I had reservations about whether to go on safari when I stepped foot in South Africa less than a month ago. Friends who know me well will echo this truism:
I’m not an outdoorsman.
I don’t hunt.
I don’t swim.
I don’t camp.
Heck, I get lost going downtown, so navigating solo a place where lions, elephants and black rhino play was beyond what I could do — or wanted to do.
Yet the safari was an experience beyond what I imagined as well. For once my fear of the bush vanished, I discovered the splendor of Mother Nature’s beauty.
I felt blessed that I did it. I would, if circumstances allow, do a second safari.
Nonetheless, for all the memories I took from my treks through a protected park, I don’t see the safari as my seminal memory of Africa. So much about my fatherland fascinated me, but the most fascinating thing of all was learning more and more about Apartheid.
As a Black American, I know what hate can produce. The disparity between Blacks and whites here is nearly as dark and menacing as it was a half-century ago. The divide on many fronts remains wide, though not as wide as what Blacks and coloureds in South Africa face as they chip away at remnants of its racist hierarchy.
Three decades after Apartheid was dismantled, it remains easy to see how horrific it must have been. For I observed little interaction between Blacks and whites. When I saw wealth — and wealth was ubiquitous in this resource-rich country — I could bet my last dime it belonged to someone white.
I noticed that inequality on tours of middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in Cape Town and Johannesburg, but nothing helped me understand the Black-white dynamic of South Africa better than walking through Soweto, an all-Black township inside the municipality of Johannesburg.
Soweto, so I’m told, stands for “South-Western Townships,” and the Sowetans face the worst of life in a First World country bogged down in too many Third World woes.
I have witnessed poverty before. I had cousins who grew up poor in the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago, and Cleveland had urban housing that warehoused poor people of color just as Detroit, New York and L.A. did.
Yet none of these urban centers mirrored the dire circumstances Sowetans wake to daily. Their homes, if the shanties they lived in could be viewed as “homes,” were bunched wall to wall, barely inches between each one. Dirt roads separated blocks of squalor from each other, and I couldn’t begin to envision what those streets turned into after a heavy rain.
What jobs could a person find in a neighborhood almost inaccessible to opportunity?
Sowetans had to scramble to make ends meet. I spotted men and women combing garbage bins for plastic bottles and cans, because these disposable containers carried value.
Still, Blacks and coloureds I met in Soweto — and the ones I met outside it — led me to understand better what Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite feminist writer, surely felt about her girlhood in the all-Black township of Eatonvile, Florida: Hurston’s happiness wasn’t measured in the tangibles of her life; it was measured in the intangibles that guided her through to the end of it.
I saw Hurston in the lot of them.