By Tori Peglar (MJour’00)
There are many kinds of love in this world and perhaps as many types of hate. But nowhere do they dwell in closer proximity than in South Africa, where black shantytowns made of cardboard and tin exist minutes from large stucco mansions clustered in primarily white neighborhoods. While apartheid, a system of legal racial segregation, ended 15 years ago, you can feel its weight tugging on the present, which makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking trip to a place the Lonely Planet refers to as “one of the world’s greatest experiments in racial harmony.”
I first felt apartheid’s inescapable grip on the ferry from Cape Town to the desolate Robben Island, one of the world’s most infamous political prisons under apartheid. It was day one of the Alumni Association’s Roaming Buffs two-week trip called “Treasures of South Africa” on which I, my husband Tom Rutkowski (MCivEngr’03) and 12 CU alums explored South Africa’s wine country and Kruger National Park, Victoria Falls in Zambia and Chobe National Park in Botswana. While I was mesmerized by the shrinking view of Cape Town’s natural beauty and rugged hills, Robben Island loomed in the distance as a strong reminder of the country’s dark past. For more than 30 years apartheid resisters were shipped to the island and imprisoned. I imagined Nelson Mandela heading to the desolate island as our boat tossed in the ungovernable water and high winds. What was he thinking as the boat he was on took him farther and farther from freedom?
Huge waves rolling toward our boat interrupted my thoughts, with the boat leaning violently from one side to the next. I pictured the extraordinary number of great white sharks swimming in the rough waters below that would eagerly eat us if they had the chance. I started to sweat, imagining the newspaper headlines the next day: “Curious tourists disappear en route to former prison” followed by quotes from family members, noting how excited we were to be in Africa and how at least we were living out our dreams of exploring the continent — even if the ferry sank and the sharks ate us.
Miraculously, in what was the longest 30 minutes of my life, we arrived safely on what feels like the end of the Earth. Our tour guide was imprisoned on the island for five years, and he shared his heartbreaking stories as we peeked into empty prison cells and bunk rooms. Often families who traveled far from rural areas to visit their loved ones were turned away at the prison entrance. On the other side of the concrete walls, prisoners waiting expectantly for visitors were told their families never showed. The damage inflicted on the prisoners’ psyche formed huge holes, rivaling those the inmates dug in the limestone quarry where they suffered varying degrees of blindness from the sun.
But our guide, along with the others on the island, was not filled with bitterness and that’s where love comes into this story. For South African blacks, freedom did not come for free. It was a struggle spanning four decades, but there’s one story everyone, white, black or Indian, will tell you about the fall of apartheid. When Nelson Mandela was finally freed in 1990 after being imprisoned for 27 years, he stepped into the sun and the first thing he did, they will tell you, was smile.
And that smile set the tone for the fall of apartheid. In 1996, South Africa, led by blacks, wrote the most liberal constitution in the world in terms of human rights. They also tossed out the idea of war crimes trials in favor of truth and reconciliation sessions, which, given the brutality of apartheid, reveals the tenacity and triumph of the human spirit.
During the next three days, we visited Cape Town’s waterfront filled with musicians, street performers and shops, hiked around the Cape of Good Hope and at times I almost forgot we were in Africa. Having spent significant time in Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, I was awed by South Africa’s first-world infrastructure, including the fact we drank water out of the tap, ate at trendy restaurants rivaling any metropolitan city and swam in our five-star hotel’s pool surrounded by impeccably kept gardens and several playful monkeys. In Cape Town, mountains cascade into the ocean, fun cafes line the streets, bikers ride along the coastal roads and beaches are filled with surfers.
But you don’t have to look far to see the other face of the country. En route to the wine country outside of Cape Town, we drove by miles of shanty towns. Many of the houses resembled small boxes, held together with corrugated steel, cardboard and a lot of hope. I looked out of the bus windows, stunned by the lopsided distribution of the world’s resources, feeling guilty for my white and western privilege and for the uncomfortable knowledge that most houses were the size of my closets.
Post-apartheid South Africa is plagued by high-crime rates, a failing education system and a country still healing from a damaged psyche in the wake of apartheid, which ended in 1994. It suffers most from what one of our evening lecturers called a “crisis of emotional stability.” What remains to be seen is how South Africa establishes its identity beyond a flag and a national anthem. But it’s amazing to see how far the country has traveled in the nearly 15 years since Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994. I had to remind myself that it took the United States nearly 200 years before it had its civil rights movement and 233 years to elect its first black president, Barack Obama. As Nelson Mandela once said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
And that’s what’s crazy about South Africa. You can pass through so many realities in one day – from watching the rich and influential mingle for high tea at a five-star hotel to seeing people living in boxes. I felt this most strongly in Johannesburg, reputedly one of the most dangerous cities in South Africa. Having spent years reading about the horrors of the city, I found myself dreading going there.
But it ended up being one of the most fascinating experiences of the trip because of its dynamic and informative Apartheid Museum built in 2001. Plus we had the opportunity to eat lunch at the home of a tour guide who lives in the heart of Soweto, one of South Africa’s historically black townships. Remarkably, during our tour of Soweto, people of all ages waved to us on our bus from the streets. Fifteen years ago, those waving hands would have been clenched fists throwing rocks and our tour bus would have been an armored tank driven by the South African Army.
Of course, no trip to Africa is complete without a safari and it, too, offers another face of the continent. We spent our last four days in Kruger National Park, teetering on the edge of Mozambique. One morning, we stopped along the red dirt road cutting through a swath of African savanna to watch a pride of lion stalk three giraffes. When our safari guide cut the rickety engine of our green, open-air Land Rover, a quiet descended like a white sheet hanging on a laundry line, rising and falling to the sound of my beating heart and crickets singing in the warm morning air.
Nothing existed except for that moment and I lived in it knowing the complicated laws of humankind stampeded and trumpeted in a faraway world. I found myself almost doubting the reality I know so well — of big highways, phones ringing, computers and sidewalks. There was just the blue African sky hanging over my shoulders and the savanna stretching across the continent like a taut goat skin covering a drum. It was a landscape I’ve seen in other trips to Africa and in my dreams and it fills me with peace like no other place I have visited. “Tutoananabadye, old friend,” I said to myself in the only African language I can speak. It translates as “I will see you again” in Kiswahili.
I breathed in deeply, trying to capture the land’s stillness and wildness within me. I hope it’s enough to fuel me through the years until I return.
Tori Peglar (MJour’00) had a wonderful time with her husband, Tom Rutkowski (MCivEngr’03), and CU alums on the Roaming Buffaloes trip to South Africa in February 2009. She first visited Africa when she was 16 and later studied in Kenya and Tanzania.