South Africa, Day 5: Redressing the past.

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Here’s where it starts to get heavy. On Day 4 at the Solms-Delta winery, we began to delve deeper into the issues of race and culture in South Africa today. It’s definitely a country in transition, still reeling from its history of apartheid. But while I expected an unstable, even corrupt and crime-ridden society, instead I witnessed one full of hope, optimism and possibility, even while the future is very much unknown.

On Day 5, following our obligatory omelet and breakfast spread, we packed our emergency box of pastries and headed to Eerste River, a colored community on the outskirts of Cape Town. Our appointment was at the Eerste River Hospital, where we were to meet hospital CEO Dr. Visser. South Africa operates a state health system, and the country deals with many health issues, including AIDS and outbreaks of tuberculosis that have been exacerbated by the AIDS situation. South Africa’s previous president Thabo Mbeki was considered an AIDS denialist, and while he was in office his personal philosophy became government policy. During that time, necessary antiretrovirals were denied to hospitals trying to treat AIDS patients. Under current president Jacob Zuma, that policy has been reversed; though, after being accused of rape by an AIDS activist and declaring it to be consensual, Zuma stated that he did not take precautions since he “took a hot shower.” I’m sure that sort of misinformation isn’t helping the matter.

Eerste River Hospital.

Before we saw Dr. Visser, we met with Nosipiwo, a representative from a South African insurance company. She introduced us to the collective South African philosophy of “ubuntu,” which translates as “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Leaders like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu embody that message and live it every day. I also think that Mark Solms and the work at his winery are a good examples of ubuntu in practice. Nosipiwo told us that ubuntu explains the national unity in respect, recognition, and relatedness among South Africans.

Next we were visited by Dr. Visser. His family, like Mark Solms’s, has lived in the same location for centuries. Even though he could make much more money working as a doctor overseas, he chose instead to give back in his own community. He talked to us about the cultural challenges he faces in running the hospital, specifically the people’s lingering bitterness after the end of apartheid and their mentality that the “government must give.” As a colored community, they were not “white enough” during apartheid and now aren’t “black enough” to receive the full suite of benefits and advantages. Dr. Visser told us that the culture in South Africa has shifted from one of shared responsibility (and few rights) to one of personal rights (and little responsibility). In those social challenges, he works to undo the slave/master mentality, not accepting excuses and holding his own staff accountable. He, like Mark Solms, works alongside his employees with a shared sense of community, not expecting them to do work that he isn’t willing to do.

Dr. Visser.

Dr. Visser said South Africa is a new country, but one with a “window dressing” on apartheid. There may be more social mixing, but apartheid hasn’t ended in people’s hearts, and it may take generations before it is eradicated. Does that sound familiar to any Americans? Dr. Visser’s work also highlights the opportunity that exists today in South Africa’s transforming culture. He believes that dissidents lead dynamic change, so even though he must work within a government-dictated budget, he finds other, creative ways to drive the hospital’s success. He is respectful of his own history and the community for which he is responsible, but he, like many South Africans we met, aren’t hesitant to confront the brutal truths and sordid history between the races in order to make progress. I can honestly say that I haven’t met anyone more inspiring or full of passion for their work and doing what is right than Dr. Visser. He’s an incredible man.

After our lecture, we toured the hospital and saw its kangaroo ward, where babies and mothers are allowed to stay and be cared for longer than the government allows. The mortuary has been moved to the main floor, not in the basement, so that family members can visit and say goodbye to their loved ones. We also stopped in the eye clinic and the “casualty ward,” or ER, where one patient had just passed away from tuberculosis. Those changes in policy for the kangaroo ward or mortuary may sound only logistical, but they actually make a huge difference from an emotional, human perspective.

(Sadly, we learned just a few weeks ago that Dr. Visser has been let go from his position at Eerste River Hospital. It’s a disgusting commentary on what happens when you stand up for what you believe in and know is right but challenge the status quo. And it tells me that South Africa just isn’t there yet.  But keep on, Dr. Visser.)

Eerste River Hospital.

Eerste River Hospital.

Next we left the hospital for a walkabout in the township area of Eerste River. To say it was profound is an understatement. We walked through what we in America define as abject poverty, but the people — especially the children — are so happy. They are filled with joy, even while they have nothing. In what they do have, they clearly take immense pride. For instance, the clothes hanging on the line were of the whitest white. Some of the residents told us that they can afford to live somewhere better but they stay to maintain the tie to the community or to save money to invest in a business. I think there are tons of lessons there that we all could learn.

Eerste River Township.

Eerste River Township.

Eerste River Township.

Eerste River Township.

Eerste River Township.

Eerste River Township.

Dr. Visser had arranged for us to have lunch at the Vergenoegd wine estate, but we were, of course, behind schedule. So we had a rushed lunch of only one course — my beef fillet with tempura-battered sweet potatoes and vegetables was stupendous. After lunch we came out to load the bus and encountered swarms of ducks being herded back to their pens. Hundreds of them just waddling and quacking across the lawn. It was a sight!

Vergenoegd Wine Estate.

Vergenoegd Wine Estate.


More ducks!

We drove back to the airport for our flight to Johannesburg, said goodbye to our guide Mark and loaded our baggage, praying that all of our possessions would arrive with us. They served another dinner on the 2-hour flight, but given our winery lunch I just wasn’t hungry. I’ll take a wild guess that it was curried.

On the plane.

Night flight to Johannesburg.

We (and our luggage, whew) arrived in one piece in Johannesburg. We loaded our coach, met our new guide Willie (pronounced “Villy”) and headed for the Westcliff Hotel. The hotel is breathtaking, even at night. It’s behind some serious security fences, as is everything in Johannesburg, but the  series of buildings is built into a cliffside with a winding, cobblestone road up the hill. At the top is the restaurant and pool, with landscape views out over parts of the city. It felt like our group just took over a cloistered little village.

Our room was ri. dic. u. lous., and Roz and I went on an excited flurry of picture-taking to document our lavish accomodations. I mean, I could have just lived in the bathroom, which was probably as big as my NYC apartment.

Our room, the Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg.

The bathroom. Oh, my.

Roz taking a picture of…

…me taking a picture of Roz.

Nightscape from top of the Westcliff Hotel over Johannesburg.

We were tired — emotionally exhausted, mostly — from the day and the flight so we all just rendezvoused at the lounge for some tapas and drinks. I even tried my first Moscow Mule … and then my second and third. The lounge and our self-contained hotel allowed our group to fully mingle for the first time, and it was that night that everyone started to come together. I had never traveled in a group before, much less a large group of 35, and I had been concerned about it. We were a group of several cliques — three different school programs, in fact. But I actually really enjoyed traveling with such a large group once we all started bonding and interacting. It turns out that the lounge at the Westcliff is the best thing that could have happened to us.

Day 6 to come…


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