Monday, June 19, 2006

South Africa Summary

There is a book for sale in a lot of the tourist shops called South Africa: Land of Contrasts, I think that title is quite correct. Contrasts are everywhere, not least the divide between the countries rich and poor. Alongside the wealthy suburbs and gated communities of the cities stand the townships and informal settlements. In the one you have big houses, in the other sometimes little more than shacks that most people wouldn't have as a shed in their garden in the UK.

As a country the new South Africa is quite young, but it faces some significant challenges. The country has a growing economy, but the growth is erratic and involves a large trade deficit. There are positive discrimination laws in the form of the BEE (Black Economic Empowerment (I think)) scheme to increase black ownership of businesses. It is unclear whether the poor majority are benefiting from this scheme however, as it seems to be mainly benefiting a few individuals (known as the BEElionares). The ANC seems to be having problems converting from the role of freedom fighters to the role of effective government and has been plagued with allegations of corruption and cronyism. The government of the country has been hurt by allegations of improper practices in tendering processes for government projects and has even been accused by members of its own coalition of pushing the country towards a dictatorship. Watchers of the politics in the country are worried by this because of the state of affairs in neighbouring Zimbabwe and the fact that some are pushing for similar land reforms in South Africa.

The situation is quite difficult, obviously a quite a number of the countries problems are the legacy of apartheid. This is not the whole story however. Although the black majority have won the vote and the constitutional right to equality, the vast majority have not had any improvement in the areas of housing and employment. I think a lot of the people thought that the improvements would come overnight, but this has obviously not been the case and it is now making people very angry. The ANC led government is now complaining about people striking, exactly the tactics it used itself to bring about change.

The day we left the country was Youth Day, which is a day commemorating the protests against the use of Afrikaans to teach in schools. During these protests 30 years ago, police opened fire on students killing several and provoking riots across the country. This all led to the boycotting of the education system by a whole generation of the black populace, something which is having severe repercussions today.

Despite a world trend toward a decrease in the rate of HIV/AIDS infections, Southern Africa, including South Africa has an increasing rate. This is one of it's major problems. The president Thabo Mbeki for a long time refused to admit that HIV caused AIDS, and untold damage was done to AIDS education efforts by former deputy, Jacob Zuma. On trial for rape he told a court that he had known the woman was HIV positive but minimised his chance of infection by having a shower after intercourse. In addition to this the South African health minister is adamant that treatment via herbal remedies is as effective as anti retroviral drugs. All in all a confusing situation for the African people, especially women, who have the highest infection rate. This is because of the fact that the virus passes more easily to women, but also because of the shockingly high incidence of rape in the country. Zuma got off with the charge of rape after his followers did a character assassination on the accuser and he claimed that in his culture the fact that she wore a short skirt and sat with legs uncrossed signaled her willingness to have sex.

I had been hoping to write here that the stories of crime in South Africa are overblown, however being a victim of a car break in has scuppered that aim somewhat. I know the crime statistics are very high in South Africa and it is a problem, however as a tourist, if you are sensible about where and when you go places then you should be OK. Local advice from the hotels and hostels is the best thing. There are places you shouldn't walk at night and places you shouldn't go to at all, unless on an organised tour.

The infrastructure in South Africa is generally quite good. Most of the roads are sealed and generally in OK condition. Driving is a strange affair. A lot of South Africans drink and drive and not many are prosecuted for it. In fact the legal alcohol limit is something like eight times that of the UK. Gemma's pet hate in regard to driving is people right on your back bumper, but that is pretty much the way they drive over here. A car that wants to go faster will try to bully you to pull over onto the shoulder so they can pass. They do this even if they can clearly see there is a blockage in front of you. Gemma found it a little stressful at times. Mercifully, outside of the city there is precious little traffic. Combined with the reasonable roads this means you can cover a fair amount of distance quite quickly when you want to, which is useful because the place is so large.

South Africa is a beautiful country with quite markedly different terrain and vegetation in different areas. Each has it's own specific charm. You can see why the early Boer settlers thought that it was God's own country. Mind you they also thought that they had a God given mandate to rule over non-whites, so who knows what they were thinking. The wildlife that we've seen, whether monkeys on the road our elephants in a national park have been an absolute highlight of our time in South Africa.

We only touched on a small corner of the country, the Western Cape and a small part of the Eastern Cape. There is a lot more of South Africa, and you could spend a long time here. Travelling here is quite easy, as most people speak English, albeit as a third language sometimes. Costs are slightly lower than the UK, and the weakness of the Rand against the pound helps the money go quite far. I'd definitely visit again, possibly as a jumping off point for other countries on the continent.

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