Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Soweto: I Have No Idea What I'm Thinking

Well, my second day in Joburg. And how was it? Not all that bad, I must say. Though I slept a lot. I slept a huge bloody lot today - but I woke up at a good time, and saw the day, so that's what counts, yeah? Up at nine in the morning, I met someone who claimed to be my guide for Soweto and the Apartheid museum.

So first off, what is the Apartheid museum? No - we don't need explanation on that, do we? Just go watch Lethal Weapon 2, or something like that. It should clear one or two things up. And then, what is Soweto? It's the South Western Township. Have you seen district 9? You know the slums and shanty towns there? Well that is what part of Soweto looks like. It's not all like that anymore. Nelson Mandela set to work creating proper homes for all those who qualified. Although qualifying wasn't the easiest thing and so some of the shanty towns still exist. Couple that with the fact that homes take time to build, and once given this home some people have chosen to rent it out, to make money, while living in a little shack off the main building - well, Soweto has issues.

And that's to be expected when you shove a great number of your population into one area. Still - after only sixteen years South Africa doesn't look like it's doing all that bad. Sure it's awkward when you see all the cleaning staff as black Africans who don't really talk all that much, while the business owners are white Africans. But they don't have to carry around passbooks declaring themselves a specific colour. And if you look into the history of these various colours, you may find yourself painfully scratching your head. And your colour - it wasn't set in stone. You could fight it. Blacks became Asian, Asians became coloured, coloured became white. No blacks ever became white, or whites black.

There's a lot of history in this town. And trying to explain it all, with my limited knowledge would just be a painful process. So I can only really state what I've seen. And remember, seeing isn't always believing. I have my lens, you have yours, and everything gets muddled up somewhere in between.

The day started as my guide drove me over to the Apartheid museum. At this point I wasn't entirely sure that he was my guide, and slightly scared that he was my future murder. These are the thoughts that come to you when you find yourself in the middle of downtown Joburg early in the morning. "Look around," he said, "you'll see no white people here."

He went on the explain the odds of getting mugged here weren't all that bad. "50% chance of safety if you're white." Hurray! But with a guide, "90% chance! But lock your door."

Contrary to what I was told yesterday, most car thefts are from a lot, not from hijacking. So once more, I feel secure in my belief that no even the Joburgers really know what's what here. And that's great and fine. And with my 90% chance of safety I was feeling pretty good. Except for the fact that I wasn't really sure this guy was a guide. We pointed to a badge that he wore, with the South African flag in the background. This was supposed to have assured me of everything there was to know about him, and his profession. Here's the thing, I could have made one of those badges in about three minutes with seventy nine cents worth of supplies from any local craft store. Well maybe not a local craft store here - but one back home.

So as we got on the highway, I still had that "maybe I'll die," kind of feeling. Remember that lens I was talking about? That's the one.

I was alone on this tour. It wouldn't have been so bad if there were other people, but there were not. And that made me question why there were not. Still, it was too late now. The die had been cast. And I was in the car. Hey, why were we slowing down? What was going on. Was there an accident? A tractor trailer had pulled off on the grass, trying to hop the median, and gotten stuck. And other mini buses were turning around and driving the wrong way on the highway. What was happening?

"It's a police roadblock," I was told. "They set up these roadblocks, check cars, and see if there are any problems. I have only one problem. I own the government money, you know, for tickets."

My guide was a charming guy, and his voice was very - I don't know, encapsulating? His voice was one that set you at ease, and so you wanted him to win - to somehow get through this checkpoint without being caught. And yet at the same point, I'd be more assured of my safety were we stopped and he was checked out.

We began to run the gauntlet. We made it passed thirty pulled over cars, only two officers left to pass and we were free. Bang. We were pulled over. They began to chat in Afrikaans. At one moment the office looked over at me, and asked me how I was doing, I told him fine - just dandy. Lovely. Then more Afrikaans.

As we drove away, my guide explained. "This was a nice officer. Good guy. He said, do you owe anything? And I said yes. But then he sees my license. Very important. Not my drivers license, this," he held up a card, beaming. So much pride. "My official guide license. Two years in school to get this, lots of money, but now I can be a guide. I can show my country to the world. The police are told to be good to us when we are with a client. And you behaved well, he like you, and so he says that this is where I can go to pay my tickets. I know where I can go to pay. I just don't have money. But he was a nice man."

He then went on to explain how important licensed guides would be next year for the World Cup. In fact when we were out today he took a meeting and was offered a job with a big company running World Cup tours. "I want to show my children a new fence around our house, a new gate, and say - this - THIS - was my world cup." So much passion, so much energy. This was a man who cared for his job, his country, and his family.

This is something you don't see in North America. This is something that would probably make you seem crazy in North America. And that's too bad. But over here, it was fantastic.

To the Apartheid museum. I spent three hours inside, learning the history, the turmoil, and hardships of South African history. And when I think back now, I can't really recall what I learned. But I have a good base knowledge of South African history now - and I knew nothing of it prior to entering this museum, so clearly a lot stuck with me.

I also know about Nelson Mandela and his wacky dance, as well. He was a well known name to me before, but now I have some base knowledge on him as well.

And after watching the police beatings and attacks on the South Africans in the 1980s, well District Nine becomes all that more relevant.

After the museum we drove through Soweto, and I saw the range of houses from very poor, to quite well off. "These houses, you think the money is clean, but no - very dirty. Dirty money got them here." And you're not sure. You wan't to believe that's not the case - but...

It's a strange place, with strange things. And it's a world beyond. And you know that if you got out of the car, and wandered some streets, it could become a most troublesome occurrence. You know that because you are white, and they are black, odds of talking with one another, or getting to know one another is not very likely. And then you remember it has only been sixteen years since these people were physically kept apart from people not of their race. And - it's South Africa. It's just too much to take in.

I've been told that the South African blacks face the same issues as our North American natives. But - this doesn't seem quite right to me. Not at all. Within sixteen years the South Africans have done a lot with their land, have started to integrate, and have started to educate, and move up within their society - something that would have been impossible, quite literally, two decades past. And then you look at the North American natives, and you wonder - well, you wonder.

A lot has happened in so short an amount of time. You wonder what other changes you'll see over the next five.

I saw Soccer City on the drive back. So that's lovely too.

I fell asleep at 9pm, sleeping 12 hours. Ridiculous.

And that, is that.

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