Travel Stories

Joberg - Day 2

         Ever since I’ve known I was coming to South Africa, I’ve planned to spend this day with a woman I met at the yoga ashram last year in Nasik.  Attractive, smart, worldly, unpretentious, unaffected, Jackie is a thirty one year old South African living with her long-term fiancé Ken in her parents’ home in J’burg.  They will marry and move to Capetown next spring.  And although she and Ken lived in the UK and traveled throughout Europe for over six years, today I show her parts of Johannesburg she has never seen.  You just have to be impressed by the wisdom of the guides.  And a little advance planning never hurts either.
          We begin the day at the sprawling Johannesburg central bus station where we literally spend hours, apparently the only white people who use public transportation in all of Johannesburg, looking for a bus to Lesotho, only to be reminded, notwithstanding how many policemen, information center workers, and bus company ticket agents direct us to the company that runs the busses to Lesotho, that no one can find what doesn’t exist.  Still it is interesting to move among the market stalls, the vendors, the hustlers, and the beggars surrounding the massive terminal and mall, somewhat like India, but without cows, dogs, cats, monkeys, flies, piss, shit, mounds of fresh garbage, or entire families asleep on straw mats.  It is also amazing that in the end we do find the area where minibus taxis leave for the Lesotho border and I “confirm,” with someone I am sure is the most reliable of fellows, that I will find just such a taxi here tomorrow morning.
          Afterwards we have coffee in one of the only two yuppie coffee shops in all of Johannesburg, where the barista has got it down (and we are not the only white people), and then, properly fortified, trek off to Constitution Hill, the former Women’s Prison and infamous Men’s Block Four, now a living testamentary museum preserving some of the compelling evidence of the repressive and sadistic brutality of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
          I don’t particularly want to go into an old prison, I’ve seen my fair share of ratty jails visiting clients of mine, and don’t need to see more, and besides which, it reminds me of my dear departed friend Alan’s years of suffering with cancer as a political prisoner in isolation in the Marion Federal Penitentiary, and it’s not what I think I’ve come to Africa for.  Nor do I need to see the dishes inmates ate out of that were never washed, or where Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, and Albertina Sisulu were held, nor the cells in which over four thousand children were born over the life of the prison and where, for women with no local relatives, hundred of young children actually lived with their mothers in windowless four foot by six foot cells.  But Jackie has never been here before and I remember the guides have their ways. 
          We notice as we approach the prison that there are two competing groups of young political activists rallying, one for the incumbent ANC president, the other for his non-ANC challenger.  The challenger’s group is far more lively and animated, singing while rolling their arms around and around above their heads and chanting as they stretch out the word “Chaaange” over and over.  There are TV crews.  And, when the ralliers see the tall white guy with the red headed white woman, they run towards us, shaking our hands, bumping our fists, asking me to roll my arms in the air and chant “Change” with them, putting a cap on my head, sweeping Jackie up into their arms and spinning her around with a bit more intimacy than I think is appropriate or safe.  And I ask them to put her down.  And they do.  And she asks me if I have everything.  And I do.  And we pay for a tour. 
          “You’re lucky you can pay half price as a senior,” Jackie says. 
          And if I could be thirty-one again, I say, I’d gladly pay full fee.
          What is most compelling about the entire experience of seeing the prison is the recognition that it was alive and fully operational less than thirty years ago, that Mandela was freed in only 1991, and that the entire truly miraculous, mostly bloodless, transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa is merely one generation old.  It is an experience steeped in sadness but also hope.  It reminds me of a poem I’d completely forgotten I wrote when Wilton Mkwayi, a famous ANC political prisoner, died in 2004.  I’ve posted it on this web site in Poems, http://brucetaub.net/poetry/wilton-mkwayi .

 ... joining the rally

... joining the rally

 . .. highlights of the new constitution carved in a huge wooden door ...
... highlights of the new constitution carved in a huge wooden door ...