Sunday, March 04, 2007

Culture Shock: Jo'burg

I’m in Johannesburg for a network meeting. I’ve been looking forward to this visit for a long time, mainly because it’s the first time I’ve left Angola since arriving at the end of August. As much as I like Angola, I needed a break.

I’ve often heard South African referred to as the “USA of Africa.” I’m not sure that I agree with that assessment, but upon arrival I can understand how many would come to that conclusion. After spending hours in various lines in the dirty, expensive (US$6 for a coke and pack of gum) international airport in Luanda, arriving in the clean, efficient airport in Johannesburg was a pleasant change. It was when the transport to my hotel arrived that I really began realize that I was in a very different place. The driver picked me up in a brand new Mercedes, which in and of itself was a jarring change from the beat-up Land Cruisers we tool around Lobito in. He refused to let me sit in the front seat and insisted that I sit in the back. As we pulled away I suddenly noticed that the roads were paved and without potholes. Drivers obey the traffic signals! No honking! Amazing.

I’m staying in Rosebank, which is a part of Johannesburg that many financial institutions and companies relocated to when downtown Jo’burg became too dangerous. It’s an upscale neighborhood, with luxury apartments and cars swarming around. It’s also green. We spend all day in the hotel, which is a corporate hotel that serves all meals. It’s getting a little old.

We did venture out to visit the Center for Study on Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and interesting South African NGO that covers an impressive range of social services, research, and advocacy topics. Afterwards we went to Soweto. It felt a bit strange- we didn’t go on a tour or visit any institution, we just drove around. Which felt a bit conspicuous in a huge tour bus! I feel strange about slum tours in general, so I wasn’t too keen on the idea, even though we were a bus full of well-intentioned development workers from various countries (I was one of two Americans, the rest of the group consisted of national staff from South Africa). Soweto wasn’t what I expected. First of all, I imagined one large slum, but learned that Soweto is an acronym for South West Townships and consists of several townships. Many of the townships in Soweto are now quite nice and could easily pass for American middle class neighborhoods. Comparing the townships to the neighborhoods in Angola, Soweto seemed well-off. It hardly recalled the image of oppression that is associated with the riots and apartheid. But we did soon stumble upon the tent houses and shacks that show the reality of being poor and black in South Africa.

One stop we did make was the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. When oppression was at its worst in South Africa, all meetings except religious meetings were prohibited. Soon the church became an important meeting place for anti-apartheid groups. It was unremarkable in and of itself, but knowing the history of the building and its importance in the struggle was enough to give me the shivers.

Other than that, I haven’t really left the hotel, except to go to the mall with others to eat. Tomorrow, my first free day, is dedicated to commerce. Yes, my American commercial urges have been stifled in Angola, where there is nothing to spend my money on. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I was making a list of things to buy in my head.

1 comment:

mas2df said...

What stores did they have in SA? Anything we have heard of? Went to Colorado to go snowboarding last week. Hit 5 resorts in 5 days. Nice weather and conditions.