Wednesday, June 27, 2007

................the Bad, and the Ugly

Written by Lynn

As I said in the post you read just before this, I loved South Africa. It may have been the most action packed 5 weeks we had on the road, with so much to see and do. To clarify things however, this is not to say that South Africa is without its problems. First and foremost, anyone thinking of visiting South Africa has to be aware of its outrageously high crime rate.

Just before we left Johannesburg I was reading the newspaper with my morning coffee and they were reporting on the 2006 crime rates. There was almost 20, 000 murders last year in this country. Sounds high, but what does it really mean. To put things in perspective I looked up some stats on Canada. There are, annually, 2.1 murders/100,000 people at home. In South Africa it is 50.8/100,000 (I even saw reports as high as 414/100,000, though I think these were greatly exaggerted; at least I hope so). Even more disturbing is that South Africa is considered the rape capital of the world, with a ridiculously high rate of child abuse. Some say this is because of the all too common urban legend that sex with a virgin can cure you of AIDS. With a HIV infection rate that was estimated at 21.5% of the population in 2003 (recent stats put the rate of infection of pregnant mothers admitted into hospitals at a staggering 33%) there is no getting around the importance of this disease in the developement of the mindset of imminent death amongst the South African poor (ie. black). This feeling has a direct effect that leads them into lives of crime in an attempt for short term gains. Other violent crimes, such as car jackings and home invasions are also rampant. Every day in South Africa there are 50 murders, 150 rapes and 700 serious assaults.

Well, I will say categorically we had no problems what so ever, even though we walked around Cape Town after dark a few times (only because our ferry from Robben Island got back late). So we were feeling pretty complacent. Those that promote South Africa as a tourist destination (and it needs a lot of promotion, tourism rates are dropping and almost entirely because of the fear of crime) say that the majority of is confined to urban areas, mainly the poor black townships, and that almost all the violent crimes are committed by people known to the victims. We just figured you had to be careful and everything would be fine - don't walk around alone at night (especially if you are a woman), lock your car doors when you are driving in the city (prevents someone from pulling you out when you are stopped at a red light) and don't flash expensive jewellery and cameras around. ALL the hostels we stayed in had locked gates and even security guards at some. The car rental company was very clear that not only were we to take everything out of the car every night, but that we should leave the glovebox open and the flap to the hatchback up so that anyone looking in would know for sure there was nothing to steal. We don't tend to engage in risky behaviour, like going out drinking at bars, so we felt pretty good about the situation.

That is until we stayed at our last hostel in Jo'burg. There the owner took me to a local restaurant place to pick up some take out pizza and I bought him a beer while we were waiting. Constantly curious about what different South Africans think about the situation in their country, I always try to subtly ask questions about it, trying to be careful to not offend anyone. Some just politely ignore the questions, or give very brief answers, but not this guy. Wow, once the flood gates opened even I wished I hadn't asked. He had grown up in the house that we were staying at, then had been in the military during the apartheid uprisings, and now was retired and running a hostel. He said that up until a decade ago he had never had any problems in the neighbourhood, but in the last 5 years there have been 21 attempts to break into his house. He described in great detail about how he was mugged at gunpoint and said he never carries a gun himself because it just gives someone a reason to shoot you in order to steal it. We sat at the bar and he pointed out various people and described to me how they had been victims of crimes. He scoffed at the numbers that were given in the papers saying that, the rapes in particular, were probably only reported half the time so the stats weren't even close to being accurate. He figures about 10% of the backpackers that stay with him have been mugged and almost none of them bother to report it to the police. He said a lot of other things too, much of it mind boggling because in any other country or situation it would be considered naked racism, though it sadly seems here that he was only voicing out loud what a lot of people are thinking. By the time my pizza came I was just sitting there with my mouth hanging open, the vitriol I induced by a simple question leaving me (uncharacteristically) speechless.

Well, this brings us to a HUGE problem here - racism. We all know about "apartheid", but I think, in my case at least, I was under the impression that the release and election of Nelson Mandela in the 1990's had brought about great, positive changes for South Africa and that, while there were still hurdles to overcome, things were on the road to recovery. A truly naive veiw point as it turns out.

It's a strange society here. 75% of the population is black, 11% white and about 14% "coloured" ( a term used in South Africa to denote people who are oriental, Malay or Indian; though a notable exception during apartheid were the Japanese who were considered honorary whites for trade reasons). It is said (and I believe it) that about 90% of the money in this country is in the hands of the white population. It is probably true to say that the problems are between different economic levels, rather than different colours, but here it amounts to the same thing. And the real issues began decades before, though "apartheid" (meaning "seperateness" in Afrikaans) is what most of us remember.

The organized, and greatly reviled, institution of apartheid began in 1948 when ethnic seperation began to be enforced. A cynical person may say the white government looked around and realized that, even though they controlled the country economically, the numbers were against them, so they began to take steps to correct the problem before voters could be rallied to vote them out. The black populations were assigned to one of ten bantustans (homelands). Some may never have even been there in their lifetimes, but as a citizen of one of these "sovereign nations" (none of which were ever recognized by the UN) it meant that no black person had a vote in South Africa. The bantus themselves made up 13% of the land in South Africa, and were placed in the most desolate, least productive areas possible. The government then went on to pass laws that prevented blacks from moving from one district to another without written permission. Complete segregation was impossible as white owned farms, factories and homes needed the cheap labour the black population provided. So apartheid was introduced. In 1950 the Population Registration Act had all citizens of South Africa assigned a race based on superficial and often arbitrary characteristics such as size and shape of the nose, curliness of the hair and skin tone. The races were assigned different residential and business sections using the Group Areas Act, many people, both black and white, being forcibly moved from their homes. In some cases families were not able to live together as certain members could be deemed to be of different races. In just Johannesburg area over 60,000 black people had been relocated to Soweto, their businesses and homes stripped from them. Many of the designated black residential areas were so far from their places of work that people had to travel 2 hours each way to get home.

A series of edicts enforced by the government followed. In 1950 the busy government officials also created the Immorality Act (which made sexual relations between races a criminal offence), and the Suppression of Communism Act ( which banned any political parties the government deemed to be "communist" which, not surprisingly, included the black run ANC). In 1953 it was the Seperate Amenities Act (creating different hospitals, schools, beaches and buses for the different races). By the end of 1954 only 10% of the population controlled 95% of the land and all its resources.

What followed were years of persecution of the black population. In 1955, as an example, Sophiatown, the oldest and most economically viable black township in the country, was levelled and its entire population relocated to make room for the white town of Triomf (which means "triumph" in Afrikaans). Passports were denied to black South Africans as they were not officially considered citizens of the country, and pass laws became more rigidly enforced, restricting the movement of the black population severely.

In 1955 the Freedom Charter was declared by the black run African National Congress. It stated its goal as being as follows:

We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authroity unless it is based on the will of the people; that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality; that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities..................

The main focus of this document, and the reason it was considered so dangerous to the ruling parties, was its focus on a non-racial South Africa. It was immediately declared a communist act and the document became restricted material. As such, almost no one had ever read it prior to the 1990's, and it was a commonly held belief amongst the white population that it was calling for the expulsion, by force if necessary, of all Afrikaaners from the country. The declaration of the Freedom Charter led to the Treason Trial, where 156 activists, including Nelson Mandela, were tried. The trial lasted over 4 years and resulted in no convictions. Many of these defendants were re-tried and convicted in 1964 during the Rinova Trial. This trial was denounced by the UN and political sanctions instituted by many European countries.

By 1962 the ANC and other black political parties had reached the point where they deemed violent acts of protest to be necessary. When questioned as to their motives they held up the example of the Sharpville Massacres, which occured on March 21, 1960. During a peaceful protest against the pass laws 300 police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 186. This convinced the ANC to take up armed resistance. In retaliation, Prime Minister Verwoerd declarecd a state of emergency which allowed the police to retain people without trial, resulting in the arrest of almost 18,000 black activists, several who were sent to Robben Island as political prisoners.

By the 1970's the resistance movement had gained force. External pressure from other countries continued to mount against the South African government, but they refused to change their policies. Instead, in 1974 they introduced the South Afrikaans Medium Decree, which was to be used to force black schoools to use the Afrikaaner language, which many blacks considered to be the language of oppression. Said the then Deputy Minister of Bantu Education: "I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I'm not going to. An African may find that the "big boss" only speaks Afrikaans or English. It would be to his advantage to know both."

On April 30, 1976 the Orlando West Junior Shcool in Soweto refused to go to school in a form of non-violent protest that was strongly encouraged by the South African Students' Organization, run by Steve Biko, who was influenced by the ideology of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi. The strike spread to other schools, and on June 16th there was a mass rally, at which the police again opened fire on school children. By the end of the day there were 172 blacks dead and 439 injured. Pictures of a 13 year old child being gunned down by the police made headlines across the world. At this point, even Steve Biko began to call for more strident protests, though he strove to be a voice of reason in a boiling cauldron of violence.

In 1977 Steve Biko was arrested for being in a restricted area without a pass. Following his arrest, he was badly beaten and left untreated for 3 days, prior to being driven over 700 miles in the back of a truck to the Pretoria hospital where he died a few hours later. His death was ruled a suicide in spite of the massive head injuries recorded on the autopsy report. His death rocked the nation and his funeral was attended by 1000's of mourners and several international delegates, ambassadors and diplomats from Europe and the United States. What followed was an increase in international protests against apartheid - investors were pressured to not invest in South African companies, sports teams were banned from international events and South African tourism boycotted. By the late 1980's the USA, UK and 23 other countries had imposed trade sanctions on South Africa.

Internally, from the late 1980's and into the 1990's the ANC and the PAC began to use violence to prevent blacks from buying goods or using businesses owned by whites. Black on black violence escalated, resulting in a murder rate increase on 100 deaths/month up to 259 deaths/month by 1993.

Finally bowing to international and internal pressure, Nelson Mandela was released on Feb. 11, 1990, 27 years after his imprisonment. This came only a few weeks after the election of a new, more moderate Prime Minister, Frederik de Klerk. He would eventually share a Nobel Prize with Nelson Mandela, awarded in 1993 for putting an end to apartheid.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela was voted Prime Minister as head of the ANC, with 62.7% of the votes, in the first time blacks were allowed to vote in South Africa. His government put into place a new constitution which used the Freedom Charter as its basis, and began the long struggle to restructure the country after the damage caused by decades of apartheid. Unfortunately, it seems that even with the best of intentions, life in South Africa has developed all sorts of new problems.

Among other things done they instituted a policy of Black Employment Empowerment (BEE) in order to try and obtain equity targets. Even today government contracts are only given to companies with good BEE ratings. This has led to what many say is open discrimination against whites, increasing the "us vs. them" feeling so obvious to those willing to look. In addition the unemployment rate in South Africa hovers around the 25%, with over 50% of the population living below the poverty line. An influx of people from both Mozambique and Zimbabwe are only compounding the problem of urban crowding and lack of jobs. As these immigrants enter illegally (many from Mozambique crossing through Kruger National Park, which is why it is estimated that 78% of the lions in the park have tasted human flesh!) they remain jobless, homeless and desperate. The result is frustration, rising crime rates and a further division, both physically and emotionally, between black and white South Africans. As the rich whites move into gated communities, the townships continue to grow and spill over into the surrounding cities. In some places you can see shacks made of cardboard and plywood seperated from million dollar mansions by only a concrete wall topped with barbed wire, the ever present security company logo emblazoned on every available surface. There appear to be no solutions, no way for things to become more equitable for everyone. And while it is easy as a tourist in South Africa to only see the good, any effort at all will show you something different. If you probe beneath the surface of the face presented to the world of a country on the brink of recovery from years of oppression it will bring you up against the harsh and ugly reality.

So here's the other side of the story in South Africa. Massive crime rates brought on by unending poverty, despair that things will never get better, and a conviction that life is short (average life expectancy of a black South African is only 42). Throughout this post are scattered pictures of all the great things we saw in South Africa, and I would emphasize again that we really enjoyed ourselves. But after rereading this post, maybe I can ask you to do me a favour and read the first one again, just so I don't leave you with a bad taste in your mouth................

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hockey Night in Hong Kong

Written by Lynn

From Bangkok we flew into the country of Macau, then took a ferry to Hong Kong. "Why?", one might ask, go to all this trouble (we set a new personal record, having been in Macau less than an hour, but still having to get exit and entry stamps). For those of you planning on travelling to Asia, a heads up. There are several incredibly cheap airlines, our favourite being AirAsia. For about $20, plus taxes, you can get to most places in South East Asia if you plan ahead of time. Oh, except Hong Kong..............had to go to Macau for that. But the ferry ride is less than an hour, and gives you a great view of the habour coming in and in the end was cheaper than paying for a visa to go overland through China.

In Hong Kong we got a very small room in a little rabbit warren of guesthouses called Chuking Mansions (the "mansions" part being a bit of a euphamism). Fifteen stories of itty bitty rooms, all managed in various stages of cleanliness, make up this backpackers haven. On the bright side, it's not very many places you can go in Hong Kong and stay for under $25 a night. It was clean and relatively safe (except I didn't exactly trust the staff not to go through our stuff, so we had to lock up every time we left). The worst part of the place was the miniscule elevator that serviced the building. While waiting in the line up for the elevator to descend you could watch the uncomfortable occupants on a closed circuit tv mounted in the lobby, just before entering the crush yourself (god forbid you have backpacks with you!).

Here our main goal was simple - we HAD to see a hockey game. God knows it ain't often a Canadian team makes it to the Stanley Cup finals, much less the Ottawa Senators. So with steely determination we set forth to seek out the only Canadian owned bar in Hong Kong, which necessitated a ride across town in the extremely well designed Hong Kong subway (not near as arduous as I make it sound). Getting there 2 hours before game time, we secured our coveted seats (it's a VERY tiny bar) to watch the taped game. This means we had to nurse our very overpriced beers (most things in Hong Kong seem overpriced after Vietnam), and, hey, who said bar peanuts can't constitute a full meal when push comes to shove. Here, with about 100 of our fellow Canucks crammed into the bar, we watched the Sens go down in flames in Game 2, a 1-nothing debacle that apparently was stretched out to a mere 5 games. was worth it though. Our one and only hockey game of the 2006-07 season.

While in Hong Kong we also went up to The Peak, a peice of pricey real estate that overlooks Hong Kong harbour. The tram that goes up there was built in 1881 and ascends a 1364 metre long slope that reaches a 48 degree angle in some spots. Originally only non-Chinese people living in Hong Kong were allowed to live on top of the peak, social status being measured by the altitude of your home. The tram was used to ferry these Europeans down to the city. This ordinance was finally overturned in 1930, though most of the houses up here are still well beyond the means of us ordinary mortals.
We also headed out to Stanley Market, a touristy little spot that is recommended more for the bus ride out there than the actual place. Hong Kong public buses are huge, double decker affairs that cling to the side of the cliffs overlooking the habour far below as they races around hairpin curves.

Back at "home" we admired the Avenue of the Stars (even though Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were the only ones we recognized) and Repulse Bay up close. We wandered through the stores and went to our last Asian markets, filled with the usual assorment of cheap knock off designer clothes, sunglasses, bizarre food items and "rolex" watches. Hong Kong's big push when it comes to street sellers is for fake purses and watches, so if that's your thing, this is the place to come.

The day of our flight to Africa, which left at the inconvenient time of 11:30 pm, saw us lugging our backpacks around town post check out (most hotels will let you leave your bags behind the counter at no extra cost for a few hours, and ours was no exception, but we didn't really believe the bags would be completely intact when we came back, so we took them with us). Fortunately Hong Kong is designed with the international traveller in mind. Even though the airport is a 30 minute train ride away, they have a convenient spot downtown where you can check your bags in with your airline up to 24 hours before your flight. Thus relieved of our burdens we headed out to our last destination in Hong Kong. Chatting with some ex-pats living Hong Kong the night before at the bar Gilles had discovered that we narrowly missed not going to his favourite restaurant - Krispy Kreme! Ah, so few people that I know are able to sit down and eat a half dozen donuts one right after the other and look at themselves in the morning without regret. Thus fortified, it was on to South Africa.