South Africa

Before returning Stateside, Colin and I did a bunch of traveling in East and Southern Africa. The first leg of my African travels was to South Africa and Mozambique with a friend I met in Rwanda. I’d been to South Africa before, to Johannesburg several years ago with Colin, but this time we were going to Cape Town on the coast.

The first thing that struck me about South Africa was the customer service. Due to a flight crisis of pretty epic proportions, we had to deal with airline agents in both Kigali and South Africa and it couldn’t have been a more different experience. In Kigali, we were forced to buy an entirely new ticket less than an hour before the plane was leaving (long story). We ran through the airport with an airline attendant to hastily buy the new ticket. At the counter as we were paying, I asked if we’d for sure make it on this flight which was leaving super soon and cost too much money and the Rwandan attendant said, “Stick with me and you’ll make your flight. Or if you don’t, you can come stay with me at my home.” Wonderful hospitality but no ability to hold a plane even two minutes to help a desperate customer, since this would be outside of protocol.

Fast forward to our arrival in South Africa, where we had to purchase another new ticket for the connecting flight we’d missed—same scenario but different country. These airline ladies sold us a ticket that also was leaving in less than an hour and their response to my desperate question of “We’ll make it on THIS flight, right?!” was a shocked, taken aback look and the response, “Now why would we sell you a ticket to a flight you would miss?” Well ladies, you have no idea.

This hugely different experience for the exact same situation plus simple things like putting a sign saying “Counter closed—next counter please” to indicate that the woman sitting there was unavailable to assist—these things make a huge difference. In Rwanda, no sign would exist saying that the woman was unavailable and you’d have to make the mistake of asking her and then get a reaction like it was your fault that you bothered her. So coming to South Africa was like a dream—you genuinely want to know how my day is?! You would actually go out of your way to break protocol in the name of customer service?? What?!

I was also overwhelmed by “first world things” like moving sidewalks, highways, being able to look things up on the internet, and I ate waaaay too many nachos. Plus an IPA a day—didn’t realize how much I missed those after a year of lagers.

Many of you have heard about the water crisis in Cape Town and I was shocked at the extent that it permeated life there. The sinks were turned off in the Cape Town airport and instead everyone uses hand sanitizers. Hotels have signs encouraging shorter showers. Restaurants have signs in their bathrooms outlining all of the ways they’re reducing their water consumption. Restaurants also have taken somewhat of a stance in that some will say that they will never deny someone free tap water, that free water is a right for all. Bottled water is becoming increasingly popular for the upper classes, which is horrible for environmental reasons and inaccessible to folks who can’t afford to buy water. Last I read, Cape Town’s dams are collectively 75% full but water consumption has increased so it’s still a critical issue.

One of our days in Cape Town we spent on a wine tour outside of the city. On the way to the vineyards, we passed grungy, fenced-off areas that designate townships. I was familiar with townships but was shocked by the reality of them. Townships are tucked into crazy small spaces between highways and were meant to house black South Africans in the apartheid area. Starting in 1950, residents were issued ID cards identifying their race and then placed into racially divided neighborhoods. Black folks were relocated from the city centers to outlying townships, where they still live on land they don’t own and which lacks access to basic services like sewage systems, electricity, roads, and clean water. Electrical poles are overloaded with wires trying to access the single power box in the area and lines of porta potties are common. Due to lack of adequate housing and massive overpopulation, illegal shacks have also overtaken areas of the townships, causing more strain on the few resources. They essentially live like refugees in their own country.

While we were there, we witnessed a small march on one of the main streets with black South Africans protesting about land. We asked our white male waiter what was going on and he rolled his eyes and said “They do this every week. They’re always asking for free stuff.” It was awful to see how disrespectful he was of his fellow countrymen’s situation—racism is still SO strong there. South Africa is currently promoting land distribution reforms since 72% of farms are owned by white people who make up only 8.2% of the population. Black South Africans own only 4% of the land but make up 80% of the population. So it’s a huge social justice issue that slams you right in the face when you see those townships. (You can read more about it in this article: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2018/08/27/land-redistribution-in-south-africa-trumps-tweet-and-us-africa-policy/ )

Here are some other pics of our trip:

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