Wrestling with the Stench

Writing about South Africa could consume a whole book. In light of what else South Africa has consumed, that’s no surprise, and that book would hardly constitute a footnote. In a sense, that’s true about whatever we write of everywhere we’ve been or will go, making South Africa no different. But South Africa stands out nonetheless, not in the trivial sense that all countries are singular along any number of dimensions, but because it is fundamentally different – and its marks of heart-wrenching distinction are palpable with nearly every step and in virtually every waking moment.

I do not intend to write the treatise South Africa warrants, merely to note elements, just kernels of them, which arise in the course of where my writing takes me and you. Yet one eloquent fact can help justify my opening, and set the stage for more. Of the 149 countries listed by Gini Coefficient in the CIA Factbook, South Africa has the second highest – meaning second greatest degree of economic inequality – exceeded only by the poor country it entirely surrounds and dominates, Lesotho. The most recent census (2011) revealed that the household income of whites is SIX TIMES that of blacks. (In the US, we rightly decry a white-black income gap where white households on average earn 60% more than black ones. In South Africa the figure is 500%.)

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The gaping inequality is literally impossible not to see because it is manifest everywhere. Sumptuous villas sit a stone’s throw away from shacks.

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Gleaming shopping centers share roadsides with garbage strewn shantytowns. Just sitting and writing about these human and inhuman contrasts – as it further focuses my attention on them — increases my already considerable disgust that has been our constant companion in this country of uncommon natural beauty.

We sailed through the entry sequence at the Johannesburg airport, got our Toyota Rav 4 for the expected rugged driving in the rugged areas, and headed, only several hours behind our initial well-laid schedule, straight for the Drakensberg Escarpment. It didn’t take but a few blinks of the prepared but still disbelieving eyes for us to be introduced to the physical squalor of the “settlements” and the individual structures which shamefully qualify as homes, to which so many black South Africans, though no longer legally so, are effectively still confined.

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Of course, in Tanzania, a much poorer country, with per capita GDP not even one-fourth as high as South Africa, we saw much poverty and “homes” which, in their inadequacy to their name, would break your heart should it not be of the hard-hearted variety, which we have good reason to believe characterizes many of the more materially fortunate hearts here in South Africa. But to see the contrast, to put it starkly in coloristic terms, between black and white in South Africa, and to know that the abject physical, social, and security conditions in which so many blacks live here is systematically structured by race, by once-racist law, politics, and state-violence, and by the ongoing thoroughgoing legacies of this racism, makes the impoverished physical lives of black South Africans so much more disturbing.

The beauty of the Drakensberg is overwhelming.

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As much as anything could clear the moral and human mental-stench from our minds, Drakensberg is it. When below the escarpment, and when above, it offers breathtaking views on the order of the Grand Canyon, as different as the formations, stone, and coloration are. I hope Sarah writes about it, for two reasons. Her hand is niftier for using words to convey what we saw, which she also sees better, as she has the better eye. Second, she saw more, because she climbed to the glorious top, which I did not because my vertigo finally got the better of me when we came upon a six-inch ledge above a straight drop down. I turned back, while Sarah went on alone, as spry Gideon much earlier had steamed ahead with a couple from the Netherlands. As we couldn’t count on cell-service to communicate with Gideon, Sarah had to venture on solo because we couldn’t leave Gideon, uninformed, on the mountain alone. When I started to descend from the high-point of my vertigo, we, a solid-threesome starting out, were, as far as Sarah and I knew, three isolated individuals — not ideal on a climb which is dangerous, even if it is not the north face of the Eiger.

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Sarah and Gideon finally met up on top, shared memorable views and times, and touched-down safely and fulfilled about four hours after Sarah and I had parted. Sitting and writing in our lodge’s restaurant/common area, I was relieved when Gideon texted me that they were driving back from the base of the climb, as his words washed away my many worries about their safety. No surprise, I was even more overjoyed than usual to see them, and to hear their tales of climbing courage and visual wonders.

–Danny

 

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