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  • Max Stearns

Reflections on Travels in South Africa and Beyond: Touring (Part I)

As with great books or art, the best travel experiences challenge the way we see the world. The travel experience offers new insight, unmasking premises so embedded in our small corners of the universe that they are barely perceptible until a very different set of experiences brings them into sharp relief.

My family had the wonderful opportunity to visit South Africa and Victoria Falls, including Zambia where about 70% of the falls are situated, and Zimbabwe, capturing the remaining 30%, and where most of the spectacular views are seen. A Zimbabwe saying: “The best time to see the falls is when you are here.” Each season brings a different experience, dictated largely by the water flow, which variously covers larger or smaller portions of the massive wall of falls separating a deep gorge between these two neighboring countries, with powerful pressure during some parts of the year, and, at other times, a mere trickle. Each country provides its unique perspective and beauty, with at least one permanent waterfall viewed from Zimbabwe resulting from the constant spray of mist arising from beneath. The array of astonishing views brought to mind something mildly quizzical: Why do we choose the colors of our own homes rather than those of our neighbors given that we spend more time looking out than in? This is reflected in another Zimbabwe saying: “They have the falls, but we have the view!”

That is only partly true. Thanks to my oldest daughter, we ventured into the Devil’s Pool, a natural pool formed at the falls’ top edge on the Zambia side. Swimming in such a place seems roughly insane, as if you are about to be pushed by a strong current over the edge and into the gorge. And yet, with our guides’ able assistance, and despite a damnable waiver, it seemed safe enough. The greatest challenge was walking across jagged rocks (pointer: bring water shoes!), swimming (brrrrr!) in currents, and finally climbing on in. From there, we witnessed a rare juxtaposition: ephemeral permanence, an ever present full double rainbows through the constant spray and mist. Robert Frost famously observed that good fences make good neighbors; so too does a massive gorge, especially when each side can rightly maintain having been uniquely blessed with the most stunning views in the world.

We also toured a remote Zimbabwe village, meeting the Chief of his five-thousand member tribal community, which we later learned was connected with the Simeon Tribe, one of Israel’s ten lost tribes. (Stay tuned for my separate related post.) The extended family community we saw is self-contained, with goats, cows, chickens, vegetables. The family lives in several small buildings, with married couples in squared buildings, and children, past the age of three and until marriage, living in small round structures based on sex. The children live separately from the parents, and amusingly, the girls’ home has neat elevated bedding and carefully aligned schoolbooks, whereas their brothers’ bedding was carelessly thrown onto the floor with the books tossed into piles. Flush toilets were housed in a separate structure and required an adequate water supply; otherwise, as in our visit, the community relied on the separate “long-drop toilets.” In the round kitchen, a twenty-one-year old woman made buns on a metal frypan over an open fire as her teenage siblings quietly watched and waited. A separate kitchen powered with cow-dung-generated gas, is used during grand occasions, such as a wedding, one of which took place just two weeks earlier. The family eats from hand crafted wooden bowls stored outside. The boys are able to build their homes by the age of thirteen and can perform most physical tasks by sixteen. The girls do not build, but rather, they paint the homes and decorate. The rooves are thatch, dried grass thickly layered, replaced about every ten years, and remarkably adept at protecting against water even in the rainy season.

The children walk considerable distances, ninety minutes or more each way, to school, and the adults who work in Victoria Falls from this or other village communities can walk up to two-and-a-half hours daily each way. We were told that the last Chief lived until 135. Although I remain skeptical, I will say that everyone looked much younger, sometimes by decades, than their age.

Cape Town provided a very different experience: a large metropolis combining breathtaking mountain and ocean views, with ample opportunities for climbing, biking, and, although the ocean is too cold for swimming even in the summer heat, additional outdoor sports. The city boasts fabulous restaurants, accommodations, and entertainment. For locals, the commutes seem daunting, upwards of an hour-and-a-half or more each way, especially for those trekking from the township, with its population of 1.2 million, nearly all black, between downtown Cape Town and the airport.

All around Cape Town are traces of Apartheid’s seemingly intractable aftermath. The township resembles shantytowns in other developing nations, with organically built structures, and little apparent planning. The residents include families, or descendants, who were forcibly removed from, then walled off, their own historical communities from the period in which Apartheid took hold beginning in the 1930s and ending formally with the negotiated settlement culminating in Nelson Mandela’s historic presidency beginning in 1994.

The Apartheid era was marked by legally enforced residential segregation by racial category: Black, Colored, Indian, and White, with each group in homogenous designated areas, and those at the lower rungs of the pecking order lacking essential resources even to construct the most modest of homes, at least by standards of basic adequacy elsewhere in the developed world. Although we did not have the opportunity to visit the massive Cape Town township, our visit to Johannesburg included what our guide called a “slum tour” of the famous Soweto township.

The Soweto shanty homes, which are similar to others in South Africa, lack proper internal plumbing, including toilets, and rely on electricity stolen by illegal wiring hook ups to nearby businesses, with configurations posing a substantial risk of fire or shock. The community has several external water taps, some illegally captured and routed into homes to provide running water.

During our tour, we also observed overflowing water from common taps along a ditch adjoining the dirt roads serving as streets. When I inquired, we were told that it was a small act of defiance, overusing the one resource the government actually chose to provide. The houses on either side of the make-shift dirt roads comprised corrugated sheet metal, plastic, and whatever else the residing families were able to cobble together. We were invited to enter one two-room home, and my family was struck by the thoughtful layout, and the obvious care and cleanliness in maintaining a home lacking so many essentials that even those with the most modest of homes elsewhere routinely take for granted. The man who invited us in exhibited considerable and rightful pride in showing his home to my family.

Nelson Mandela resided in two prisons near Johannesburg toward the end of his decades-long incarceration, which we saw but did not tour. We did tour the most famous prison, on Robben Island, off Cape Town, where he resided for nearly 27 years. The prison segment of the island tour is routinely led by a former political prisoner. Ours was in his sixties, and he was incarcerated for five years beginning in his late teens as an active member of the African National Congress (“ANC”). The soft spoken, if sometimes agitated, gentleman focused less on his own story than on those of other inmates with whom he spent those most difficult years, including forced hard labor in the relentless sun, minimalist conditions, and single cells, each containing a tin pot and cup as toilets. We saw Nelson Mandela’s famous cell, the forced-labor site, and the community in which lepers resided during an earlier period in the island’s history.

We also visited Johannesburg. The elaborate mining and wine-making industries make the city home to truly remarkable wealth. For all its wealth, however, Johannesburg lacks Cape Town’s stunning beauty. Our tour included the adjacent Apartheid and Nelson Mandela museums, and the Hector Pieterson museum. All were impressive and deeply informative, providing remarkable documentation, film, and profound insight into the tragically recent reliance on brute force in the Apartheid era, along with the hope that accompanied Mandela’s rise to power. I was especially struck by the smallest of the three museums, dedicated to the memory of a thirteen-year-old boy from Soweto who was shot in a famous uprising in the aftermath of forcing black school children to study in Afrikaans, a language employed by descendants of Dutch settlers and a far cry from any of the nine tribal languages, which today, along with English and Afrikaans, form South Africa’s eleven official languages.

The Hector Pieterson museum presents the detailed history of this uprising. Most moving to me was a famous photograph with a sixteen-year-old boy carrying Pieterson’s body while running alongside the dead boy’s crying sister. Beneath the photo appears the following quote by the older, surviving boy’s mother:

"Mbuyisa is or was my son but he is not a hero. In my culture picking up Hector is not an act of heroism. It was his job as a brother. If he left him on the ground and somebody saw him jumping over Hector, he would never be able to live.” Ma Mamakibu Mbuysa’s Mother.

I later learned that Mbuysa fled South Africa immediately thereafter, and, after being spotted in Nigeria some years later, he was never seen again.

The following characterizations are formed by my personal observations following many fascinating conversations I had with people in the remarkable places we were so fortunate to visit. This is not scientific.

Johannesburg is widely perceived as unsafe. We were constantly warned where not to walk and what not to carry. In general, those we met there, including several people doing quite well financially, seemed unhappy. We were constantly told about the hope of moving elsewhere, including Cape Town, England, New Zealand, or possibly the US. Some of the happiest people we met were also among the poorest. This was especially true among those we met in Zimbabwe, including several people we spoke with in Victoria Falls, but perhaps most notably in the financially impoverished village that we visited. Those living in Cape Town who could afford all that that beautiful city had to offer expressed considerable life satisfaction. Those who wished to leave Cape Town, like those seeking to leave Johannesburg, expressed deep concerns about the persistent gross financial disparities, overwhelmingly correlated to race; about corruption among government officials; about the ultimate consequences of political instability; and even about a possibility of an eventual civil war. To the extent these characterizations go beyond mere anecdote, this might make the seemingly higher level of life satisfaction among Zimbabwe’s poorest seem somewhat hard to comprehend.

In standard economic analysis, wealth is an affirmative good. People want more and more of it, with the corollary that those with less and less suffer greater unhappiness. Alongside economic theory is a broad literature on happiness. This literature suggests that the focus on financial resources is incomplete. People are generally not great at anticipating what will make them substantially happier or sadder; as we experience hoped-for gains or dreaded losses, we initially experience emotional lifts or declines. And yet, after a while, to find ourselves restored to our earlier baseline happiness levels.

Perhaps we might imagine two utility functions that interact in curious ways. Yes, an improvement in wealth, in and of itself, also improve happiness, allowing for more and better choices, even acknowledging that we often fail properly to anticipate which choices will make us truly happy. The second function, by contrast, is comparative, not absolute: most people share a strong, if intuitive, sense of fairness. Fairness can accommodate even substantial wealth disparities, but it struggles when circumstances convey an overwhelming sense of futility. This might best be captured in the enduring belief that no matter how hard I try or how honorable a life I might lead, my prospects for personal advancement, and for improving the circumstances for my family, are foreclosed. The blockages are especially unfair if they are the product of arbitrary historical circumstances entirely beyond my control. We might think of this second function as implicating meaningful opportunity, regardless of immediate personal wealth. One proxy for the absence of meaningful opportunity includes the extremes of comparative societal access to quality education and financial resources.

One real estate developer I met from Cape Town told me that a family earning the equivalent of $60,000 US would be among the South Africa’s top 1% based on income. It’s quite possible that genuine wealth is far more concentrated, say in the top .25 or even .1 percent. Meanwhile, in the shantytowns, most earn less than $2,000 per year. For such families, today’s opportunities remain severely limited by the brutal injustices of Apartheid’s past, and each year, those residing there witness widening disparities along every dimension, education, opportunity, and wealth, signaling foundational despair.

Zimbabwe’s remote villagers share in poverty, but not in despair. True, many from Zimbabwe move, often illegally, to South Africa for greater economic opportunity, and as in the United States, there is much talk about border security. And yet, these moves do not appear to reflect the unhappiness experienced among those who seem permanently locked within shantytowns by historical circumstance. The societies they leave behind do not signal persistent and gross unfairness based on arbitrarily imposed historical limitations that, for all the excitement of the rise of the ANC in the 1990s, South Africa seems unable to overcome. And during our visit we were often reminded that the discontent among South Africa’s poor is also felt, albeit in different ways, among those who share in the nation’s wealth.

In separate posts, I will offer other reflections on this wonderful trip.

I welcome, as always, your comments.

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