Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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Thursday, March 27 2003

setting: Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, South Africa

Today Gretchen and I were taken on a tour of Soweto by a guy who routinely runs such tours, usually for the benefit of foreign journalists. For those who don't know, Soweto was once part of the odious township system in Apartheid-era South Africa. The townships were the unruly, unregulated black-only areas housing the black labor pools for the rich white cities. Usually they were placed on undesirable land far from the city, preferably in a place where they couldn't be seen or noticed. Under Apartheid, it was illegal for a white person to enter a township. At a certain phase in the history of Apartheid, the government tried to keep townships male-only barracks communities, thereby keeping black families off in the dismal "homelands," far away from access to the niceties of western civilization. Eventually, though, townships grew to be vast high-density settlements with a government of their own, a foundry where the ideals of modern South Africa were forged.
The first thing I noticed upon entering Soweto was that it had none of the trees familiar from nearby Johannesburg. The sun seemed to beat down a bit hotter here. Initially, the houses didn't seem especially run down. I was, however, surprised to see that someone had built an old-school thatched-roofed rondavel in their yard. But then our guide made clear that we were in the rich part of Soweto, and he proceeded to point out the homes of a number of millionaires. Aside from the lack of trees, they would not have been out of place in any of Johannesburg's northern suburbs. They even had the concrete walls and concertina wire.
But then I looked down the street and saw them, the old barracks from the period when Soweto was a male-only labor pool. They were at the bottom of a gentle valley and there was something in their tight boxy regularity that was even more depressing than the brick factory look of a modern American public school.
Next we went to an orderly open-air market area where Soweto residents bought and sold day-to-day necessities: food, batteries, clothes. Evidently few white tourists came to this area because it was largely devoid of giraffe sculptures and baskets woven from telephone wire. Nonetheless, we weren't much of a spectacle as the only white people walking through. The only people who reacted to our presence were a couple of small children who insisted on walking with me hand-in-hand and running their fingers through the unusual blond hairs growing from my forearms.
The marketplace was a weird combination of high and low technology, stone age products and postmodern wackiness. At one end of the market was a large flat-panel display, the sort you'd see at Times Square or the Sunset Strip. I thought at first it was for advertising, but its only programming appeared to be American Hip Hop and R&B music videos. Beneath it someone was selling absolutely every shred of a butchered cow. Not far away, someone had a table spread with wrinkled pieces of dehydrated herbs, supposed cures for AIDS.
Our guided indicated a large white building directly across the highway. It was, he said, the "biggest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere."
Then our guide took us to a particularly impoverished Soweto neighborhood, a settlement comprised of dirt streets, wire fences, and shacks fashioned out of random pieces of corrugated steel. It looked more like a series of makeshift animal pens than a human habitation, but sure enough, people were living there. It soon became apparent, however, that the residents of this particularly neighborhood were only too keenly aware of the tourism potential of their living conditions. Rich white people from other planets could land in their spaceships, have a look around, utter a few patronizing clucks, experience a "there but for the grace of God" feeling, buy a sculpture of a giraffe, climb into their spaceship, fly back to their planet and resume the leveraging of deliverables to the next level. Our guide turned us over to a young Xhosa man named Eric who supposedly lived in this settlement. Eric, we were told, would show us around.
What happened instead was that Eric took us about a hundred and fifty feet into the settlement and then gave us a long, repetitive schpiel about how poor he and everyone else living here was, and how, when the tour was over, we could give any amount we wanted as a donation. He then mentioned a ridiculously high value as an example.
Finally Eric took us into a woman's house and had us peruse her grinding poverty. Conditions were actually neater and more comfortable inside than expected, complete with a big woodstove and a number of tidy household items. No matter how poor these people might be, they nonetheless have the time and ingenuity necessary to adapt what little they have to their particular needs. We gave her a little money and then that was it, the tour was over. As we were leaving, a row of sculpture merchants stood up and extended their hands, beginning what was about to become a very hard sell of their unremarkable wares. Obviously used to getting ridiculous prices from guilt-stricken white people, they quoted initial figures of as much as six hundred Rand ($75) for individual pieces. The prices fell quickly as my reluctance failed to dissolve. But they were out of luck, I only had about fifty Rand in my pocket. Furthermore, I don't respond well to hard sells. The whole experience in this particular neighborhood felt exploitative and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I prefer a little more flesh on the skeleton of capitalism.
More than any other city, Soweto has the feeling of a work in progress, like a ambitious website circa 1994. Capitalism is everywhere, and trade appears brisk with the few Rand rapidly circulating through the economy. People are constantly improving their homes with what little they can obtain. A complete spectrum of living conditions exists in Soweto, ranging from tin lean-to to lavish mansion, with every intermediate stage abundantly represented. Museums of all grades are common, though in the poorer ones their displays are perched atop simple brown cardboard boxes for want of pedestals. There's a dreary Catholic church where crucial events in ANC history transpired, and all but one of the bullet holes in its ceiling have been repaired. At one particular corner a supposedly momentous thing happened (I forget what) and there's a sign announcing a plan to construct a lavish monument, but for now its a weedy patch of dirt occupied by a few ad hoc vendors.
We briefly stopped at the brand-new Hector Pieterson memorial and had a look around (for some reason our guide was under a ridiculous time constraint and we only had five minutes). No expense appeared to have been spared in commemorating the boy whose death helped catalyze the emergence of the New South Africa. The memorial consisted of a collection of beautiful photographs of shocking events in the history of Apartheid, complete with quotes from the people who were there. In an outdoor courtyard there's a scattering of bricks, one for each of the known martyrs for the cause.
There was an interesting conversation between our tour guide and Gretchen on the way to lunch. Somehow the topic of religion came up and Gretchen said that she was Jewish. Then she explained what this meant, that Jews didn't believe in the resurrection or divinity of Jesus. The tour guide, like most people in South Africa, was Christian, and he couldn't understand why anyone would believe in the Old Testament but then not believe in the New. "It's a religion," Gretchen explained, "and that's just the way Jews believe." In the United States, it's generally understood that if something is a religious belief, it's not an opinion that can be altered with debate or argument. In South Africa, though, things are somewhat different, even for someone like our tour guide, who has been exposed to a great diversity of Western press people. "But didn't the Old Testament say that there would be a messiah?" he asked. "Yes," Gretchen agreed, "but Jews don't believe Jesus was the one. They're unconvinced. They're still waiting." This lead into a conversation about our upcoming marriage, and Gretchen's parents acceptance of me despite my non-Jewishness. Our driver had already told us that his marriage to a Xhosa woman had crossed tribal boundaries (he's a Shangaan) and met with the disapproval of his parents, who regarded Xhosas as untrustworthy. Similarly, I explained that the differences between Gretchen and myself were also "tribal," but that we were lucky not to encounter any parental resistance.
For lunch, we had the buffet at a Soweto restaurant called Wandie's Place. Most of the other people there were white fellow tourists. I made the mistake of getting a dish that turned out to be comprised of chicken livers, but aside from that my food pretty good.

Back in Johannesburg, Gretchen and I experienced a harrowing ordeal trying to pay our Soweto tour guide. The cash machine at a gas station refused to give us money, yet none of the employees had ever seen it decline to give money to anyone. We ended up having to go to a mall near Dina's place to find a cash machine that accepted our card.

Dina's pro-social behavior makes Gretchen look like a recluse by comparison. This evening there was a plan for us all to do dinner with other members of the American press corps, but Dina had also scheduled a little "meet & greet" with a totally different set of Americans at her place before dinner. Such tight scheduling of social engagements seems more like work than pleasure. Contributing to this feeling, the meet & greet was inexplicably alcohol-free. This made me pine for the good old days, when the social importance of drink was implicit. (Obviously, this is my problem, not Dina's!) Actually, though, the meet & greet turned out to be reasonably fun, to the extent that some in attendance were flawed in ways that irritated Gretchen in interesting ways.
Dinner was in a specially-gated business district, another place designed so white people could feel safe enough to part with their money. I was somewhat surprised, then, when I saw a fair sprinkling of black customers in Moyo, the restaurant where we'd be dining. The place had a strong African theme, to the extent that our waiter had little white dots painted on his face. (He was not, however, forced to carry a spear or wear a leopard skin.) The restaurant had an almost theme-park quality that somehow succeeded in remaining within the bounds of good taste, sort of like Mos Eisley, the bar on Tatooine where Han Solo blew away that bounty hunter Greedo.
An hour or so into our meal, an African woman got up on stage and began singing various American jazz standards with a lush, beautiful voice. The stage looked almost intimate to our small part of the restaurant, but when I went to the bathroom I realized that the space had been cleverly designed as a series of floors at several levels, each angled to various compass directions, all of them seeming "intimate" with respect to the stage. The two bathrooms, by the way, were each labeled with large copper bas-reliefs featuring iconic humans having oversized sexual characteristics.
The other folks who Dina had invited to dine with us included a Voice of America reporter named Chalice and the National Public Radio Johannesburg correspondant, Jason Bovian, along with Jason's wife. Being an NPR freak, I'd heard Jason's line, "Reporting from Johannesburg, I'm Jason Bovian" enough times for him to figure as a sort of celebrity. Jason was among the press people held in a jail with Dina a few weeks ago in Zimbabwe.

See some photographs from the South Africa trip.

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