THE 1980s’ media landscape was mostly dominated by the news about apartheid in South Africa. You could hear Nelson Mandela’s name all over the news, music from Miriam Makeba and Lucky Dube, an icon for many young Africans.
My dad helped me at least to understand that Nelson Mandela was a special person who was fighting for the right of the black South Africans. By 1990, when he was liberated from the 27 years jail, everyone was happy, although I was too young to grasp exactly what it really meant.
From that time on it was reported that South Africa was a free land that offered jobs and career opportunities to all. Many young people started flocking there, taking long and risky journeys, and sometimes crossing lakes. I heard some years later, those young men and women had settled although they encountered mixed fate.
There are those who were able to get a good education that led them to better jobs and a life they had dreamed. There are also those who were quickly disappointed as the situation on the ground was far different from what they had heard back home.
A dream comes true
From this background, I picked an early interest to visit South Africa in my lifetime. It finally materialized almost 20 years after ANC had taken over power and when Nelson Mandela is hospitalized because of old age. But for me my ten days’ stay was only to attend a conference as well as training and not to settle there.
I landed at Oliver Tambo International airport late October 2013. I was worried because of bad news spread in the media describing Johannesburg as a dangerous city that boosts a number of gangs. Luckily I was reassured by a South African taxi driver of Indian origins who received me and drove me from the airport to the Central Business District (CBD).
You can easily be tempted to think you are somewhere in the USA as you drive from the airport to Johannesburg Central Business District given the kind of highways and skyscrapers you see along the way. The taxi driver proved to be a professional tour guide by indicating me how I can behave to enjoy the best of my stay.
I checked in at Easy Hotel that is located in Braamfontein which is a central suburb in Johannesburg near the University of the Witwatersrand where Nelson Mandela attended his law school in the 1940’s. The area is connected to the city center by Nelson Mandela Bridge.
Afterwards, I went out looking for a restaurant where I could eat my first lunch. Fortunately the area boasts a variety of restaurants and pub given that it is a place mostly populated by students coming from different parts of South Africa to attend the university.
I found my way to a near restaurant that serves local food. I ordered a cold soda and a local dish made up of maize flour cooked with water along with sausage and meat. The meal was delicious and that was my first contact with South African culture. That dish is also found in East Africa though it is cooked in a different way in South Africa.
On Sunday I decided to go to Rosebank using the underground train that was inaugurated in 2010 as South Africa was hosting the World Cup. Rosebank is a cosmopolitan commercial and residential suburb situated in the northwestern part of Johannesburg and boosts a number of shopping malls and restaurants.
The weekend passed quickly then Monday was a busy day for me as I had to wake up early to attend a conference on investigative journalism that was organized by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters FAIR in partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand.
The latter was founded in 1896 and is commonly known as Wits University. According to Wikipedia, the university has its roots in the mining industry, as does Johannesburg and is the third oldest South African university after the University of Cape Town (founded in 1829) and Stellenbosch University (founded in 1866).
My time at this university was an eye opener on how South African society is diverse and cosmopolite the reasons why it is called the rainbow nation. I could see blacks, whites, colored, Indians among others. As I was walking inside the university compound, I was stopped by a group of six young students who wanted a match box to smoke cigarettes.
Though I could not give it to them, this gave me an opportunity to ask them what it means to be South African today. Apparently they were from different racial backgrounds but they all confirmed that they felt home though they pointed out a number of issues such as corruption and criminality that are undermining the prospects of South Africa.
On Tuesday I decided to tour the city to discover popular neighborhoods. I took a bus to Nelson Mandela Square situated in Sandton. The area was formerly known as Sandton Square, it was renamed Nelson Mandela Square on 31 March 2004 after a statue of Nelson Mandela was installed on the square to honor the former South African president.
The area is one of the most fashionable destinations in Johannesburg, offering 93 exclusive shops and boutiques, as well as fine dining experiences and sidewalks cafes. I had a good time shopping and taking pictures of the late president statue that is located at Sandton Square.
Insights from youth
On my way back to the hotel, I crossed paths with a group of three young and beautiful ladies.They looked exactly like our sisters from East Africa. One of them spotted that I was staring at them then saluted me. They were medical and engineering student at Wits University. We chatted a bit then I asked them for guidance to a nearby restaurant that serves traditional meal as I was fed up to eat at KFC or Mac Donald’s.
They had somehow remarked that I was a visitor then volunteered to show me around. As a sign of recognition, I offered to buy them dinner so that we could talk. I needed to get an insight about South African society from young intellectuals. We talked and laughed around a hot meal as if we knew each from before.
Then we found ourselves talking about relationships. I asked them if they have boyfriends, they look at each other and laughed. “I broke up with mine one year ago.” Maria told me that he was cheating on her then she decided to stop the relationship to concentrate on her studies.
I asked the other two then all of them nodded negatively. They told me that nowadays many young men in South Africa are becoming gays and that it is a challenge now for young ladies to get boyfriends. It was a chock for me as an East African because homosexuality is almost a taboo where it is even punished but was legalized in South Africa.
We talked about other issues such as polygamy. The young university students were all favorable to polygamy. “Instead for my husband to cheat on me, I would prefer for him to be open and present me his second wife”, noted one of them. That was also something unusual for me as in Rwanda and in other East African countries polygamy is not common.
As time goes by, I started feeling home and was enjoying my stay in the rainbow nation. All worries about insecurity had dissipated and I was comfortable going around. I was amazed how Africans look alike. The physical features of most black South Africans can be found in other African countries especially in East Africa where I come from.
Apart from that many words in their local languages are similar with word found in East African languages such as Swahili, Luganda, Kirundi and Kinyarwanda. I was left with a conviction that Africans have a lot in common.
By Thursday I supposed to take part in the Annual General Assembly of FAIR. Taking part in FAIR AGM was an opportunity for me to meet journalists from across Africa that I have been communicating with online. It was also important for me to meet Khadija Sharife, an accomplished journalist and author from South Africa who have been editing my articles. On the picture down I was posing for a picture with journalists from Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Somalia.
Then on Friday I had to take a South African Airlines flight back home. Unfortunately I missed the flight as I reached the airport a lit bit late. I was very upset because I had a very important appointment on Monday in Kigali. I sent an email to Abdullah Vawda the Executive director of FAIR to signal him the problem. Fortunately he understood then decided to send me a taxi to bring me back at the hotel to wait the next flight on Monday.
Time inside the airport
The taxi driver reached me late in the evening. I spent my time inside Oliver Tambo International airport chatting with people who were sitting next to me. I happened to sit near an 83-year-old white South African lady who was waiting a flight to Perth in Australia to visit her daughter. The latter moved there with her white husband from Zimbabwe who is working as a geologist in Australia.
I asked her how it is to be a white South African in post-apartheid society. She told me that it is not easy for young white generations. “Our grandchildren are going through a hard time to get a job in government institutions once they graduate”, complained the 83-year-old lady. She told me that there are those who choose to emigrate to Australia, New Zealand or the USA for their career purposes as her daughter and husband chose Australia.
As I was reading a copy of the Stars which is one of South African daily newspaper, a black South African woman came to sit next to me. We exchanged smile then she started complaining to me that every hour there is a flight to Cape Town but that she has to wait four hours to fly to her hometown in East London.
I also told her that I had missed my flight back to my country and she felt sorry for me. I was curious to know whether she was going to East London for a visit then when I asked her she told me that she is working as a policewoman and that she had come to Johannesburg for one week training for policewomen.
I decided to find out about the difficulties young white South Africans are going through to secure an employment in government agencies by asking the black policewoman. I was referring to what the 83-year-old white South African lady had told me before.
Corruption and unemployment
The policewoman told me that it is not only white youth who struggle to get a job. “We have our young brothers and sisters who have graduated from university but still don’t get a job”, said the 39-year-old policewoman. She went on saying that unemployment is high the reason why criminality is also high.
“The problem in South Africa is corruption that is growing every other day”. The policewoman pointed out that you will find out that companies winning government tenders are secretly owned by public officials such as MP. The latter are exceedingly becoming rich at the expenses of the majority. The issue led me to question whether ANC has failed to the majority of South African people that voted it into office.
New generation of politician
I thought myself that maybe the frustration that is found inside the South Africa society is the one that has prompted the rise of young politicians such as Julius Malema that are challenging ANC. Malema used to lead the African National Congress Youth League, was expelled from the ruling African National Congress this year after months of contestations with the senior members of the ANC, including President Jacob Zuma.
He has now formed a new political party: Economic Freedom Fighters EFF that is attracting young people in their 30’s who are disappointed by ANC leadership. Malema’s political party received its registration certificate on 8 October 2013 to contest in the April 2014 general elections.
As controversial as he is, he decided to launch his Economic Freedom Fighters on 13 October 2013 at Marekana where on 16 August 2012; 34 miners striking for higher wages were gunned down by the police. His party could be a serious challenger to ANC during the upcoming general election in 2014.
According to Pusch Commey the New African South African correspondent, Malema has confronted without fear long-standing racial issues that play well into the black electoral base: the land, inequalities, black poverty, poor education, economic oppression, and ownership structures drawn along racial lines, all of which are apartheid legacies.
Back to the hotel
Finally the taxi driver picked me late in the night when I had had time to chat with different people. I also had a lot of time to read local newspaper that pointed out to me some of the challenges I stated above. He drove me back to Easy Hotel in Central Business District, a journey that takes more than 30 minutes. On our way back we saw a group of gangs who have erected a big stone in the road and this reminded me how the problem of crime is a serious one in South Africa.
On Saturday I spent the whole day expecting a call from Abdullah Vawda about my flight as I had told him about an important appointment I had in Kigali on Monday. I waited in vain then in evening my favorite team Arsenal was playing against Liverpool so I went in the bar and met a journalist from Malawi who is also a FAIR member . I had a good time with a group of guys from Malawi watching a football game Arsenal won 2-0.
In the second half as we were enjoying the game, South Africans asked to change a channel so that they could watch their club Orlando pirates that was playing against Al Ahly from Egypt in the final of the African champion’s league. Al Ahly was leading the game with 1-0 for most the match then almost at the end of the game Orlando pirates equalized, a situation that brought joy to many people in Johannesburg that weekend.
A land of immigration
By chatting with my friends from Malawi, I came to understand how South Africa is an important nation to its neighboring countries. One guy from Malawi told me that his compatriots come to South Africa to seek many services such as education, health or jobs. To prove how the rainbow nation was important for them, he told me that the last three presidents of Malawi died in South Africa as they had come for medical attention.
I also realized that hotel maids were mostly from Zimbabwe. One of them who was always serving me breakfast told me that most people working in hotels, restaurants, etc. were from Zimbabwe as the country is facing its worst economic crisis since president Robert Mugabe decided to nationalize lands that used to be exploited by white settlers.
In addition to people from Africa who emigrated there, South Africa has welcomed people from across the world. You can see Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, and Europeans among others.
One of the things that disappointed me in Johannesburg is how its shopping malls close their doors as early as 6 PM. Those that close later can do that by 9 PM. On Thursday after the Annual General Meeting of FAIR, we decided to go out to shop with Shoks MNISI MZOLO, a freelance writer from South Africa who was acting as a guide and two friends from Uganda.
We were disappointed as we were ready to spend some dollars to shop for goods we supposed to take back home. I couldn’t understand how a city like Johannesburg could not just have a 24 hour system that is found even in less developed countries on the continent.
We started kidding to our South African guides how South Africa just missed an opportunity to take our dollars. I guess South African economy must be losing millions of dollars because of this system.
Ready to fly back home
By Sunday evening Abdullah Vawda finally called me to confirm that I would travel on Monday with Kenya Airways. Early in the morning I was ready then the taxi driver picked me at the hotel to drive me at Oliver Tambo International Airport. My 10 days stay in Johannesburg has just come to an end in a controversial but interesting and fascinating way.
It enabled me to closely interact with the South African society. The country is big, rich and beautiful and can fly high its flag once its leadership exploit well its opportunities and find solutions to its challenges. Though Apartheid regime was bad, I have seen with my eyes that it has built infrastructure that make South Africa what it is today. On the other hands it has created deep inequalities among its various inhabitants.
As I conclude this post, I heard in the news that Nelson Mandela has passed away on 5 December 2013 at the age of 95. It is my hope that his legacy will serve to bind all South Africans together in a diverse society for the good of every one.
It is up to the next generations of leaders to lay down policies that accommodate all South Africans from all racial backgrounds. Once they do that, Nelson Mandela dream would be a reality that his soul will be proud of in its eternal rest. South Africa would be a model of democracy not only in Africa but also to the rest of the world.