We start directly on the bay, at Victoria & Albert Waterfront, a festival marketplace like Miami's Bayside, with world-class fashion shops, African souvenir stores and open-air British style pubs featuring fish 'n' chips and Foster's ale. It's built around the harbor, where the liner Queen Elizabeth II docked one recent sunny weekend.

Still standing downtown, incongruously in the days after the country's first all-race election, are statues to the city's old segregationist leaders -- B.F. Vorster, Daniel Malan, Hendrik Verwoerd.

Maybe not for long, says our friend and volunteer guide, a black African named Cleo Zulu.

"They'll be torn down one night," he predicts. "Then they'll hold a big police investigation, and it won't prove anything."

Under apartheid, blacks and "coloreds" were banned from Cape Town. Now everything is changing. With the death of apartheid, South Africa's blacks are streaming into Cape Town looking for jobs. The massive, hideous squatter's camp that already existed at Cape Flats, a low, sandy area between Cape Town and its main airport, has exploded to maybe two million inhabitants.

Still, many hope for a peaceful transition.

"We were afraid there might be riots in the streets after the election," said Pierre Marais, a white South African wine executive, a month after the election. "But there hasn't been any trouble at all."

South Africa's blacks, "coloreds" and whites seem determined to create a tolerant nation, avoiding the violence that has torn apart some other African countries after freedom. That determination becomes even more understandable when we see the grandeur of the land as the cambi makes its way toward the Cape of Good Hope.

The M-3, more leafy boulevard than highway, swings east around Table Mountain, then south, past the University of Cape Town. One of the first landmarks is Klein Constantia, a gorgeous, mountainside vineyard that is part of the original land grant by the Dutch East India Company in 1685 to be the main vegetable garden for the city's role in replenishing ships' stores.

We've called ahead, so Lowell Jooste, the owner's son, plops us onto a padded seat in the back seat of his beloved, restored 1948 Willis truck for a bumpy, dusty ride up the side of the mountain for the best view of his vines. And when we stop at the top to gape at the view -- long lines of green vines marching down across the red African soil down to False Bay -- he pops out a bottle of his intense, herbal sauvignon blanc and pours us a glass.

As we sip, he points out the green line where vines end and the mountaintop pine forest resumes, and the tall, mildly electrified fence erected against the vineyard's most voracious pest -- the hungry Cape baboons. They can eat a harvest's worth of grapes in a single night.

"They are vegetarians," Jooste shrugs.

The view becomes only more dramatic as we head south down the peninsula past the peaceful fishing village of Fish Hoek, past Simon's Town, a World War II base for Britain's Royal Navy and into the Cape of Good Hope Nature Preserve. The peninsula is only a few kilometers wide here, the land eternally whipped by winds careening from the Atlantic to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east.

The seaside road is cut into sharp granite cliffs; the vegetation only low, wind-battered shrubs and occasional acacia trees. Ostriches eye our cambi as we pass. Signs warn us not to encourage the baboons by feeding them.

We've been warned to lock our doors against those playful nuisances when we park at Cape Point. A battered old VW van full of German tourists didn't get the message. They left a side door open, and a huge, grizzled baboon climbed in looking for food, sending a terrified woman scrambling out. The driver, pounding on the passenger's side window, finally drove out the baboon -- not without a few parting snarls on both sides.

Another gaggle of baboons clambered over parked cars, breaking their antennas and chewing on the rubber of their windshield wipers. A vandalic lot.

But, again, the view justifies the trouble.

At the Cape of Good Hope, the setting sun blasts the sea- battered rocks, paints them red and yellow, while the cold Atlantic continues to froth and crash at their bases. The sky turns dark blue, split by vectors of spiraling, white sea gulls.

This must, indeed, be the fairest cape.


From squalid shacks to millionaires' row

This all-black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg is 75 square miles in size, with perhaps 3.5 million residents. But until a year or two ago, it didn't appear on most local maps. The average white South African, guidebooks say, still has never been there.

The Irish-born restaurant manager in my downtown Johannesburg hotel confirms it: "We wouldn't think of going in there. We know what it's like."

So when I crowd with nine others onto a tiny minibus for a tour, I'm in international company -- a couple from Boston, a small group of Russians, an Italian businessman and an Australian woman who grew up in Beijing.

Our minibus is from Johnnie's Face to Face Tours, based in Soweto. Its motto: "A different point of view." Our tour guide, born in Soweto, still living there, is Abraham Lincoln. Only he pronounces it "AY-bram."

"Yes," he says proudly. "Lincoln died 150 years ago in America, and he was reborn in 1958 in Soweto."

He pronounces it "So-WET-too"; we try to emulate him.

As we approach Soweto, he says, casually: "If the children come out to throw stones at us, I will stop the bus so you can throw them back."

We recognize, slowly, his sly, deadpan sense of humor, exercised usually at the expense of tourists who haven't quite figured out how ill at ease to be here.

"In 1976," he goes on, "I was one of the children throwing stones at white tourists." That was the year a number of black youths protesting apartheid were shot dead in the township by white police.

Our first stop, an open-air fruit and vegetable market, creates a lasting impression. Everywhere is the smoke and stink of garbage fires. Long rows of cut-pole stands with canvas roofs sell piles of plump tomatoes and pumpkins and squash and apples and T-shirts with the African National Congress campaign slogan: "Peace, Progress & Prosperity With the ANC."

Good smells fight through the stench from steel-barrel charcoal braziers roasting the staple mieles -- pronounced "mealies" -- the longest, fattest ears of corn I've ever seen.

Lincoln shows us areas where the old, all-white government imposed segregation even inside Soweto, housing Zulu tribe members in one area, Xhosas in another. He shows us the drab, military-style barracks where men from various tribes have had to live alone, leaving their families hundreds of miles away in the black "homelands," if they want to support them by finding day work in Johannesburg.

Lincoln calls the separation an attempt to foster rivalry and fighting between the tribes, to divert them from fighting apartheid.

"They say we can't get along. It isn't true. We even marry each other."

He shows us where a small group of Zulus shot 10 members of the Xhosa tribe a year ago in a dispute. "You seeit on TV in the evening, and they make it sound like all of Soweto is burning."

The complaint is eerily familiar to someone from Miami.

"You must go back to your countries and tell them how it is," he says. "Not Soweto is fighting, the so-and-so area of Soweto is fighting."

He shows us richer areas of Soweto -- big, impressive houses with tall walls around them, opulent architecture that would be at home in any upper-middle-class American suburb. Shiny, new BMWs in the streets. They are the homes of black millionaires and black leaders -- among them Winnie Mandela, now that Nelson has moved out, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and a variety of sports heroes. Soweto isn't all slum.

Then, taking open satisfaction in the starkness of the contrast, Lincoln drives us straight from millionaires' row to the squatters' camps. In the past few years, with the repeal of South Africa's infamous Group Areas laws that kept blacks locked in primitive, resourceless "homelands" far from the big cities, they have flocked here seeking jobs in Johannesburg.

The white government denied them most resources. No electricity. No running water. No garbage pickup. Oddly, there is sanitation -- row upon row of fiberglass port-a-johns.

We see block after block of squalid shacks scrabbled together from sheets of aluminum, old car parts, broken planks, whatever could be found. One shack shares its walls with another. No trees, no grass, no space. I have never seen a sorrier place.

But Soweto's children come out to run beside our cambi screaming and laughing. Its adults emerge to smile and wave. No emotion except friendly curiosity. No hands out except to shake. We stop at a ramshackle Soweto bar, drink a beer, play with the children.

We won't be throwing any rocks back today.


Photo opportunities abound each kilometer

"Oh, look! An impala!"

Our minibus screeches to a halt. The four of us click away, using up half a roll of film each on a single animal.

It shows how little we know Kruger. By day's end we wouldn't lift a lens for fewer than 20 impala in a herd. And then only if the light was perfect.

Even though Kruger, at 600,000 acres, is one of the world's biggest wild game preserves, its concentrations of game are astonishing. When I safaried through Kenya 15 years ago, we would drive mile after dusty mile between animal sightings. Here every kilometer brings a new photo op.

It's a civilized sort of wilderness. Most roads are paved and well-marked, so that with a minibus and a map, we didn't need a professional guide. And over the decades the animals have grown used to passing minibuses; they don't flee at first sight.

Still, it's no zoo. The wildlife, in its natural habitat, is in charge. Locals say tourists illegally stepping outside their minibuses will be lucky if they are arrested by wardens before they are eaten by animals.

They also like to say that, given a week in Kruger, you're very likely to see the "Big Five" of animal spotting -- lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinos.

In our first half-hour, before the sun is fully up, we believe it. We spot, dashing away into the brush, the rear-end of a rare baby white rhino. A quarter kilometer down the road we see two zebras, strolling carelessly back into the bush.

Now there are two giraffes, noisily pulling down the tops of acacia trees to munch the tender top leaves, oblivious to the long, vicious thorns. They sway their tendril necks gracefully and preen for our madly clicking cameras.

Another impala. No, two. No, half a dozen. We take a snap or two.

We hear crashing to the left; it's a pair of elephants. They don't bother pulling down the tree tops; just lower their heads and butt them over. Such table manners.

More impala. A herd. A nation. They surround us, stream across the road, sleek haunches rippling as they bound away in high leaps. The locals have a verb -- "pronking" -- for when impala jump straight up into the air for no discernible reason. They also use it for fidgety humans.

At mid-morning we finally find a hippo. It's a stunning vista; a big blue lake surrounded by low green hills dotted with red-necked buzzards and a single great, gray heron poking in the shallow water. The hippo, unfortunately, is barely visible. A broad back sticking out of the water. A pair of mammoth nostrils thrusting up to blow steam, suck in air. We spot five hippos before our visit ends, and all we ever see of them are 10 nose holes.

By mid-afternoon the heat grows oppressive. We've been up since 4 a.m. We're on dirt roads now, and Africa's red dust billows through the minivan, coating our lenses, our lungs. But we haven't seen a lion.

Then we're flagged down by a car coming from the other direction.

"Just half a kilometer back," its driver whispers. "A lioness. Under a tree."

We creep forward, scanning every tree for 100 yards back from the road. It takes forever.

There she is! Not 10 feet from the road. I have never been this close to one in the wild.

She eyes us. We try to read her expression. Disdain? Annoyance? We finish off our film.

She sighs, picks herself up, walks away with dignified gait.

It's the peak, we think.

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