Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Into Africa

20 February, Johannesburg

Two days into the South African leg of our trip is a little early for too many insightful comments on this complex and intriguing country. Much of our time since arrival has been expertly managed by our gracious hosts, Jeanette and Les. A thought-provoking tour of Constitution Hill and a visit to the De Wildt Cheetah Park covered the touristy things. And the good company of Les, Jenny and some of their friends over a few beers and several bottles of excellent South African wine exposed us to
some of the complexities of South African culture.

Looming high over central Johannesburg, Constitution Hill is the new home of the SA Constitutional Court and the site of the once notorious Old Fort Prison, where thousands of ordinary citizens were brutally punished before the dawn of the new Republic in 1994. Political activists including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were detained here. Much of the treatment dished out here was not unusual in prisons in the latter part of the 19th Century. The frightening thing about this prison and others like it, is that it was not until the final years of the 20th century that this sort of treatment ceased in South Africa. The symbolism embodied in the adjacent Constitutional Court building captures the aspirations of the new constitution and the direction South Africa wishes to go in the post-apartheid era. Bricks from the partly demolished prison have been incorporated in the new building, along with features representing the the trees under which traditional justice was administered in African village culture.

Endangered cheetahs and African wild dogs are the focus of the De Wildt Cheetah Park on the outskirts of Pretoria. The breeding programs conducted here have produced more than 800 cheetah cubs for release in the wild. Perhaps more important than the numbers of animals produced, is the broadening of the blood lines in the wild cheetah population afforded by the release of animals from this carefully managed breeding program.

We had been alerted by South African friends to the vast differences between the developed and underdeveloped parts of SA. Driving back from a pleasant lunch in the food court of a very flash Pretoria Mall, it was impossible to miss the vast gap between the well-heeled, almost exclusively white, patrons of the mall cafes and the Africans living in squatter settlements along the highway.

Travelling about Gauteng province the past couple of days has given us a good guide for dealing with the safety and security concerns that we, in common with many other travellers to SA, harboured prior to our arrival. The level of security needed to protect individual homes would be a bit of a shock to most Australians. Razorwire-topped , electrified fences are universal in most parts of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Driving about and accessing normal services such as shopping centres and restaurants is reasonably easy. As long as normal precautions and a good dose of common sense are applied, all should be well.

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