Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Black and White Stripes

So there are times when even if things don’t work out as planned, the ride is fun anyway. I spent the first week of December in Johannesburg, South Africa, looking at options and interviewing and whatnot. It turns out that I didn’t get the job that I had flown down there to try for (with McKinsey and Company), but I had a couple other things turn up and may end up there eventually anyway.

I flew in on Sunday afternoon last week. Jo’burg is nothing like what I expected. I thought that I had been in large developed African cities before, Dar es-Salaam, Dakar, etc. but nothing prepared me for this. Johannesburg is a modern city, on par with ones in parts of Asia, Latin America, parts of Eastern Europe, and maybe even the non-coastal US. There is huge amounts of infrastructure, real LA style freeways with triple level overpasses and cloverleaf junctions. There are glittering malls with every designer store imaginable. There are also the townships, which, though extremely poor in parts, for the most part have electricity, running water, sewer systems, paved roads, malls of their own.

I was a little worried when I got to Jo’burg because South African ex-pats that I have met living in Cambridge usually describe it like LA during the crack wars. The city in fact, is laid out very much like LA – spread out over long distances and impossible to navigate without a car. It is the car-jacking capital of the world. At night, you don’t stop for red lights unless it is a busy intersection. At any point during the day, there are certain areas that are no-go districts if you are the wrong color and income bracket. Despite all my fearlessness, I avoided them too. No sense being stupid about things.

So Sunday night, this guy Chris, who graduated from my program last year and now lives in Jo’burg, picked me up at the hotel. We went for a drink in one of the posh areas, then he took me on a freeway drive-by tour of the CBD or Central Business District. The CBD is no man’s land at night. The district is made up of a large number of tall buildings, some ranging up to 50 or more stories. During the 1980s though, when cities all over the world were experiencing capital flight, and especially in the early 1990s when South Africans of a certain mindset, or just economically skittish, took off for Australia, the CBD collapsed. Crime went through the roof, all of the business left, and most people wrote it off. Today, there is a big push for urban renewal in certain sections, but the CBD is left largely abandoned. The huge hotels and office buildings are inhabited mostly by squatters. Chris and I drove by on the highway at night during a huge electrical storm. There was no rain, but lightening bounced off the clouds behind up. The lights illuminated this city of dark, or only minimally lit buildings. It could have been some post-apocalyptic scene out of Mad Max.

The next day, I hung around the hotel, trying to get some work done and rent a car. I wasn’t particularly successful in either endeavor. Automatics in South Africa are just about impossible to find, and there is no way in hell that I would be able to drive a stick shift on the wrong side – shifting with my left hand. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to sort out all those pedals. That evening, I went with Chris and friends to this posh part of town for dinner. The waiter at the restaurant was great. It was like Chelsea meets game warden. He was unshaven, in a flannel shirt with a greasy pony-tail, but described the antelope special with truffles and red wine reduction like the trendiest West Side hotspot. And with crazy accent they are sporting down there. Dinner was fantastic.

Tuesday I went on a town of the Soweto township. The first thing that I learned is the Soweto is not an Africa word, it is an abbreviation for SOuth WEst TOwnship. The second thing I learned is that certain parts of it are really nice, paved roads, sewers, running water, well-nicer than anything I have seen even in some of the better neighborhoods of West Africa. And it is 100% black Africa. I asked the guide if that could really be true, I mean even Harlem in the 1920s had some mixing. Nope. No white people live here. Maybe maybe one or two in mixed marriages, but even that was unlikely. The tour guide who had Bob Marley dreds and well displayed apartheid chip on his shoulder told me it was because white people wouldn’t live here. Later, someone else told me it was because real estate prices collapsed during the white flight of the 1990s, and most people can afford to live among their own kind (which is incredible nuanced –people of English decent and Boers and Indians and blacks and all the colors in between – everyone has their own neighborhood.) In any case.

There were some very poor parts of Soweto – about as poor as you would see in Burkina. It somehow seemed much stranger in a country where you can go to the Jimmy Choos store in the same city.

The best part of the whole tour was driving by the power plant. What brilliance!

One of the things that really sort of turned me off the whole township thing was the guide. He was all about telling us how he was going to show us that black South Africans during the 1980s were not terrorists and really freedom fighters. I tried to explain that at least in the part of the United States where I grew up, Nelson Mandela was a hero, even before he got out of jail, and that my issues were generally with white South Africans. I remember having cupcakes and watching him walk out of jail in Ms. Mosley’s fifth grade class. He was having none of that – somewhere deep inside I must have thought ANC a terrorist organization. Oh well. The whole country is still trying to shake off this massive apartheid hangover, can’t fault the little snags along the way.

The next day I went on safari! Well, it wasn’t really a safari. The roads in the park were all paved and you could drive around without a guide in your little Clio with your buddies and a cooler of beer. It was more like a 100 acre zoo pen where things could eat each other. The most interesting part of the trip was the company. I had spent the previous evening thinking about race relations in South Africa, whether I could really live in a country like that, etc. I get on the safari van the next morning and meet the 4 African American Southern Baptist preachers and their wives that I will be spending the day with. It was a very quick and humbling reminder that I really don’t understand race and regional relations all that much in my own country – so who am I to judge?

The trip was fun. I got to see my first zebras. (Only gorillas and polar bears left and I will have checked off everything in a box of animal crackers!) I saw my first African rhinos. I had the best elephant experience I have had yet. There was a big group with three little babies. It was balls hot so the whole herd was playing in the watering hole. They looked just like big kids. They would stand and sway their trunk back and forth, then just haul up and fall over like a tree, kicking and splashing and spraying each other. The little ones were really having the best idea. They looked just like they do in the cartoons. Running in and out and splashing around. It was great. The driver was happy because we were happy. (Things had been a little tense for a while because the Baptists had apparently put in some advanced prayer for a lion and the driver wasn’t delivering.) In order to keep us happy, he kept backing the van closer and closer to the edge of the water. Then one momma elephant caught wind that maybe we weren’t a big white shiny metal elephant. And she charged. The driver threw the van into gear and hit the gas. Fortunately Toyota can still outrun mother nature in a dead 100 meters. It was especially tense for me, who was sitting along in the back seat watching the elephants waves its ears and chase us.

For a late lunch on the way home we stopped at the Johannesburg version of Las Vegas. Slot machines are depressing in the first place, but way more so when the people are funneling a measurable portion of their yearly income into them. There was also this horribly gaudy hotel that was supposed to be African safari meets Italian renaissance. In place of gargoyles, picture 15 foot high stone sculpted antelopes leaping from the turrets. Horror show, and not in the edgy cool Clockwork Orange sense.

The next two days were occupied by interviews and me desperately trying to get some school work done before I returned home. I didn’t get the job at McKinsey. It might have had something to do with my lack of enthusiasm for mining, which is a huge chunk of their income. “Why yes sir! Even as a little girl I dreamt of being part of the exploitative mineral extraction business in Africa!” Probably the best for everyone involved.

The last day that I was there Chris and I decided to go on a little adventure to see the other half of South Africa. We went to the Voortrekker monument. This was built in the late Art Deco (translation : fascist) style and could best be described as what Robert Moses would have built if he had been a raging racist. The monument commemorates the trek of the early settlers (chosen people) through hostile Zulu territory to the land that is now Johannesburg. It is big and stone with incredible beautiful and intricate bas relief carvings. The whole thing had the air of doing the stations of the cross before Easter, and the place does had an almost religious significance to the Boor population. The problem is that the original carvers did not have a particularly flattering opinion of either the actions nor physical traits of the Zulu actors in this little drama. So now the new government doesn’t know what to do. It is tough to enough tourism to something that is so unabashed in its message, but at the same time, if you try to flatten or even change it, 15 percent of the population is going to go absolutely apeshit. So it just sits there.

Then I headed back to collect my things, and began a 28 hour epic trek of my own back to Boston. It was a little tense when a mechanical failure left us stranded on a Dakar runway for 3 hours (time was ticking down and I had finals to take…) but it was all good and I made it home. I am heading back to Africa on January 1st to spend a couple weeks doing research for my second year policy paper. It probably won’t be all that exciting. (And then, on Tuesday, I sat for four hours trying to meet with THIS mid-level bureaucrat… and on Wednesday, I sat for only two hours before I met THAT midlevel World Bank official.) But I will try to get into at least a little bit of trouble so that I have something to send…

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